Saturday, 3 January 2009

reading writing 01/19/08

Been thinking about reading and writing lately.

I've got the page proofs back from my publisher and in the process of correcting them, have found myself reading out loud to hear what I've written. Instead of just relying on the voice in my head, I'm sending it past my ears to see if it sounds right - to see if the prose sounds like me speaking, and not some pretentious wanker. Seeing and hearing are two quite different things.

After half a lifetime of working with words, I find myself wondering what the hell those little black marks are, and why they work, and have come to the conclusion that they are not that much differnt from musical notation. I guess I started thinking about it when the adorable Geoffrey, while discussing the Upanishads the other day,  said 'sand script' instead of sanscrit. I got this image in my head of the ancients sitting around making notes to themselves, drawing in the sand with a stick, and well, he's probably fairly close to the mark, so to speak.

It's all just code - encoded sound information. Like a groove on a record, a book contains all the encoded sound information necessary to transmit the author's voice directly into the 'inner ear' of the reader. Music of course is fairly simplistic and the most immediate - it is the transmission of tone, pitch and time, and works on a visceral emotional level. Then comes lyrics and poetry - really compressed emotion and meaning, meant to be heard mouth to ear. When you hear words directly, without them being transmuted into code, there is much more scope for meaning. Shakespeare, for example, wrote for the theatre - he meant his word to be listented to by his audience, not read from the page (that was for the actors - the players - the 'musicians').

In this resepect, he is like a composer - writing down the code for the savants to be able to play, which would then reproduce the sound to be 'broadcast' on stage. If you go to enough Shakespearian theatre and witness it, rather than read it, you find that much of hte humour comes from his virtuosic punning. Poets and lyricists do it too. But on the page, once the word that makes the sound is chosen from amongst its homynims, the meaning is set in concrete, and, I think, looses its capacity to draw on the audience's dream stocks to search for meaning. Just think of all the mis-heard song lyrics you've discovered in later life that somehow undermine the magic of what you originally thought the song was about!

So, what comes after that? The diary, letter, or essay (or the blog I guess these days). The process of the one sided conversation, where you are engaged in a conversation with yourself. It is a process of sampling from the soup of thoughts and images your mind is immersed in, to try to make the sound of an idea. You have millions of ideas everyday, but only a few of them ever get to be expressed materially. They can be as simple as putting together a shopping list or as complex as composing "The Wealth of Nations", but each requires a conversation with the self to isolate the idea and turn it into a reality. And like physical conversation, when you are the speaker, you only have a vague notion of what you want to say, but don't really know what you think till you get to the end of your sentence. Our spoken word is utterly ephemeral, gone with the wind, but our written words are there, in the material realm, to be decoded and jog memory. The more we write, the more we remember.

Which leads me fiction. Why do humans not only write down what they see, hear and experience, but what they imagine? That's the spookiest of all. Fiction. Why do we invent virtual realities? And why does it take (at least) two years to encode two days of (reading)sound receptio?. All that energy, time, research, drafts, drafts and redrafts, edits, proofs, till finally a package of script exists. A recording of what? An imaginary time and place, with imaginary characters and actions. Amazing. Why do we go to all that trouble?

Language is, I reckon, the elaborate call of our species. Our human societies were lingual, with astonishing complexity, long before we developed the need to encode our song. We once used the song itself - stories passed on, tongue by tongue, though generations - to embed important social and survival information. The mother tongue - the song we learnt as an infant at a familial/tribal level, identified us, made us feel belonging, and marked us as part of the larger group. Then, some bright spark figured out a way to codify the song itself, and we gradually figured out the script thing.

It s a beautiful process to observe a child learning their mother tongue. Done it myself. Drilled all the squeaks, trills and growls into my baby son and showed him what they meant. Miraculously, within two years, he had enough notes to sing himself into language! It was astonishing how quickly he became proficient. Then, with school came the problem of pulling all those sounds apart into their component patterns, and learning how to reform it into meaningful code.

We take it for granted, but what is going on in the mind of the avereage 5 - 8 year old is nothing short of a miracle.

No comments:

Post a Comment