Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Writing and the "Prisonhouse" of Language

by Julia Buckley
In writing there is always that terrible disconnect between what is in one's mind and what translates into text on paper. It's never the same, is it?--no matter how hard we labor. I always end up deciding "Well, it's not exactly what I was thinking, but it's pretty good."

This notion that we can't even translate our own language has always fascinated me. I've blogged before about the Romantics who thought that writing inspiration was "magical." But recently I read a reference to Fredric Jameson (a literary scholar and Marxist political theorist), who described this disconnect as "the prisonhouse of language" because we are, in a sense, trapped with the thoughts that we can never entirely express, and limited by the size of our vocabularies.

I wonder if there is a better way to tap the thoughts that float in our brains. Are they hard to access because we think in symbol and metaphor, and therefore cannot always translate those into words? Would we write better under hypnosis? Or would our thoughts, like translated dreams, make no sense at all?

When I ask my students what they consider the hardest part of writing, the largest percentage of them say it is starting--merely starting--after which the writing may not flow, but at least it comes through. It's the beginning that involves opening that prison door and finding some way to connect the abstract to the concrete.

Writing, when it comes right down to it, is a miracle and a mystery.

Have you ever had a writing experience in which your product matched your idea? Can you recall the frustration of the opposite?

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

So, to all writers, from novelists to those who compose grocery lists: do you ever feel that your words actually LIMIT your writing rather than ENABLE it?

My philosophical question for the day.


Jess Lourey said...

First of all, love the new white background!

Julia, I absolutely feel like my words limit my ability to communicate, and leave it to you to put that frustration into words beautifully!

The disconnect is more apparent to me when I'm trying to draw, and I marvel at people who can sketch and paint anything that looks like it's meant to, so I suppose I'm grateful that I'm a better writer than I am a painter.

I'm going to miss your thoughtful posts!

G.M. Malliet said...

Paraphrasing Agatha Christie here, who in her autobiography claimed she was generally dissatisfied with what she'd just written. She knew that it could be better, but she didn't see how SHE could make it better. I always feel exactly like that. Translating the idea to the page, well...that's why they pay us novelists the big bucks.

I am going to miss you, kiddo. I think of you as our resident philosopher, as you are always so wise and thoughtful.

Beth Groundwater said...

I, too, am going to miss your posts here, Julia. I often struggle for the right way to say things. I was doing just that last night for a guest blog post I was drafting for my Friday appearance on Buried Under Books. I'm hoping that with a cup of coffee and a clear head this morning, the right words will come. That's often the best thing you can do--sleep on it!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Jess. I am a yearning philosopher. :) I'll miss you, too!

G.M.--how nice of you to say it, and I appreciate the title. :)

Thanks, Beth--and how interesting, because often I'll write a post and later not recognize it as my own! So there's also a disconnect AFTER writing.

Darrell James said...

I'm always surprised when a reader sees my words differently than they were intended. As with radio and cell phones, it takes a transmitter and a receiver, both working on the same frequency.

Best wishes, Julia. Stop back by any time.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Darrell. And what an interesting metaphor.

Keith Raffel said...

Julia, I think Wittgenstein got it right. The only way we can think is in words.

Julia Buckley said...

Which highlights illiteracy as a real social evil.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Julia, I've always loved your beautiful postings. Will miss you. All the best, Sue Ann

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Sue Ann. Good luck with all of your book projects, and don't work too hard!

Alice Loweecey said...

Yes and no, actually. Sometimes I stare at that blinking cursor and I'm sure if I enlarged it enough, I'd see a face giving me the raspberry. But there are moments when the perfect words flow onto the page and I'm surprised at myself.

I'll miss you!

Julia Buckley said...

Haha! Funny image, Alice.

Thanks for the fond farewell. :)