I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Word after word after word

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about an even more fundamental building block of writing, the words themselves. My musings were kicked off by an episode of Radio Lab that basically put forth the premise that what we humans think of as "thinking" is impossible without words. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complicated subject, the argument is that if we don't have words like democracy, God, genetics, and karma, we can't think about these things. Without language, our thoughts are more animalistic; we can still love and fear, still grasp that water is wet and sandpaper is rough, but conceptual, abstract thinking is no longer possible.

For evidence, they present case studies like a man who was born deaf in the third world who'd grown to adulthood without any concept of words whatsoever. He'd made it to the US as part of a migrant family and was generally regarded as retarded until a therapist managed to make that first connection between a word in sign language and a concrete object (much like Helen Keller learning the word water). Once he had the concept of words, he went on to learn sign language and hungrily devoured the words for everything under the sun. He became able to discuss his previous, wordless life, giving insight into what life is like in the absense of abstact thought. Another case involved a woman who had a stroke that knocked out the language centers of her brain. She couldn't not just speak or read; she lost all concept at all that words even existed. Slowly, her brain healed itself and she was able to report on life without words and, again, if you don't have vocabulary, you aren't able to do the kind of thinking that I'm engaging in right now.

Or rather, that we are engaging in right now. Because listening to the show it struck me that words are kind of a mental virus, a carrier by which thought is transmitted from person to person. As writers, we aren't simply telling stories; we are altering the thought processes of our readers via the transmission of words.

While the story level aspect of writing is of extreme importance, we shouldn't dismiss the power we have to create new concepts in the minds of others by bumping words together in unusual or original configurations. James Joyce and William S. Borroughs don't so much tell stories as string words together. Yet my experience reading them is still quite stimulating. Delving into their word thickets, I run across idea and concepts I've never encountered, and emerge with my mental boundaries of what exists in the world a bit broader.

Some bands I listen to have lyrics that consist of what are for all intents random words and phrases strung together. Hell, the Talking Heads are blatant about it, with album names like "Speaking in Tongues" and "Stop Making Sense." Yet, somehow, I'm still able to find meaning amid the babble. The songs bang around in my brain long after the songs of writers who were much less obscure have faded away.

When words bump up against words they don't normally partner with, our brain has to burn new pathways to absorb the concept. Even seeming nonsense has the power to activate these pathways--how many of you can quote "Jabberwocky" line for line? How many of you can find meaning in it?

Looking at my own writing, I find it riddled with neologisms. My dragons worship a religion built around evolution; the priests are called Biologians. On Mars, my protags embrace beneath moonslight, in Atlantis, Makan toys with his throatfeather. The speculative genres provide good soil for the growth of new words, which we need to create new worlds.

I've read plenty of writing books on plotting and character, and other books on style. But can anyone point me to reading material on the relationship between thoughts and words? I feel like I've taken my study of storytelling as far as I can go for the time being. I can plot, theme, and characterize like nobody's bizness. I learned these by practice and by studying the concepts. But, putting word after word after word on the page, the very heart of writing, is something I've done without really contemplating how or why I do it. It's so fundamental it seems almost fruitless to study it. It would be like taking lessons on how to breathe or how to walk. Yet, if you want to be an opera singer, you do take lessons on how to inhale and exhale. You might not need lessons on how to walk if you just want to cross a street, but lessons might be useful if you want to cross a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers.

The danger, of course, is that on the rare occassions when I do stop and think about how I walk, I find it makes me clumsier, not more graceful. Am I opening the door to my own doom if I stop to consider every word I place upon the page?


John Brown said...

They learn how breathe for a particular purpose, or in a certain way to achieve a purpose they can't with the breathing they normally practice and need for normal purposes. So my question is what is it you're trying to acheive that would require you to look at each individual word?

James Maxey said...

What am I trying to achieve? It's difficult to describe, but in very many of my favorite books, there comes a moment in the text when I feel that walls are being knocked down in my head and I understand the world as I've never understood it before. Often, this moment is reached purely through story. The author guides the character to a point in time and space where a previously hidden truth is revealed. But, other times, the story is almost incedental, and a single line or phrase will flare in my mind and cast light everywhere. I feel like I've put a good deal of effort into mastering story revelations, but haven't paid as much attention to crafting these shining moments of revelatory prose. Sometimes I get close, but I feel like I stumble into these elevated passages more by luck than design. I just want better control of my craft.