Language as Performance

A warning: After rereading this, I fear it sounds a little too “woe is me” writerly, but I can’t do much about that now – it’s done and I have a meeting. So forgive me if this is a little melodramatic – it does represent how I feel, although not how I feel all the time –  

The blog title should really be puncuated this way:

Language as performance?

At any rate.

1.

When I was in elementary school, every year for probably 3-4 years, I had to relearn the word determined.   For some inexplicable reason, in between the months of June and September, I forgot what determined meant and substituted my own definition,and pronounced the word this way: deter-minded.  Like absent-minded but, you know, deter-minded.  It meant stupid. You would think I would have only needed to learn this word once but no, it took me four times. Four. And not because I’m slow, but because my definition and pronounciation simply made more sense.  I called my brother determinded. I referred to things I didn’t like as determinded.  I eventually, somehow, learned how to both say the world correctly and understand it’s meaning, but then Mrs. McDonald taught  a variation of the word as VERB, of all things, meaning something TOTALLY DIFFERENT, and I gave up once and for all. Language, I determined, was not for me.

2. Also, in elementary school. I had a horrible speech impediment. I couldn’t say the letter “R” correctly, and I substituted the letter “w” in its place. I spent a LOT of time with my speech therapist, crowing like a rooster “R -R-R.”  He told me I’d eventually ‘hear’ a difference and he was right (wight) but not before I was teased mercilessly (is there any way else to get teased in grade school?) and spent a lot of recesses alone on the swings, trying to touch the sky with my feet.

3. Today, I still can’t pronounce certain words correctly, especially anything with an L-F combination, like the word wolf. My mom and I would sit across the kitchen table from one another, and she would mouth the word for me, and I’d mimic her, but never once in 29 years have I said that word correctly.  I taught a class on fairytales as a teaching assistant and didn’t realize until right before I had to talk about the text that Little Red Riding Hood would be problematic. (Little Wed Widing Hood and the Big Bad Woof). 

4. I have no ability to hear myself.  Oh, I know when I am projecting too loudly but other than that I have no sense of the sound of my own voice – I’m always startled when I hear myself on voicemail – I sound so pleasant, like someone you’d really want to talk to. But I’m cursed with a “distinct” laugh (according to my friends), a “genuine” laugh according to my parents, and I’m told it’s never hard to find me, you just listen for my laughter. I laugh a lot.  I also can’t sing, can’t play a musical instrument, and can’t keep time with music by clapping. I was born without any sense of rhythm or pitch. Some of us aren’t, and that’s okay.

I’m not sure how all of these factors tie into this post, but I’m pretty sure they do.

The first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer.  My parents raised me in a house filled with books and I remember coveting the ability to read a book all by myself. My favorite time in school was every day after lunch when we got to rest our heads on our desks and listen to a story.  My early report cards often read like this: Courtney is very creative, but she yet know how to tell time. My mom would write back: Thank you for the kind words. We are working on telling time.  I’ve blogged about this before, but it bears repeating: I remember writing my first story in the first grade, my first novel in the sixth. I remember my early days as pure joy – the wonder at putting word after word after word together to make a story. It’s the pure writerly joy my friend J. once discussed.

But no matter how much I liked writing and reading, I was never, let’s say, the best.  I’ve kind of a big picture girl, understanding devices like metaphor and allusion, but getting to that point, usage and grammar and the past predicate and oh my god, homophones almost made me fail third grade.  WORDS SHOULD NOT SOUND THE SAME AND MEAN DIFFERENT THINGS!! How many ways can I say it?  Plus, I rarely landed in the “advanced” reading classes in elementary school, you know, because of homophones and not really giving a shit between a noun and a proper noun.  It all felt too hard and I realized that real writers probably loved word games and spelling bees and the like.

(It’s important to note that by the time I reached high school I was in advanced English and writing classes, as I was in college.  I caught up. But the point of this particular post is to discuss the importance of earlier education. At least, I think it is. I’m not really sure anymore)

About the time I started having difficulties pronouncing words my mom enrolled me in ballet and tap dance lessons, maybe to help me find another way to express myself, or perhaps because I looked pretty in pink. My dance classes were taught in the attic of the local professional theater, and for years I spent my Saturday mornings learning to plie and grand plie and shuffle ball change! and all of these lessons, while I wasn’t the greatest dancer (ah, no rhythm) kept me in close proximity with the professional actors who lived on the second floor of the theater.  This theater, located in our town’s “Historic” district, produces plays year round, and the touring actors offer acting classes to area youth, beginning around the age of eleven or twelve, and oh, did I want to take acting lessons.  I knew if I could just get into the acting classes, that this would be my talent, the one thing I was better at than anybody else.  I begged my mom to ask the actors if they would take me early, but she refused. So I waited, biding my time with early Saturday mornings learning to dance in the attic, dusty light streaming through the dirty windows, one elegant young woman or another helping me point and flex.  Naturally, I did turn eleven and I did get to take acting classes and I think from the moment I first read a scene out loud I fell completely, irrecovably in love. Our teacher, if I mispronounced a word, corrected me mildly and explained it in context of the scene. And, in theater, no matter what, you are never ever yourself.  I never had to be Courtney with the bad pronounciation (mostly corrected), I could be a bank robber, a pregnant woman giving birth, someone for the south, someone from Africa, I COULD BE A MAN.

YOu know, and I swear I’m not making this up, I just realized the improv game I thought of my whole life as inter and alter is probably called enter and alter. You enter the scene and alter it.  Huh.

It didn’t  take much for me to abandon my writing goals. A smear of greasepaint, the feel of a scratchy costume against my neck, some praise – let’s just say I spent the next several years in the theater, performing language, taking dance classes, sticking to it.  And, in interest of time, let’s also just say I ended up being quite good, but not quite good enough. You know the line. We’ve all been there.  And when I realized, around the age of 24, that my future as an actress wasn’t quite as I bright as I once thought, I turned to writing essays and sort of spontaneously used them to apply to graduate school. And since the day I first started writing again, which was a rainy, cool day in North Carolina, I haven’t mourned the lack of theater nearly as much as I’ve mourned all the years I lost writing.  It is what I am meant to do and even if I never ‘make a living’ with it, it has provided more solace, intrigue and straight up happiness than any other relationship in my life. 

But to get to the point.  I’ve often felt like I’m not a ‘real’ writer because I didn’t want to be one my whole life, I took over a decade-long detour.  There are writers in this world who know from the minute they are aware of themselves as human beings that they are here to tell stories and they spend their lives ignorning everything else in order to write.

I am not one of those writers.

But I am someone who has, in one form or another, told stories her whole life. And in trying to think through all of this, I think it was the pure physicality of theater and dance that enticed me to forgo writing for so long. In both dance and theater, when you make a mistake, it is a visible and physical mistake that is obvious to everybody around you.  You know when you’ve forgotten a line or missed a cue or tripped over another dancer’s feet.  The expression of the story you are telling is immediately sacrificed but YOU know it. With an audience’s attention turned toward you, stage lights shining in your face, your level of self-awareness skyrockets and from the hollow of your collar bone to the arch in your feet you are in your body and in a moment (another character’s moment, but still…) in a way you can’t be anywhere else.  

Writing, by contrast, is nothing if not Eliot’s hundred visions and revisions. And it is hard, a totally different kind of hard than physically performing, but hard because really, there are only so many words before you start making them up, and you have the same language under your command that your peers do, and it’s all in how you construct and layer the language that matters.  And you don’t always know where you’ve gone wrong. Unlike theater or dance, you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, emulate others in order to ‘get it right,’ and it’s hard to tell sometimes when you are totally off base.  That letter from the editor I received a week ago made me think of all of this…his acceptance hinged on one paragraph.  Of course, the snarkier me thinks he could have told me to revise, so the truth probably lies somewhere in between one paragraph and the whole manuscript, but I had no idea that one paragraph was a problem. There was no mistep, no unexpected cough, so music cue failure. It was just me and the story and a paragraph I thought fine.  And sometimes, I think it would be easier, if language was a little more like physical performance, where reactions can be measured, and the setting made prettier with a coat of paint.

I think I’ll have to write more on this later.  I’m confusing myself…

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10 Responses to Language as Performance

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    What a great post! I didn’t think it sounded too “woe is me” at all, and I like your comparison at the end of the type of mistakes one makes in dancing vs. writing — very interesting to think about how the “language” of dance is very different from regular old language.

  2. kj says:

    This wasn’t “woe as me” at all. In fact, it was great because (as usual) it was vivid as hell and I was able to come along with you through school. I like that you talk about language, how we come to it, learn it, use it, and how we share it with others. When you are ready, you are going to have so much blog material to draw from for a book, or for submitting to magazines! Great going, Court!!

  3. I LOVE this post about writing. I also took an acting detour, but realised on my first day in university theatre class that I was never going to be as original as all the real acTORs in my class (in the play at the end of the year, I was, tellingly, an Oompa-Loompa). I love the way you describe your passion for writing and putting words together. It sounds celebratory, not at all melancholic.

  4. PS I thought about your post some more while driving, and was wondering how many great actors have been writers? Perhaps the two are mutually exclusive: to act you need to inhabit a character, whereas to write you need to observe and be more distant. What do you think? Or is it just my excuse for having been a mediocre actor?!

  5. Dorothy – thanks so much for the kind words…I’m glad it didn’t come out “woe is me…” I think I was FEELING woe-is-me and projecting onto the post, possibly. And the ‘language’ of dance or theater, well, it’s interesting to think about. I think there’s more here…

    KJ – Thanks as always for the support. I’m not sure if the material from t his blog will ever be submitted, and I’ll never list this blog when I send out queries (Miss Snark’s website gives great querying advice, and that’s one of her recommendations), but I enjoy blogging so much because I think the mere act of writing inspires more writing and more writing and more writing…

    Charlotte – I thought you were in Paris? Regardless, I love hearing from you. I think there is a wonderful and magical relationship between writing and acting, and it’s my dream to write a play one day. Might tackle that in the next several years. I don’t think they are at all mutually exclusive, but I do think to pursue both you need to be making a living at one or the other…it’s too hard to balance all three with a day job. I would LOVE to do my own writing by day and participate in community theater at night someday…a dream for perhaps my retirement! Sam Shephard used to be one of my idols! Well, still is, actually!

  6. BikeProf says:

    This is a great, thoughtful post about how very, very hard it is to write. I love to do it, but it’s painful, as you express so well. Funny thing–I also thought determined was prounced deter-minded, and I also had a serious speech impediment, dropping my r’s all over the place. It was especially bad because my first name (my real one, that is) starts with that dreaded (dweaded) letter. One of the thing I love about my regular blog reading is that I discover that others have had similar experiences and feel the same way about a lot of things.

  7. Emily says:

    Maybe you were adopted out of my family or something. We must be related. I never did the acting thing, being WAY too shy, but, as you know, I’ve been fascinated by the stage almost all my life. No sense of rhythm or pitch? That’s me, and is basically why I was only able to handle dancing lessons for one year. I took all kinds of detours around writing, after writing my first “book” in first grade, and my first “novel” in sixth. But losing myself in writing, even though I’ve never, ever pursued writing to any real degree? Well, that’s magical. Then, the editing process sets in (translated: where the hell were you, Emily, when you were lost for so long? In a place where no one speaks the English language?), and the difficulty of writing rears its ugly head with a vengeance.

  8. litlove says:

    Sweetheart, you know that as a child, you can never win against language. I was ostracised in class for speaking ‘posh’ which means to say pronouncing all the letters in the word. It was de rigeur to embrace the glottal stop and drop your ‘h’s. Unfortunately my mother disagreed…. Anyhow, writers aren’t born, they’re forged in a tough fire of mistakes, suffering, eccentricity and painful clarity of vision. I think you’re prepared to embrace all of that joyfully for the pleasure of expressing yourself – it comes across wonderfully in this post and is a key to your unique voice.

  9. Bikeprof – I agree – one of the greatest things about blogging is realizing others share the same experiences and feelings. It’s like a cyber-safety net, or something. I often read other blogs and think, oh, oh yes! Someone else gets it!

    Emily, I know, revision is definately the most difficult part of writing for me. as well. As for being adopted out of your family,hmmm. My brother is about as opposite from me as one person can get, so perhaps there’s something to our theory after all?

    Litlove – thanks so much for your insight. I think sometimes I assumed writers ARE born, that there’s an innate talent there . And I think that’s a huge part of it but you’re right, eventually it comes down to perseverence!

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