Today's Pragmatic Wastebasket

In my rapid-rise quest to study linguistics, I've been reading a thesis on the elements of humor in written language. It references a quote by Yehoshhua Bar-Hillel, which urges an individual to "be more careful with forcing bits and pieces [found] in the pragmatic wastebasket into [one's] favorite syntactico-semantic theory (1971: 405)." The phrase struck me. A pragmatic wastebasket?

For those unfamiliarpragmatics defines the part of language that's harder to grasp than the concept of words, sentences, grammar and syntax alone. Pragmatics deals with the meaning of what is written or said, given the larger context of the individual, her society, and the world at large. While true, this definition is also a gross simplification. In fact, despite its status as an eloquently-bounded field with a fifty-year history of polish and growth, pragmatics still appears to be something of a dumping ground for linguistic concepts that aren't perfectly well understood. This practice is less prominent than in the past, when pragmatics took on the burden in linguistics for all of those nuances of meaning that didn't fit neatly into other, more distinguished classifications, but it hasn't been entirely bucked. Phonology, Morpheme Reproduction, and Lexical Variation might be willing to shake Pragmatics' hand, but they're not yet ready to rub shoulders. 

The pragmatics wastebasket, then, can be considered, in our time as in the past, the end-cut of dumping grounds among serious linguistics scholars. Yet here as always, one man's discards fill the pockets of others. Scholars with a point to prove have no trouble sorting through the refuse to find any slim evidence that, from a certain angle, looks like it supports their current theory. When Bar-Hillel spoke of this practice, he urged linguistics to consider pragmatic principles in their own right. Though we've taken great leaps in this direction, it's hard to force the gentry to wade about in, what seems to them, little more than trash.

Thus, the warning stands. Moreover, since we can see by historical precedent that every linguistic school of thought carried some kind of pragmatic wastebasket, we know that so too must our current school of thought. I wonder, in twenty years, what will we realize we've thrown in with the grinds and scraps? And, too: what will tomorrow's trash be?

Help! I've Become a Hippy!

Growing up, I always knew that I was drawn to the hippy aesthetic. I just never thought the problem would get so serious. 

This morning -- ahem -- afternoon I was deciding on breakfast. Usually I deliberate a while. Eggs are too heavy, oatmeal too bland, peanut butter and jelly too decadent. Then I saw the apples. Nestled in the fruitbowl between aging lemons and an abandoned redskin potato were three petite, lovely little apples I'd bought at the farmers market the day before.

I bought them on site, but the habit was new. The letting go of money thing is still an issue and the miniscule fruits had cost $2.20 - surely they should be no more than 59 cents each! Then again, this morning it was easy to justify the past expense. I happily plucked one of the three yellow-and-peach-hued apples from the fruitbowl. 

Biting into the tart, magenta-centered treat, I wondered why I'd been able to decide on a breakfast choice so quickly and with such certainty. The answer came at once. I picked the apple because it was "natural." I knew that it came from a local farm. I'd spoken with the growers who cultivated them. I imagined too, though I had no reason to hold this belief, that they were grown in smaller numbers and with more love and care than their conventional cousins. 

I know. Hideous, right? Why couldn't I just grab a cheeseburger and call it a day? The hippy in me was winning out and, in retrospect, I should have seen the signs. 

But -- mmmmmmm -- if old, non-hippy-me wouldn't have bought these bubblegum-inked, sunflower-speckled, juicy, mouthwatering, tart-as-day apples, and if new, hippy-me would...well, that's pretty groovy. Isn't there some saying about the goodness of having an apple a day?

Now shhhhhh. Peace, man. I'm eating.

Side characters

What happens when we read about a character? There's a roundness we get, an understanding that grows the longer we know of their existence. We get to know them by their quirks.

Sure, everyone comprehends and so describes an individual differently. If you and I both meet Bob twice, we may or may not have different opinions on him. This is especially true if we've encountered him in varying settings. If we each meet him 10 times, our description of him might be a closer match. We both have different interactions, but it evens out over time.

With a book's character, we might then expect an even more similar comparison. After all, each reader is exposed to the same interactions word for word. Good characters, though, will leave every reader with a different impression, just like real people. They become the most familiar of extras in our world, although their stories never interact directly with our own.

I'm not taking about protagonists, either. If your protagonist doesn't elicit a real-person vibe, get that right first. I'm calling to mind the third tier characters--the ones who disappear for hundreds of pages at a time. The ones who were convenient and eased plot friction, but whom we rarely contemplate in reflecting on our hero's success.

One reader might find such a character flat. That doesn't make him so. As long as another reader can look between events and see the character's influence of growth, that character becomes complex. The very fact he can be viewed as shallow then adds to his fullness.

How many extras do you know in your day-to-day life? And all of them real people.

One page, two minds

The thing about a good book is, you can't wait to share it with people you love. Some line strikes flint in you, some phrase that perfectly encapsulates one specific understanding, which you never thought of before but have somehow always known. You'll always want to share these things, share each beautiful nugget of experience, but the sharing doesn't work that way, precisely. 

No one thinks quite like you do. We do a fantastic job of tricking ourselves into believing they might. What you read might resonate with the person you share it with, or again, it might not. There's that sharp, dropping feeling when it doesn't. The person you shared with resonates with you, you think. Such a complex being as that knows me, and cares for me, and I care for them. Why should words by some stranger touch something in you but not in a loved one? What goes on in the heart of your neighbor that they can't understand your same poignancy? 

How funny that fandoms can spark friendships, can create loved ones, who will then turn around and miss full swing the lob of passion that knocks us senseless. Shared experience gives life zest, and still, we'll never share as much as we'd like with those closest to us. 

As a writer, these moments of lost connection are especially frightening. If two people of shared experience can't admire the same piece of work, how will strangers understand our expression? I wonder, of all those who perked at the same phrase I did, in some novel or other, how many felt just or nearly just what I felt? Few? Any?

What we make will never be the same to others as it is to ourselves. We can dream, however, that even if to many it is less, to a rare few it might be more. For every passage that fails to catch with your loved one, ten strangers might feel a tickle. One might feel known, mind and soul. The writing is not for them any more than it is for us. But if it catches, let it burn .

Word for word

Some aspects of language are refreshingly straightforward. Builders build. Actors act. Makers make. Writers write. When someone tells us who they are using these words, there can be no misunderstanding of how they spend their time. So long as the person is not a liar. (So long as they are not one who lies). 

It is a great burden, then, to feel defined by such a word, yet unable to act. For that reason, and so that I may not be a liar, I am here. I am sipping lemon-sugar tea at the kitchen table and I am writing.

I'm inspired to write today by Murakami, whose prose always strikes me as both to-the-point and meandering. At least, those who read him would agree that his style is a quiddity. In the preface to his kitchen table novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, Murakami discusses his writing process for these, his first ever works. These labors set him on his path, but they were not complete until they had been written three times each, each draft wholly new. They are products of translation thrice over, created first in Japanese, then reworded in limited English, and finally brought back to Japanese. 

What a way to edit! 

The author notes how rephrasing in English forced him to use simpler words and more forgiving grammar. His work's voice turned straightforward. On the last pass, translating back to his mother tongue, he knew that he had discovered an original style of Japanese all his own. Here, on this page, I mean to develop a voice all my own, and with my own process. 

I'm calling this writing project verbatim. Why? 

Verbatim is a word used when one person delivers a message from someone else. It means that the language of the message is 1:1. No individual word is substituted for another. Yet, by this definition, a verbatim message could present difficulties between languages. One doesn't talk of putting noodles on one's ears in English, as in Russian, or of being nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof outside the States. Of course, and somewhat antilogously, "verbatim" always meant something different to me. Less "one to one" and more "word for word." Which, in my mind, has an entirely different cast to it.

This understanding means that to speak verbatim is to match the intent of each word faithfully. Each word must be selected with an eye for the last, and for the spirit of the phrase and the entire message as well. A message verbatim is a message for words, by words, and constructed so as to communicate the speaker's intent exactly. It carries a piece of the original speaker with it. 

Until Murakami put pen to paper, he was not a writer. When he did write, he found satisfaction only by passing his experiences through a multilingual lense. There he found a voice all his own. Not an exact translation, but something more. 

As I slow my thoughts down and piece them together, from sensation to English to type, as I write, I create my closest verbatim. This process is my word for word. It is the most that I am. 

I write here to give of myself and to make myself a writer. 

As I write, I quote myself verbatim. 

And I intend these words to carry a piece of myself with them.