What I Mean to Say Is…

The goal I set for myself at the beginning of this semester was to more actively consider the practice of “doing language.” My conversations with Dr. McCoy have helpfully provided me with the metaphor of being “plugged in” to sockets that I am not aware of or did not consent to. Today’s exercises were a very useful literal example of “doing language” on the microscale—considering “thE” and “thUH,” considering whether a sound originates from my chest or from my throat. I don’t often think of language as such a physical, bodily process.

In “Elements of Style,” Suzan-Lori Parks brings up Robert Creeley’s statement that “Form is never more than an extension of content.” She illustrates this symbiotic relationship through a chiasmus—“content determines form and form determines content.” Creeley’s quote was a common refrain in my Intro to Creative Writing class, a favorite phrase of Lytton’s, and back then I mostly understood “form” to refer to the physical structure of a piece on the page. If our poem incorporated a lot of white space, that white space had to mean something to the poem. For example, we were semi-jokingly challenged to write a poem in the form of a grocery list. The difficulty was in creating content that both supported and enhanced this form; the grocery list had to justify its own existence. (What a fun existential sentence to write.)

However, after today’s class I’m left thinking about words themselves as an example of form. Every time I choose a word in my writing, I am unknowingly trying to find that symbiosis between content and form—a way to express what I mean. At the same time, going back to the “plugged in” idea, the word I choose sometimes bears a meaning that I did not intend. The negotiation that Parks brings up in her chiasmus, then, is happening constantly in language of any kind.

As I mentioned in class, thinking about these tiny instinctual decisions can be weirdly paralyzing to me. Last summer at a creative writing conference, my professor devoted an entire two-hour class to deconstructing the opening lines of our pieces. Why did we choose to say “the bed” and not “a bed”? What would happen if we removed every article from a sentence? What expectations shifted if we replaced the word “haunting” with the word “lingering”? These were questions I had not considered before, and I found them incredibly challenging. When I sat down to write something new, I found myself so preoccupied with these tiny choices—“a bed” or “the bed”—that I couldn’t write a single sentence. The writing process had become fractal; every choice held three new choices within it, triangles inside of triangles. To start at the very smallest point and build outwards felt unnatural and enormous, because even the smallest word held meaninginside it. Although I appreciated my professor’s rigorous attention to language and still consider her questions often in my revision process, I had to accept that her methods did not suit me. For me, writing has always been a process of revising and refining. It feels more important to capture what I meanand then find a form that most adequately and succinctly conveys that meaning. Through the process of revision, I can best achieve that symbiosis between form and content.

I think that negotiation between form and content is happening constantly in spoken language as well. As we remarked in class today, it’s honestly a wonder that we ever understand each other at all. Even in speech, we are constantly editing and revising ourselves: What I mean by that is… I guess I’m trying to say that…It seems to me that there will always be a slight, dissatisfactory gap between what we mean to say and the words we choose. That gap becomes more apparent to me the more I consider how “doing language” is not some effortless eruption of meaning, but an active practice which requires attention and compromise. I don’t mean to say this gap is bad or that writing is pointless, only that I’m realizing that to “do language” in any sense requires negotiation.

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