Sunday, February 04, 2007

Language Cont'd.

People ask me how I write. They seem to have the idea that the story or novel is all in my head and I just write it down, like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. (Well, most people aren't thinking about Athena and Zeus, but it was a cool, if slightly shopworn metaphor.) But that whole metaphor/aside business came to me as I was writing this. Then I had to think about whether the cuteness of it would take this in some direction I hadn't expected or didn't want. The act of writing makes the story happen. I have an idea when I start, but I find out when I write, what it is that I'm writing. I'm not communicating something from my head to you. I'm figuring it out as I go, and then when I'm done I'll take it, copy it to blogger and plunk it out there for you to see.

When I saw the "In My Own Language" video, it startled me in a lot of ways. I have the preconception that many autistics are not verbal, not articulate, not language oriented. Silentmeow appears autistic and yet her commentary on her behavior is really articulate. Her observations that when she is engaged in many of her behaviors she is often accused of being in her own world when she is actually interacting with the world are startling reversals of my expectations. But like a lot of the people commenting on Metafilter, I felt that language is communication. And certainly, it is. I'm communicating with you in whatever haphazard way I can when I post this video. I have a 'you' in my head as I write. But I don't just use language to communicate.

I use language to shape my experience. I talk to myself. Not a lot. My husband and son talk to themselves more than I think I talk to myself. But talking to oneself is not communication. There's no other, no Saussurian sign and signifier issue. The stuff in my head is not being clumsily mishandled by my attempts to put it in speech so that another person can hear and clumsily assemble those approximations into approximations of their own. We do it to make meaning of our own experience. That making meaning actually creates a level of abstraction and definition.

First it shapes the experience. When I describe an experience, I eliminate much of the experience. If I say I'm sitting in my office on a sunny Sunday morning writing this, while the dachshund sleeps in the sun and the golden retriever dozes on the rug, I have still not made an effort to convey a myriad of aspects of the experience. The way I am dressed, the oatmeal I ate thirty minutes ago, the mess on my desk, the fact that there are three rugs. I've created an experience that sounds domestic and faintly idyllic, and it is, but I don't mention that my feet hurt and yet I feel essentially pretty good. Or that writing this is engrossing and makes me rather happy, I think, but I'm not sure because while I am writing it I am engrossed enough not to be monitoring myself that way and this is a state I both seek and don't really have a handle on.

Second, I abstract the experience. I encode it in words, which are no more intrinsically meaningful than the sounds of Morse code. I stop having the experience and start having the experience of writing about the experience. I think about the 'you' I am writing to. Silentmeow does not appear to abstract her experience the way I do. Nor does she appear to shape her experience--at least until she films it, and then, undeniably she does. She set the humming background (which I find haunting) and selects the behaviors she shows and how long to show them.

I use language to distance myself from the raw experience, to give it coherence and meaning, and I often do that for no one other than myself. Language doesn't stop when I'm alone. It is a method of interacting with my world. Silentmeow interacts with her environment in a series of behaviors. These behaviors may or may not communicate, and may or may not intentionally communicate. (I imagine if I knew silentmeow, I could tell a great deal about her emotional state by her behavior.)

If language is about communication, then a lot of what silentmeow does is not language. But if that's true, I do a lot of purposeless language myself.


Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

This is a really great process description. I'm going to use silentmeow's video in class with my students and then have them read this entry as a response to that video. It's perfect for a segment I'm about to teach. Thanks for this!

February 05, 2007 12:41 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Please let me know what they come up with. It will be interesting to see them tackle process. In my experience, students are sometimes really resistent to thinking about doing in this way.

February 05, 2007 9:55 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Yes, they are particularly resistent to thinking about doing in this way. I'm trying to get them moved even just a little farther in this direction of thought. We don't teach the importance of awareness of our actions and speech (did we ever??)and I'm hoping to get them actively thinking about their own doings in the world, even the processes of their minds, like thinking and willing and judging, so that they can become conscious of those as actions and processes of the human being as well. I'll be starting this segment this Wednesday. Hopefully I'll have something good come out of it. I'll let you know!

February 05, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger mary grimm said...

I've had a lot of these thoughts about writing--that idea of selection, how much must be left out of any rendering of even a small portion of experience is alwyas interesting to me. Have you read The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)? There's a part in there where a character (who is a writer) tries to keep an honest record of her day--she's trying (among other things) to resist the seductive pull of fiction and fictionalizing; but of course she can't, it breaks down.
I'll also be interested to hear how Christopher B's class works out.

February 09, 2007 9:29 AM  

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