Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Hijacking Of Original Language

You've probably typed it yourself, or at least you've been on the receiving end of someone who typed it. Yes, I mean that long stretch of exclamation points. The excitement was so great, how could we expect anything less than the complete loss of restraint?

But, it's not always a perfect stretch, is it? Sometimes...sometimes we can't quite muster the strength to keep that shift button down the whole time. The exclamation points turn into lowly ones.

This can happen to you!!!!111!!!

The mistake is something that's fairly common. In fact, I'm pretty sure I made it Monday when I was chatting with Michelle (who is, by the way, co-editing an anthology to raise money for Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims). So, it wasn't too much of a shock when I saw this same supposed slip while reading a post from the hilarious and brilliant Kuzhali Manickavel.

Now, so you know, Kuzhali is one of the few living writers that I am truly, truly jealous of. Sometimes I read a piece of her writing and feel the need to wring out a wet cloth she's go good. I was, then, ever so slightly disappointed to see that she of all people had made that ! to 1 slip. Kuzhali, could you possibly have made a mistake?

Then, the realization struck me. The more I read, the more I noticed that she was consistently 1-ing her !s. She did it nearly every time she !!!!ed. In fact, it hadn't been an accident at all. Kuzhali had hijacked a common linguistic mistake and was using it to help her reach her own goals of taking over the world (or whatever it is she's trying to do). She was creating original language by observing the behavior of our society.

Maybe this sounds like I'm making a big deal about something trivial, but I really do think she has hit upon something.

We often criticize writers for sounding too writerly. I think that "writerly" quality that sometimes seems suspicious comes from that fact that we may be trying to mimmic the great writers before us. In Kuzhali's case, she's done the opposite. She's not stealing something great and pawning it off as her own. She's finding something in the scrap heap and turning it into something great. If art is an imitation of life, then this is how it should be done.

Think of the greats like Shakespeare, Dante, Joyce, and Faulkner to a lesser extent. We may be able to find the roots of their inspiration, but in the end they created language that was completely their own. How do they do that? Where did they get the building blocks from? I'd argue that it must come from some source other than the work of earlier artists.

To see how Kuzhali has done this is not a lesson to me to use more OMGs and LOLs in my prose. (OMG, Vincent just ate someone.) It serves as an example to me of how one can (and should) create new language by looking at life rather than looking at art.

17 comments:

  1. Chuck,
    Sorry if this in nonsensical. It's just something that excited me.

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  2. As you know, I 'discovered' Kuzhali's writing and her blog because of your mention of her on this blog and I LOVE her writing and what she does with the blog..lol (c'mon- I had to!!11!..:))

    yes, she does that a lot in her blog- most of the language reflects how people actually speak..even her 'okbai' (that is exactly how many people in India say bye- me included).Also a lot of the time she takes over the language of people whom she disagrees with in an almost 'Colbert-ish' way..
    It's been a while since I've visited her blog- will catch up this weekend..

    Lavanya

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  3. I think that Kuzhali's doing complex things with her use of language on her blog, but I think it has more to do with holding a mirror up to culture--as Lavanya suggests--than with creating a personal voice in the Joyce/Faulkner/Shakespeare manner. It feels very tongue-in-cheek to me, though I enjoy what she's doing a lot. But it's so mannered that I almost feel she's hiding behind it, building walls more than expressing herself. So I'm conflicted about things like this. Likely that's because I have some thoughts about voice and identity after having used very stylized narrative voices in my last two novels. I'll mull this over a bit!!!1111!

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  4. Lavanya, I agree with you. For me, the two things are the same, but maybe that's just lazy thinking on my part. I saw her described as a satirist, which I think it accurate, although that's a bit more narrow than I'd like to be. I figured a lot of what she was doing would be even funnier and have more impact if I lived in India. It's educational in a way.

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  5. Scott, Kuzhali is very mysterious to me. I've known her for several years and I still have no idea what she looks like. I respect that about her, but I also want to know who I'm talking to!

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  6. P.S. I just wrote this line and I hate it, and yet I'm not deleting it. Why?

    "Adriana felt a sadness that was deeper than tears. "

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  7. Maybe you're supposed to hate it. Why do you hate it?

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  8. It's too obvious. A phrase like "bone aching" would be better, but I'll let you keep that one. If my characters were happier this wouldn't be a problem.

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  9. Domey- which two things are the same? the 'reflecting the way people actually speak' and the 'writer's creation of language?' If that's what you mean- I didn't/don't disagree with you. I think you have a point- it is possible to have a better shot at 'creating language' when you create from life than from art..Of course it is instructive to base your work on art- but doing that will only get you 'this' far- just as painting a printout of a photo of a painting by Degas will. Finally you have to look more closely at the life that inspired the painting to get any fresh insight. Does that make sense? So- yes, I do agree with you. Though I guess, imitating art makes you better at imitating life? (which is probably too obvious a comment)

    Lavanya

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  10. Lavanya, That makes total sense to me. I've learned a ton from copying the masters. It is very educational, and I think you're right that it also helps you copy life later on. I'm thinking that the transition step is a hard one.

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  11. I do that 1 thing all the time!!!11!

    :)

    I love this post. I think the more we live the better we get at our own voice and art. I do think imitation is a powerful tool, though. I've learned a lot by imitating other writers, but at some point you have to turn around and make it your own and start creating your own stuff worth imitating.

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  12. Some people are adept creating their own unique language. Me, I have to borrow from the greats :)

    ......dhole

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  13. Michelle, Yes, I think experience is so important. Imagination is important too. Sometimes I try harder to be original and quickly realize how difficult it is.

    Donna, if you do want to be more original at some point (and I honestly don't think it's a MUST) then I do hope you'll try for it!

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  14. Interesting thought...

    Hmmm...

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  15. I think (I hope) I've reached a stage where I can see how a writer I admire has done something, so I can try out the idea without copying the actual words that writer used. For example, I can try out poet Seamus Heaney's use of large natural forces as metaphors for intimate moments without stealing his examples. I can incorporate Sam Beckett's observation that the grotesque and the humorous are closely related without stealing his passages. That sort of influence, I think, helps us to find our own way through the task of writing without aping someone else's style.

    @Domey: You can have "bone aching" if you like it. I trade you that for "six words for a hat."

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  16. I will dig my head in the sand and scream the day 'lol' is deemed acceptable in the publishing world. I am all for the evolution of language, but seriously, that's de-evolution.

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