“Whale in the Cabinet”

(metaphor)

 

There is something really unique in the relationship between a novel and a writer. There are a lot of metaphors about a novel being a lover, a child, or some other person that the writer is supposed to care about, but if those metaphors were accurate, novelists would be the most negligent caregivers in the world. Even really dedicated writers give maybe four or five hours of their time to the story a day, and many more just leave the thing sitting there for months at a time while they research what to do with it or get distracted with other projects.

I just don’t think the parent-child relationship is quite right. I think parts of the metaphor are accurate. Writers have responsibility for their novels. They need to support their health and development, and they need to give all their effort. But as loving as it is, the relationship is often enormously awkward and guilt-inducing. So, allow me to introduce a new metaphor.

Novels are essentially whales in the cabinet. This occurred to me sometime in the fall of 2013 while talking to a friend and I’ve felt especially bad about my own whales since then.

What’s it like to have a whale in the cabinet? Well, every night you open the door and attempt to lift this enormous creature. It’s absolutely huge— you can’t see the whole thing, even. A good portion of this sea-beast might be in cabinet-Narnia.

You might struggle to heave a fin onto your shoulder and pull it a little. Some nights you even feel like maybe you made some progress. It seems like it might be sticking a little further out after your efforts. But then other nights, you just see it there, so far from the ocean, so helpless. You realize with horror just how weak you are and how ridiculously big it is, and how horribly far away the ocean is. And then you cry.

“How do I save you, whale?”

There’s no way you can move this whole whale. You’re just one little writer. No one’s even heard of you, really. No one is going to help you. You are the only person in the world who can get this whale to the water, the only one who cares about it. And if you don’t exhaust yourself every night just to move it maybe a few centimeters, or to just throw some water on it, the whale will die and it will be all your fault. Who entrusted you with a whale, anyway?

You go through school or work, you cook meals, you socialize, but all the while you know that the whale is still there. Sad. In the dark. You are growing to know the whale, and sometimes you even love it, and then guilt begins to eat you up from your belly. You bring it up to a few friends.

 

“I have a whale in my cabinet.”

 

“Really? I love whales. That’s so cool. What’s he like?”

“Don’t you think you could be spending your time better? Keeping whales in your cabinet isn’t a very reliable career option. It’s pretty irresponsible.”

“Huh. So how long has it been there?”

 

As time goes on you learn what gets the whale to move a little more. Maybe you’ve never done this before and maybe you have, but this whale is different from anything you’ve ever dealt with before. In your writing classes, you’ve carried fish from your cabinet to the ocean. They stay all wet and smell of fresh tides the whole time. Some of them have healthy, deep colors, their scales reflective and sparkling. Their mouths gasp and they panic a little on the walk there, but most shoot off into the water in good health and leave you feeling satisfied with a job well done.

But this is not a fish. It’s not even a porpoise. This is clearly the largest thing you’ve ever seen.

You imagine how much this whale could change the world. It has at least one giant brown eye (hopefully two, but it’s really squished) and when you watch it, you want to scream to the world how completely beautiful this whale is. You want to lead someone into your bedroom, throw open the cabinet door, and say “Look! This is my whale. It’s gorgeous and noble and mine.”

But you don’t, because then you see how sickly it is. It’s so far away from the ocean, and its skin is drying out no matter how much you pour on it. It’s crumpled, too, and the way it’s all shoved in your cabinet convinces you that it’s not only horrifically bruised but is probably developing scoliosis.

Before you know it, conversations about your whale become stressful.

 

“Didn’t you have a whale at some point? What happened with that?”

“Yeah… uh… it’s, um.”

 

“When are you planning on getting it back in the water?”

“Not for a while, I think. I’m just not sure how yet. I’ve been reading a lot about it, and I’ve practiced carrying fish a lot. It’s just… it’s so huge.”

 

“Can I see it?”

“NO! Not now. Not yet. It… it really looks awful. Oh, God, I’ll take care of it soon, I swear, and then you can see it.”

 

Inch by inch you move the whale. Maybe you find some friends who also have whales and you agree to help them move theirs if they help you move yours. With some assistance, it becomes easier, but it’s still your responsibility.

You grow familiar with your whale, and your loved ones do too as it moves gradually down the stairs and through the living room.

I like to imagine that eventually all whales make it to the ocean, and if they’re healthy enough, they find nice homes there and lots of people can enjoy watching and getting to know the whales.

Maybe your friends and family come to the shore to watch it and they compliment you saying,

 

“I really like that whale. I think you did a really good job getting it to the water.”

“It swims at a really nice pace.”

“This whale reminds me so much of a really healthy whale I saw once.”

 

Sure, there might be some other comments. Comments about how it swims crooked because of its twisted spine and the missing chunk of flesh from its tail, or how it appears a bit sickly at times— but gosh darn it, it’s your whale, and you did your best.

 

But, I wouldn’t know any of that, because I have two whales shoved in my cabinets right now, and I think they might be dying.

I’m sorry whales! I’ll start moving you again after I graduate, I promise.

 

(Also, if anyone is curious, poems are lobsters. Make of that what you will.)

“Though”— Perceptions of Powerlessness in Speaking and Writing

It’s getting towards the end of my last semester of college which means that I’m doing a whole lot of revision. I work on stories all year, but with portfolios on the horizon the process takes over most of my time.

One of the things I’ve tried to pay attention to as I revise are the unintentional repetitions that I leave in my paragraphs and stanzas. I’ve talked to some writers who have trouble over-using dashes or adverbs. I’ve talked to others who find all of their characters shrugging, glancing, and raising their eyebrows to punctuate every piece of dialogue.

In my own work, I tend to have a lot of “though”s.

I find it creeping into my sentences all the time, whether I’m writing or just speaking with people. It’s different than “although” or “however” which seem to transition to a new thought. “Though” just seems to be added on as a sentence softener in most cases.

 

“I hated that movie.”

“Yeah. I thought the fight scene was cool, though.”

 

I use it as a form of hedging. I can’t just assert a contradictory opinion, because I need to soften it first, to agree and then twist the agreement into what I mean. There has been a lot written about cultural gender norms and societal pressure on women to be agreeable and non-confrontational, so I’ll try not to just repeat it all here. With that said, I do think it’s important to acknowledge in myself as a woman and especially as a writer.

But it’s not just a woman thing. At its heart, I think using words to soften messages is just something that happens when people become used to not being listened to. I know that I start sprinkling my conversations with rapidly increasing instances of “you know?” when that’s the only way I feel like I can get my conversational partner to respond. When you’re met with silence at the end of all your ideas, you start to backtrack to make your ideas more agreeable just in case you might be able to invite some feedback.

This can happen to women, adolescents, employees, or anyone who feels like speaking their mind comes with a social risk that must be constantly mitigated. The consequence is that once all your ideas are softened, even if they are fantastic, they won’t come across with the power they once had. And when compared to the words of someone who is accustomed to being listened to, whose ideas are all expressed with fearless confidence, yours will sound weak and possibly inferior.

A lot of people have heard Taylor Mali’s “Totally, like whatever, you know?” which makes fun of all this hedging creeping into the language of a generation. It was one of the first spoken word poems I ever heard, and it is pretty funny. After learning a bit about the power dynamics at play with language use, it starts to become more troublesome to think about, though.

He’s hearing all these kids hedging all their phrases and filling conversations and essays with phrases lacking any substance, but the reason could be just a powerlessness felt in the relationship between student and teacher, or just as a part of that age group, or that role in society.

As someone who has assigned and graded papers and written many more, I’ve found the more structured the essay, the higher the fluff ratio will be for most students. If they aren’t trusted to have control over their writing, why take the risk to assert their true opinions? I remember my high school essays rarely required me to voice any opinion, and I was used to receiving As. It would have been riskier for me to have written something substantial in most cases.

Sometimes people say nothing to avoid the consequences of saying something.

If a young person has enough conversations like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

“That’s awful. I never realized that was happening.”

“Seriously? How have you never heard about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“The issue is complex. You can’t just call it all awful.”

“Sorry.”

 

Their conversations will start to look more like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

“I’m not sure… It seems bad though, but I mean, it seems really difficult to really address, you know?”

 

I think a lot of people have fear build up in them anytime they need to give an honest opinion on something. People are scared of not knowing things, of being criticized for their words, or of just being ignored entirely. The lack of positive feedback can be destructive to our use of language, and this becomes especially scary for writers.

I appreciate a point Stephen King made about confidence in his book On Writing. There is a lot to be said for trusting your thoughts and your words as a writer, but I truly think that King articulated it in one of the most concise ways I’ve seen with the sentence on page 127,

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

This fear could result in an overuse of passive tense, abstractions, or just general vagueness, which are all issues young writers seem to have consistent trouble with. Even on a larger scale, though, this fear can make the necessary parts of writing seem impossibly difficult.

The first stage of writing is just being able to trust our thoughts and words enough to put them on the page. If a writer is too paralyzed their book will cease to be before it’s ever written. Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt can be caused through a bad case of low confidence.

Then the writer needs to revise, which requires at least having enough faith in one’s ideas to not break at the first hint of criticism and suggestion.  We need to know the changes we make will improve the work. Writers need courage to not delete the intimate or weird parts that are working well, even if showing people is terrifying.

After that there’s the issue of submitting things for publication. The overwhelming majority of submissions are rejected without any feedback, and writers need to have a level of callous on their ego before they can deal with it.

Reading work in front of a live audience can be difficult too, especially if you’re waiting for people to criticize your words. I know that when I do accidentally speed up reading, it’s because I’ve gotten to a section of a poem or story that I’m not sure my audience will react well to. I have an uncontrollable desire to just blur over the words by increasing my pace like a vocal eraser.

 

I believe one of the ways we can improve the conversations and the written works of young people is to encourage them with feedback whenever possible.

This doesn’t always need to be overwhelmingly positive feedback, but we should make an effort to say something. One of the biggest things that’s helped me improve as a writer is by going through the critiquing process and hearing both positive and negative feedback on my work.

Whether it’s critical or complimentary, giving feedback to a writer says:
I’m listening. Your ideas are valid and worth expressing. Here is my reaction to what you have to say.
And for the author, this can translate to:
This piece is worth working on. Keep writing. 

This doesn’t only take place in critiques. Discussion based classes are especially important because they demonstrate that every voice can contribute something to the conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, these classes encourage questions. I absolutely love the courses that come alive with questions and at some point someone says “Oh, that makes sense.” I love narratives that can emerge from a room of people trying to reach a conclusion.

It’s liberating to be allowed to say “I don’t know anything about that, could you tell me about it?” and have someone greet you with an enthusiastic discussion.

So I encourage people to recognize when hesitance, hedging, or fear finds its way into conversation. If we see this in the speech of others, we can make ourselves into better conversation partners and our rooms into safe places. If we can address what’s making us afraid of voicing our own words, we might be able to face our fears, and then speak our minds.

Isn’t that what confidence and courage is all about?

ASMR and Frisson

(There’s a word for this?) 

A few years ago, a friend of mine started to play with my hair while we talked. She ran her fingers up my neck to where it met my skull, and a pleasant tingling sensation went through the back of my brain along my scalp. I tried to describe this to her, and she told me that she shared that sensation when people brushed her hair.

We shared the moment of it, and I felt relieved that she understood. It sounded odd even to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was anything anyone else had felt before. After talking about it for a while, we still couldn’t quite articulate what that feeling was— it wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t like a limb falling asleep, it wasn’t really anything other than a nice sensation on the back of our heads.

A while after that point, my brother gave me a word for it, or rather, an abbreviation: ASMR. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and not everyone experiences it. My brother does, though, and he introduced me to an entire community of people online who try to trigger this response in other people through youtube videos or other recordings.

While my experiences with ASMR are few and far between (because I don’t have people playing with my hair very often outside haircuts and rare, affectionate moments in friendships) many people experience ASMR from all sorts of sounds— clicking, brushing, white noise, typing, the sounds of lips touching, certain speech patterns or accents, or whispers. In fact, many of the videos online are just called “whisper videos.” These are often long, because many people with ASMR use them to help with insomnia or to relax and reach a more calmed state of mind.

ASMR is also triggered by close personal attention or watching someone perform a task. I sometimes have ASMR from watching someone paint or draw, but I know others can experience it watching instructional videos.

I noticed a while after this that I sometimes felt a sensation similar to it from certain music, images, or lines in books. These usually came with an emotional realization of some kind. As I discovered, this isn’t exactly the same as ASMR, but it still has a word. It’s called “frisson.” Frisson comes from a French word meaning “shiver” or “thrill” and is often felt as a sudden burst of emotion that evokes a physical reaction of tingling or shuddering sensation.

These can often come from climaxes of movies, shows, or books, or certain lines of poetry. I can reliably evoke frisson through watching music videos or listening to songs that seem to strongly represent what I know of a loved fictional character, or any videos that have an emotional realization component.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that it’s not limited to my first experience with that moment. You might assume that because it has to do with realization, it would only work during the initial experience, but I’ve actually found it stronger in subsequent experiences. There’s something about letting myself engage fully with a surge of emotional stimulus that lets me access the feeling of frisson.

Over the past weekend, I went to a poetry reading, and though there were many beautiful, emotional, thought-provoking poems read, I experienced frisson from listening to someone read the poem I already knew. Something about the familiarity let me engage with the emotions present in a more intimate way.

It doesn’t need to be anything exceptionally emotional either. I have experienced frisson from one-panel web comics.

Image

(http://www.snotm.com)

While the sensations of ASMR and frisson are a bit similar to me (both create a pleasant physical tingling sensation that begins along my skull) the two communities are very strict about making their differences known. ASMR is purely a physical response to sensations of touch, sound, or sight, and can be sustained for minutes. Frisson is a physical response intertwined with an emotional realization and is typically a sudden spreading of sensation that ends in seconds.

Having these words creates a great opportunity for engaging with the world. Because there is a word for frisson, there are communities where people can discuss the moments in all kinds of art that they experience so strongly it’s felt physically. Because there is a word for ASMR, there are communities of people to discuss the unique power of the simple sensory information that fills our world, and how our bodies and brains can engage with this in an intimate, inexpressible way.

It was quite a while before I saw my friend again. Life sometimes gets in the way of our connections, and it might have been about a year between when we had our conversation on the strange brain tingles and when it was brought it up again.

We went inside and I told her that that I had a word for her. I pulled up the page my brother had shown me on ASMR, and the realization made her smile.

“There’s a word for this?”

 

 

“Gay”

A friend of mine recently told me about a story from the second grade class she teaches. A little boy misspoke, saying he didn’t have a boyfriend, then corrected himself,  that he meant girlfriend. He added that if he had a boyfriend, that would make him gay. Another student called over my friend and tattled on the boy for using a “bad word.” 

Hearing this story, I felt my heart in my throat. This is a second grade classroom, and already this student heard the word “gay” to mean bad things— probably things like stupid, wrong, uncool, or lesser. This is a young person who is still learning much of her vocabulary, and her first connotations were negative ones.

When I was growing up, I learned the word “gay” to mean homosexual first, which is no surprise, because my aunt is gay. At the time of learning, my parents treated it with a carefulness that most other words weren’t given, but that was only a subtlety that flavored the overall positive connotation. Gay was someone who liked the same gender, but it was a term to be used thoughtfully. 

As I got older, I found out that gay sometimes means “happy.” This probably came sometime during middle school when I first watched West Side Story and heard the line “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay.” This made me laugh at first, because of how one word could imply very different things. The girl singing the song was not gay, but she was gay. This definition added to what I knew of the word. 

Some of my friends came out during high school, and at least among my other friends, all received warm support (though some did have difficulty at home). This word was meaningful and called for a greater emotional intimacy between friends. It was a great word. 

But then, I started hearing some people using the word gay in negative ways. 

 

“That’s so gay.” 

“You’re so gay.” 

 

It was almost surreal. I remember commercials on our morning announcements designed to teach kids why saying those things were harmful, and not understanding why they were used that way in the first place. What made these kids start using the word “gay” to mean something which, to me, was so contrary to its natural connotations? 

But of course, it comes from a history of homophobia in our culture. It wasn’t as if I had never been exposed to this. When I was in fourth grade, after telling a friend at a sleepover that I really liked a certain song, she told me the singer was a lesbian, and the way she said it made me feel ashamed without understanding why. 

When I was in Jr. High, after writing a loving note to a female friend of mine (and accidentally sending it through a confusion about how instant messenger programs worked), I had a lot of friends find reasons to stop talking to me all at once. I found out later people had said I was a lesbian, and that this may have been the start of my series of broken connections. 

At that point in my life, I understood that “lesbian” might have something in the word that made people uncomfortable, but “gay”? Gay was paired with “pretty and witty.” Gay was joyous. Why were people using gay to mean “bad and stupid”? 

This is what’s called “semantic derogation.” It’s when a word changes connotation in a negative way due to having new, more negative definitions of the word in use at the same time. A good example of this is the word “mistress.” Originally, Master and Mistress were equally formal titles. It’s where we get Mr. and Mrs. from. But, over time, Mistress was also used to refer to a woman with whom a married man was having an affair. And now, even if we try to use “Mistress” to mean something respectful, we feel the tinge of the other definition on our tongues. 

It’s frustrating to me, because “gay” is such a great word. I feel like someone is trash talking a friend of mine when they use it to mean bad things. Even if they’re joking, the jokes are mean and unnecessary. It’s not okay to make people who identify with the word “gay” (or “lesbian” or any other word that should be worn with pride) feel that sting. All bullies claim “it was just a joke,” but it’s never just a joke to the people hurt by it. And this use of the word is a form of bullying. Who wants a word our culture uses as their label of identity to remind them of things bad, lesser, uncool, or stupid? “Just joking around” is not a good enough excuse. 

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post (“They”— A Controversy), language is a living thing that is hard to control. If a word becomes commonly used in a certain way, that becomes the definition. Sometimes that reality thrills me, but in this instance, it leaves me unsettled. Even right now, this new, negative definition is included in my computer’s dictionary. 


gay 
|
adjective (gayergayest)

(of a person, esp. a man) homosexual: that friend of yours, is he gay?
• relating to or used by homosexuals:feminist, black, and gay perspectives.
lighthearted and carefree: Nan had a gay disposition and a very pretty face.
• brightly colored; showy; brilliant: a gay profusion of purple and pink sweet peas.
3 (informal, offensive) foolish, stupid, or unimpressive: making students wait for the light is kind of a gay rule.

 

I know I don’t have any control over whether hypothetical teenagers I haven’t met say “That book was gay,” but I don’t think that means that there’s no way to get people to understand the harm in what they’re doing. I do think though, that if we just scold children when they first start using “gay” in these ways, we will end up with the situation my friend faced— a child knowing a word for how it’s used harmfully, but not how it’s used positively. 

But we can approach this issue— it’s not beyond our abilities. Parents can teach kids the way mine taught me: early on, and with no lingering discomfort in the word. Friends can challenge friends. Teachers can assign literature written by gay people, so that maybe we can change “That book was gay” to “That book was written by a gay author, and I learned a lot.” 

Or teachers, like my friend, can sit down with a young girl and open up this complicated issue of language, where using the word “gay” to mean lesser, uncool, or stupid is a “bad word” and its use should be reported, but using the word to mean a boy who likes boys or a girl who likes girls is fine and appropriate. 

And then we can see more and more of the little boy in her class, who knows the meaning of the word gay, and can say it, unembarrassed, like just another word. We can see classrooms where little boys can say “boyfriend” instead of “girlfriend” and not be teased. 

 

We can get there, because for a lot of bright, young people, we’ve already made this world. 

 

Semantic Satiation

(Old words)

 

It’s really astounding that we can look at these words without just seeing symbols so often. We usually read over words like little packages of meaning rather than looking at them for their individual letter shapes.

But, you know how sometimes a word is repeated way too many times? You just see a word so many times in a row. Just that same word, and then that word again, and the word again. Word, word word. And then, it doesn’t really look like the word “word.” It doesn’t look like language anymore. Is “word” spelled with those letters?  Does the word even look like how it sounds at all? It seems like it should be “werd” maybe. It’s so small, like you could pinch it between your fingers.

That’s called semantic satiation.

It happens whenever a word or phrase is repeated enough times that it temporarily ceases to have meaning, or appears wrong or unfamiliar. It doesn’t need to be only in print, though. It can happen vocally, too.

The other week some friends were discussing tasseling for a project we were working on. We had considered making some tassels, but we didn’t know how to tassel, or anything about tasseling, really. So one person said she would learn to tassel and become a tasseler. The tasseler tasseled tassels, and they were beautifully tasseled tassels, too. But at that point the group of us collectively decided we couldn’t take one more second of the word “tassel.”

As much as people tend to resist this feeling, I think semantic satiation actually helps people to see words in fresh ways.

Familiarity colors our perceptions. It’s one of the reasons that cliches are discouraged in writing— we need our words to be vibrant and fresh, and some phrases are like houses we’ve lived in our whole lives.

There’s a certain kind of feeling to semantic satiation, like standing in the front yard in the summer, staring at your house, and suddenly seeing it the way a stranger might. The color looks different, and those old bricks have more texture somehow. It’s not near as big as you thought. Have there always been so many vines?

Gertrude Stein once wrote a line of poetry that shows the effect I’m describing:

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

She later explained, “…I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

Semantic satiation is frustrating and unsettling sometimes, but other times I find it to be especially interesting, like finding out a secret that gives you a new perspective on your best friend.

I once wrote a poem entitled “Girl” where my attempt at artistic repetition inadvertently semantically saturated “girl.” It’s a familiar word, because it has a lot of cultural connotations: baby dolls, pink things, smallness, fragility, innocence, and associations of that nature. But, looking at “girl” as just a foreign combination of letters, it transformed.

I watched the round, furry face of the “g” and that little “irl” like a tiny, mischievous tail. I realized that stripped of all my connotations of the word, “girl” was much more like a frisky forest creature with a curled tail that hopped around and hoarded small treasures, leaves, and bits of string. The word “girl” was a mythical creature, and what a fun one to be.

In fact, this idea of “girl” was much more in line with who I felt I was during my girlhood than any of the cultural ideas I had been writing about.

Next time you encounter semantic satiation, let the conversation go something like this:

“Agh! It doesn’t look like a word anymore!”
“Well, what does it look like?”

Semantic satiation makes us finally pay attention to the sounds and sights of words as if they were a landscape we walk every day on autopilot, but today we’re in love. I say the word “word” every day, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about it until I see it with new eyes.

Did I ever notice how the “r” looks like the “w” and the “o” looks like the “d”? Had I really tasted “word” with its drawn out syllable and the subtle, tart flavoring of my accent? Could I have squeezed the “wor” and let my fingertip rest against the thin post of the “d”?  How would I have ever discovered that the word “word” was made to be pinched and eaten like candy?

At one point, a poet named Aram Saroyan wrote:

lighght

It’s controversial as to whether that’s really a poem, but just look at it. Have you ever paid so much attention to the silent letters of the word “light?” Have you ever thought so closely about “light” as a written word?

A friend and mentor of mine once discussed the poem with me, and pointed to it, saying “Can’t you just imagine swinging on the handlebars of those two gs?”

Semantic satiation lets me fall in love with simple words again. It’s a weird, sort of uncomfortable, hard to explain, confusing love, but that’s the best kind.