Writing Through Thick and Thin

As the semester nears its end I find myself returning to a method of planning for the fifth time in my college career. Realizing that this is the end, and work becomes inescapable, I discard my planner and place a blank sheet of paper on the table in front of me. I write out everything I must do before my flight departs at six am on the twenty-first, the date and time at which it must be done, and a star if it will take more than four hours to complete. This is when time begins to feel like an enemy. I text my father, requesting a pep talk, and he texts back a few hours later: “Home stretch. Stay on it.” Is the end of the semester a race? Should you cross the finish line emotionally out of breath, brain filling with lactic acid?

When the weight of time feels like my rival, I crave to exist in an ancient Celtic idea: thin places. It’s the belief that there are some places, for some people, where the barriers thin between the physical world and the metaphysical one. Here, time can collapse inwards, reality subverts, and, most importantly, you are uncovered. You feel the hold of time and reality reduced and you must face the space, and perhaps yourself, as if you are watching from the other side. The idea of thin places rears itself anonymously in culture—perhaps most famously by C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, and most recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things—but, as an Irish American woman, with a love of Celtic knots and drinking songs, I’ve experienced it in my own life. For me, thin places arise, in vastness and repetition: on a long dock, staring off into the foggy Øresund with a dear friend by my side; sitting in the passenger seat as my mother navigates through the snow-cleared highways hidden in the miles of the Deschutes forest; alone, wandering through the miles of literature in Powell’s books, of my home city.

I stare at the sheet of paper. I stand up, stretch my neck, then sit back down. I stare at the paper again, wishing for more blank space and fewer stars; for a body of water shrouded in mist and a disassociation from this burden of time.

Why We Write Heroes

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

In the plethora of articles on the anti-hero, few seem to acknowledge that the anti-hero, despite his/her questionable means and motives, is essentially good, and beyond that, still a hero. And, on some level, we know this.

Critics praise the anti-hero for being human and relatable, for screwing up. But, unlike most screw-ups (which we all are at some point or another), the anti-hero ultimately makes the selfless decision — and, because the anti-hero must atone for greater sins than his magnanimous counterpart — goes beyond being selflessness, and becomes self-sacrificing.

One could argue, and I often find myself doing so, that we write heroes because we want to believe that humans are intrinsically good: that the bad boy will clean up his act, that the deadbeat father will come home, that the distant mother will realize her failures. Films and novels with truly unlikable heroes fail. No one wants to read about the schmuck who continues to be a schmuck — even in our fictional serial killers we seek remorse, and, when they fail to show it, we label them psychopaths. So, I do not believe we can blame the necessity of relatability for our inhumanly benevolent characters.

When we are shown characters, especially of the sitcom or romance novel variety, who seamlessly succeed in, if not solving their faults, producing the proper emotional reactions, we begin to view our own failures of the heart and mind as uniquely person faults. Perhaps the true reason we seldom write wicked, remorseless protagonists, is because they are more difficult to write.

In writing the darker sides of human nature, one must reflect, without blotting out the parts that bring guilt and sadness, on one’s own weakness.

Anxiety

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

There is the moment of three am panic that arises when you has been sitting in Butler for far too long — three coffees deep, no reasonable excuse to stand up from the computer — when suddenly the cogs in your brain begin to turn, your fingers type without much cognitive processing and a paper is produced.

This anxiety is undeniably addictive. I often find myself saying, “Oh, it will get done; it always does.” And, in the Writer’s Process course, I was surprised, when our Professor acknowledged this panicked — if not procrastination fueled — method, as a valid writing process.

But, what happens when the cogs fail to turn? When you sit at your computer and three turns to four turns to five? When you find yourself drafting an email to the professor: “I find myself unable to write… Could I please have an extension… I’ve drafted and underlined… I’ve emailed the librarian…” and then finally, “I cannot write.”

This breaking point where no matter how many hours you dedicate to sitting in front of the computer with Facebook blocked and your phone silenced, where no matter how clear your outline is, you cannot form sentences, words maybe — something about juxtaposition — but definitely not phrases, is quit simply terrifying.

What do we do here. Yes, we call our mothers and cry. We may sit outside Butler and pick up chain smoking. We may even consider dropping out and becoming an organic farmer — and why don’t we. No, writing is a worthwhile endeavor. I believe, at least for me, this anxiety comes from the fear of judgement. You are here, and you believe, perhaps with some justification, that something is expected from you.

This thing expected from you becomes more abstract the more it is pressed upon. No, it cannot be beautiful language; that has been disproven by every tight-lipped professor red-lining through your self-indulgent use of adjectives. For a moment you may entertain that you are expected to be brilliant! You — a young Thoreau — must come up with something great! This too is a lie. That is too much to expect.

Writing is, in its truest form, communication. Write simply and write well (you can see above that I have failed). When I am not sure where to start I start with a quote. Rather than expecting something great from myself I expect something great from the author or the data. Be Hermes not Zeus (You see here that I’ve failed again.)

Is calling something a thing a thing?

by Skyler Samuelson, Writing Fellow ’17

Check out this interesting New York Times Opinion piece. Alexander Stern muses on the popularity of the phrase “…a thing.” (“Is that actually a thing?” “When did that become a thing?”) In offering different takes on the linguistic phenomena, his idea that the modern world is closing the gap between reality and satire intrigued me most. As Stern writes, “The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity, and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.”

Food for thought: is this a thing?

On Abstract Thought and Feeling Dissuaded

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

I am often impressed by those who think in the abstract rather than concrete. As someone who can only think in the concrete, in language, and, even more specifically, in English, I sometimes feel trapped by words. It will be as though I feel an emotion or conclusion, but when I begin to prod at that feeling, it slips away. It’s like Pandora’s box, and I begin thinking, “No, not that. That is too big a concept; I will have to do something about it later.”

In the back of my head, cold water spills down like some hundreds of half-opened thoughts too big for me to finish, and they remain; under the cold water, they freeze. Sometimes these thoughts come back to me in pieces. I remember last week, walking under the bridge connecting EC to main campus, it occurred to me… something about Ancient Greeks and time (perhaps whether they thought they had magic, or whether, like us, they imagined someone before them had magic and they lost it—although probably not that, as it was something I could not research the answer to). I remember feeling that thought was too big for the linguistic confines of my mind, and then I shut it down. Even after shutting it down, that thought haunted me. It tasted like hope, and in closing myself off from it, I kept myself from feeling something good. Often these thoughts are personal: I may begin to realize there is something off in my life, and then, when that sensation begins, I learn to hold the two things in my head at once, and I close the thought. I tell myself that language is no space for gray area—words are clearly delineated. Meaning can be found, and seldom is the connotation positive and negative.

So, when a friend said that she, an abstract thinker, is frustrated when she can draw a form to show what she means but cannot write or say it, her words took me aback. I assumed that abstraction is freedom. That if only I could escape words, those rotten things, then I would be free to comprehend my emotions, but with comprehension comes a barrier. If you truly understand your own sentiment, if you fearlessly open the box of complex and contrary emotions, of ideas that deserve form but are not concrete, you become isolated. Communication is difficult (that is why Writing and Speaking Fellows exist), but communication of concepts requiring abstraction is even more difficult.

So. How does one communicate ideas that exist beyond language? Perhaps I, a concrete thinker, am not best to attack this problem as I often shy away from the grayer parts of thought. But for the sake of those thoughts I previously discarded, I will consider the problem.

It is true, yes, language has limits. It is the game of language: to find its bends and breaks, to see the gaps between words, the spaces we have not yet reached. So I propose not disentangling the abstract thought—but prodding it like you would a painting (figuratively, of course), or music, or a poem you do not yet understand. Apply a word to that abstract thought. How does that word fit, what does it hide, where does it fail, how can you qualify its failures, and how can you highlight its successes?

Now apply another word to fit between that word and the abstract meaning still hidden. Think of it as a piecemeal process. For me, I quit when I grow frustrated with the words in my head, worse when I must hold all the inadequacies of those words in my head as well. Write those words and their inadequacies down. Write down what works—and what doesn’t.

If you cannot find the words to express the thing, then write down what that thing is not. Perhaps, like music, the meaning will finally arise in the negative spaces.

Multilingualism and Me

by Alice Min, Speaking Fellow ’17

Last December I managed to hop from Chile—where I was studying abroad—to Barnard to Columbus, Ohio to Shanghai, China to Singapore, and return to Columbus before the end of 2015. It was amazing, overwhelming, and rather surprisingly gave me insight into my understanding of language. I’m a Chinese-American majoring in Spanish; therefore, I’m relatively competent in three languages: English, Chinese, and Spanish. Would I say I’m trilingual? Eh, I can’t really read or write Chinese, and my Spanish speaking skills are at a point where I still mess up but know how to correct myself. English is the only language I feel truly comfortable saying I’m fluent in. I found out during my travels that my differing levels of knowledge and the context of my learning experiences greatly influenced the person I was when I interacted in Spanish, Chinese, or English.

There have been many linguistic theories and experiments studying the relationship between changes in the perception of personality and multilingualism. American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that every language perpetuates a worldview that affects how its users perceive and experience the world. Sociolinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp designed an experiment where she interviewed Japanese women living in San Francisco. She asked the women to complete sentences such as, “when my wishes conflict with my family….” When the women answered in English they said, “I do want I want.” When they replied in Japanese: “it is a time of great unhappiness.”[1] The study demonstrates Whorf’s ideas. American English, with its directness and lack of formal speech, lets people express their demands for freedom. Japanese, with its many forms of honorifics, asks the speaker to consider the consequences of personal freedom at the cost of elders. But which comes first? Grammar and syntax or cultural norms? Was it always a part of the American cultural experience to rebel against family wishes and our language simply melded to fit our needs, or was it the other way around? Perhaps, even more importantly, does language actually shape who we are? Does that mean out personalities are not constant? I can’t really speak to the historical or linguistic reasons behind this phenomenon, but I can speak to my own experience.

During the first month of my homestay in Chile, my host mom asked if my whole family was quiet like me. I was rather surprised by this question. I am NOT a quiet person. I am a SPEAKING fellow. I spent my childhood in timeout because I talked way too much. My mom still has a stack of teachers’ notes to prove it. But that was in English and Chinese. In Spanish, I was always more hesitant. I have to think before I speak. Do the genders match? Was that the right tense? Does no creo que need the subjunctive? In the few seconds I needed to form sentences in my mind, I would wonder, “wait, is this even worth saying?” Thereby self-censoring whatever I had planned on saying. So, of course I came off as quiet in Spanish. I was also more appeasing in Spanish. I would often say “” automatically, not because I agreed but out of a desire to come off as friendly in case I messed up elsewhere. I was also less likely to jump in as a dissenter in my classes because I was afraid I couldn’t articulate my viewpoints and just come off as dumb. All of these factors, from the context to my level of fluency, made me come off as a more reserved human being.

For me, Chinese is the language of food, scolding, and innocence. Racism, sexism, inequality do not exist because I don’t know the words for them in Chinese. While visiting my relatives in China, I was shocked by how many of my relatives looked down upon migrants from the rural areas of China. I chimed in and tried to explain that we shouldn’t be making generalizations about people and that we should check our privilege because we benefit from cheap migrant labor. However, I couldn’t find the words. How do you say generalization or privilege in Chinese? Strangely, I could figure out how to say it in Spanish. But wasn’t my Chinese supposed to be more fluent? I can get by in China without anyone thinking I’m a foreigner. But I couldn’t express my more complicated thoughts. When I finally chimed in to state rather gracelessly that we just should not judge people if we don’t know them, my grandma tapped my arm and whispered, “Children should mind adults.” I felt pretty indignant: “I am 20 years old!” However, it was true. I came off as rude because I don’t know how to use qualifiers in Chinese. My Chinese vocabulary and syntax have remained stuck at the level of a kindergartener, so I sound like one. I felt like my 20-year-old mind was stuck in a kid’s body.

When I finally got back to Barnard and spent most of my days babbling away in English, I thought I would feel relieved to be back home. Finally, the USA, where I would be in on all the cultural jokes, call out all the idiots, and be the loud, proud, and annoying person I always was. Except, there was still something scratching at me in the back of my head. Sometimes I wanted to describe that certain sort of pretentiousness where people are aware of their snobbiness but are actually proud of it instead of ashamed. There’s a word for it in Chile: cuico. But I can’t use that word without sounding like that one kid who went abroad and came back all “cultured.” Or maybe I want to compliment a particularly open-minded person by saying, “you know I appreciated that you can think it open,” which comes from the Chinese phrase xiangdekai (想得開). In English, that just sounds weird. I’ve always had the lost in translation feelings with English and Chinese, but I had my family to joke about that with. We pretty much speak Chinglish at home. But whom can I speak SpanChinglish to? Maybe the point of this blog post is a call to arms for all the SpanChinglish speakers in the world! Hello, talk to me about and in these languages!

In the end, I’m not quite sure what defined my experiences. Was it the language I used? The context? My level of fluency? The cop-out answer: all of the above. My own theoretical-not-based-on-any-science answer: I don’t think I am a different person when I speak a different language. I’m not quieter in Spanish—stereotypically speaking, shouldn’t I be louder? —I’m not more childish in Chinese, and I’m not a master of eloquence in English. I’m pretty much all the same, but I just sound different, and I have a different pool of vocabulary and syntax to draw from. As a result, others perceive my words and actions differently, and I react accordingly. Am I arguing on the side of nature over nurture? Maybe, but I would argue that our nature molds to the nurture society gives us. Languages just happen to be one form of nurture.

[1] Taken from Alice Robb’s article “Multilinguals have Multiple Personalities” in the New Republic, April 23rd, 2014.