In Design as Art, Bruno Munari writes, “Not only does each letter of a word have a shape of its own, but all its letters taken together give shape to the word.” When we read, we read the shape of the word if the word is familiar to us. If the word is unfamiliar, we must read the shape of each letter, attributing sound to each one and combining them. We use this amalgamated sound to attempt to locate meaning. We troll our memories for previous usage. We look at context. If we’re scholars, we might even recognize roots and stems. In effect, in all of these investigative processes, we look to the history of the word—personal, textual, or etymological—in order to understand its present meaning.
Sometimes when I’m tired or sick or otherwise impaired, however, I look at words and they’re only shapes; they mean nothing. It makes reading more akin to viewing visual art, a Rothko perhaps. I look at the whole page, the shape, and the rivers of white across the lines. I see the words as bodies, as segmented insects. Regardless of whether or not I view the shape of the letters or words, meaning becomes untethered to those shapes. They become tangible. I care more for the vessel than what it contains.
While this as a permanent condition could be problematic, the transient aphasia provides me with a means to reboot language, the way time seems new and fresh on those rare and brief occasions when I forget how old I am. It reminds one that language is a symbol rather than an incarnation and that, in order for language to mean, I must be present. I must supply language with meaning. Reading is a transaction rather than a gift of information.
Words need me as much as I need them. When I realize this, suddenly the axis shifts again, and those shapes suddenly have definition.
I’d like to ban the word “slumber” from my students’ creative writing. I don’t think I’ve ever “slumbered.” So often, they believe it conveys a softness, but that double consonant “mb” with that unpleasant “er” actually seems more clunky to me that the simple “sleep.” Easy to say for easy sleep.
from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883)
A student wrote to me over the weekend to request a prompt for my Intro to Creative Writing‘s 5–7 page creative nonfiction assignment. Although I usually encourage students to locate their own subject matter as it’s a critical skill and they’ll likely care more about their handpicked subjects, I came up with several prompts that I’ll hold onto for future students who need a place to start.
Is there a story or several stories that you like to tell friends or new people you meet? Is the subject matter related or disparate? Write the story/stories that you tell, and the narrative of telling these stories. How have people reacted? Reflect. Why do you tell these stories? Do you find yourself wanting to create a certain impression on listeners? This piece, as it has three narrative components, has a lot of promise for fulfilling the page requirement.
Just a Phase
Was there a time that you tried to “be someone else,” to adopt a different personality? Describe in detail. Did you change your clothes? Your hair? Your interests? Your speech or accent? Many of us go through identity crises especially as adolescents. What did you do while you tried this out? Did you go somewhere? Did you make a fool of yourself or pull it off? When did you realize it wasn’t right for you? Why change? Do you feel nostalgic now? Show this.
Have you ever witnessed something violent, unsettling, or scary? Write about this and your reaction after. How long did it affect you? How did it change you? Did you intervene? Why or why not? Do you regret your decision to become involved or not involved? (See “Accident, June 1948” by Seamus Deane for an example.)
by Robert Fludd (1619)
These days it takes me a longer time to get started on the page with a poem. I spend weeks only thinking
about lines. Used to, all that wheel spinning and doubling back took place on the page. What’s interesting is how that’s allowed for a shift in my subject matter: I’m more willing to give a little space to the intangible, the ineffable. So perhaps, for me, subject matter is tied more to the medium than I originally anticipated.
I wonder how it would change if I started writing only by hand . . .