Guest Blogger Daniel Ari talks about The Miracle of Language: Reminders from 50,000 Feet
An alien from another galaxy encountering those four written characters or the sound we as English speakers make reading them would have no idea what we were writing or talking about. The markings or sounds alone would give the alien no inkling that they even possess a corresponding meaning in the physical world.
We write using a complex system of symbols that are almost entirely abstracted from the physical phenomena they indicate. The alien might stand a chance at understanding spoken onomatopoeias, perhaps fetching a connection between the shouted words bang, boom or screech with the aural phenomena they represent. And perhaps the written article a might indicate to the alien the spirit of its meaning as something singular. Yet wouldn’t you be impressed with an alien that could intuit even those connections from our abstract language? I would.
The miracle is that we learn to associate a huge range of phenomena with a huge range of symbols. For example, you can read the word candy as it appears here on screen and know it’s the same word as the one built out of plastic, foot-tall, block letters above the entryway of a candy store. The two symbol sets are vastly different in appearance, yet we decode and access related bodies of meaning from both.
At the same time, the range of meanings we associate with the symbols is enormous. Where does your mind go when you read candy? Cellophane-wrapped hard candies? A bag of Halloween spoils? Or a sudden, unspecific craving? Or that song “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow?
It awes me that I can write chin—never mind the font—and you can visualize the chin that makes the most sense for you. If I want to guide your mind, then I can add prominent, clean-shaven, Caucasian, famous. Or I can write about meeting Jay Leno backstage before a live concert a few months before he took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson.
My brother Phil was one of three comedians opening for Jay that night. I went backstage to meet Leno, and he joked amiably with my brother and I and about five others from the campus comedy club, including our friend Mike Chin. I could see Mike was thinking about cracking his joke about also being a “chin” comedian, but before he could, Leno handed me a Coke from the table of refreshments—cubes of cheese, cut vegetables, a bowl of M&Ms candy, green ones included—and Mike’s moment was lost. I recall feeling jealous of my brother and the other two comics who had opening slots that night. I also had mixed feelings about Leno beneath my celebrity-awe. In the comedy club at that time, we regarded David Letterman as the better comic, the one who should have taken Carson’s throne.
I think it’s a miracle that you can make sense of what I’ve written. And to honor the miracle, I’ve done my best to aid your understanding by choosing my words consciously, with the intention of making my meanings clear—even the unspoken ones.
I like to assume an atmospheric view of language sometimes because it reminds me of the magnitude of the project and helps me accept the processes of writing as gradual and incredibly grand. It helps me remember that it’s taken me 47 years—and counting—to learn the abstract symbolic system of contemporary North American English.
When you interpret the rows of abstracted symbols I have chosen, you get an indication of my experience. That’s why I revisit and rework my strings of symbols so meticulously—adding, subtracting and swapping; changing handwritten to digital to printed; translating writing into voice.
We attempt to share experience. Remembering that writing means communicating through a complex system of abstraction reminds me that results are guaranteed to be inexact. But if perfection is impossible, connection isn’t. That’s what we as writers strive toward, and when we experience that others are moved by what we’ve strung together, that is the greatest satisfaction a writer can feel. Do you know what I mean?
DANIEL ARI writes, teaches and publishes poetry. He lives in Richmond, California, where he leads a monthly writing jam, thriving since 2011; and he has taught and led writing sessions and workshops since the 1980s. Daniel has recently placed creative work in Poet’s Market (2014 and 2015 editions), Writer’s Digest, carte blanche, Cardinal Sins, Flapperhouse, Gold Dust Magazine and McSweeney’s. Daniel also works as a professional copywriter and performs improvisation with the troupe Wing It in Oakland, CA. His blogs are Fights with poems and IMUNRI = I am you and you are I.
Daniel will be the July 17, 2014 Writers Forum Presenter in Petaluma, California