Language wants to be beautiful.
Or hideous. Or terrifying. It wants to inspire you. Sometimes, language wants to make you feel sick inside. Or put one of those smiles on your face that just won’t go away. It wants to blur your vision with tears brought on by a spiky cocktail of emotions you can’t even identify. Are they tears of elation that all the joy in the universe cannot be contained, or sadness that all of it, that everything, has to end? You don’t have to know. You just have to feel.
Language is just like us. Is this any surprise? We created it. We brought it to life so it could carry buckets of meaning from one person’s well to satiate the thirst of another. But like any child it has grown beyond the selfish, small minded needs of its parents. It has its own needs, now. It still serves and assists us, but we are foolish to think it will do exactly as we wish just because it is ours.
Language wants to be a hundred billion things, just like we do. And just like us, there is only one thing it does not wish to be. Only one, though there are many ways to describe it. It does not wish to be boring. It does not wish to be meaningless. It longs desperately to matter. To be significant.
So why is this so rarely the case? Why is almost every use of language, every time, trite and stilted and dull? For exacty the same reason most of us never fulfill our dreams.
Language is afraid.
It is afraid of standing out from the crowd. If it sounds like all the other language, then no one will call it out. No one will point and laugh at it for wearing that lurid metaphor in public. No one will falsely crown it prom queen just to pour blood on its head.
It watches other language getting out there, strutting its eccentricities with pride, and longs desperately to be like that. But no. The scorpion sting of rejection always threatens.
It is afraid of trying too hard. Significance is difficult. Language isn’t lazy, it tells itself. It just never seems to have energy left at the end of the day. Who does? It wants to flow into the nooks and channels already carved out for it. Sometimes it starts out with huge ambitions. It tries to be beautiful and magnificent and glorious, but once it spreads out on the page it is dull. It has to exercise its way into shape. It has to hone and cut and reform itself, over and over, through failure after failure, to get itself right. Who has the time and energy for that?
Language is afraid to find out that it doesn’t matter. That it’s vision of itself as that quiet, beautiful poem, or that frenzied speech that purees the emotions of its listeners, is just a fancy. It can leave its raw, fermented dreams in the closet forever where no one will ever taste them. Better that than expose them to the critical tongues of the world and find out they were flat and bland all along.
Language needs you. It needs your fingertips and your voice. These are it’s appendages, and without them language can never dance. It can never burst into the wild, ecstatic expression that sleeps within it, aching to escape. It might look dull and insipid when first you put it on the page. Don’t be deceived. Don’t give up. Your words aren’t boring and meaningless. They just aren’t done yet. They are just afraid to be what they wish so desperately to be.
Just like you.
It is a flavor that longs for a curious rebellion.
I read that sentence today about a vodka made from grapes. What a beautiful and nuanced sentence. The most intriguing poetry suggests thousands of tiny variations of meaning, all blending and splashing together, by virtue of being meaningless.
Some of the best sentences are the ones that make you pause and say, “Huh,” not because you immediately know what they mean, but because you don’t. They suggest meaning by their unusual construction. Or their ironic twist on conventional structure. Or merely by virtue of being both obtuse and beautiful. A beautiful sentence cannot be ignored and will therefore make you linger. The longer you linger on a supposed messenger of meaning like a sentence, the more you will search for that meaning.
Longs for a curious rebellion. It is intriguing because it feels like it makes sense for a split second, and then it ceases to allow full access to its meaning immediately afterwards. Not right away. Not without crawling deeper into the foxhole. A curious rebellion? Rebellion, as a word and a concept, can be and often is modified by many words. A violent rebellion, a just rebellion, a bloodless rebellion, a futile rebellion. Curious isn’t on the list of usual suspects.
Yet doesn’t take long to find the meaning. It is a vodka made from grapes. That is an unusual thing to do. Perhaps even a rebellious one. But it is not a rebellion in any traditional sense. Why rebel against grain vodka? This neutral distilled grape spirit would seem to have its reason, but we can only guess at what it is. It hides its motivations behind mystery and nuance.
Grapes cannot speak, save through their flavor. Clearly these grapes speak. They speak of longing. Of a desire to break from tradition for the pure aesthetic thrill of quiet, beautiful defiance. Like someone who attended a Mariner’s game dressed as Franz Kafka, and spent the whole game in a reserved and non-pushy attempt to read his latest work to the others near him in the stadium.
This sentence, short on length but long on depth, tells you nothing literal about the flavor. Yet in refusing to do so it tells you more than a sensory description ever could. Our language is tearfully inadequate at true, granular nuance. We speak in large clunky words that convey great gobs of meaning all at once. Speech is a jury rigged monstrosity that launches semantic water balloons and hopes their overlapping splash will coalesce into something that recognizably resembles the complex pictures we have in our heads. They rarely do.
Nowhere is this more true than in food descriptions. Listen to anyone try to describe what something tastes like to someone who hasn’t tasted it and you will know what I mean. Or read any food magazine. It’s like watching someone perform delicate surgery wearing welding gloves. People try to compare the unexplored flavors to others in combination, but it never works well. I had an inside joke with a friend about how Rachel Ray described every herb in her lexicon as tasting “woodsy and lemony.” She used this for both thyme and basil. Even if it was an apt description for both, thyme and basil taste nothing like each other. So the description is useless.
If you taste a dozen different vodkas you will have no difference telling that they all taste different. The differences are both subtle and obvious. But you won’t be able to describe them. Not in a meaningful way. The predominant taste in all of them is the same: they taste like vodka. The nuances can only be described subjectively, even though they aren’t really subjective. They might be subjective to the extent that a more delicate pallet will pick up volatile compounds others will miss. But that’s true of every single food ever. Fundamentally everyone has the same chemical experience. Nuances only matter in the culinary experiences where people pay attention to nuance. Like wind, or chocolate, or coffee. Or vodka.
The taste longs for a curious rebellion. It doesn’t tell you what it taste like. Nor, I suspect, does the fact that it was distilled from grapes. For all that the origin certainly informs the final product, vodka distilled from potatoes doesn’t taste like potatoes. It’s a neutral distilled spirit. It’s designed to remove the flavor of the original fermented ingredient. All that is left is alcohol, and water, and the trace volatiles that make one distinct from another.
The curious rebellion tells you nothing of the flavor, but it tells you something more important. What the flavor means. Why it matters. Wine connoisseurs have trouble telling the difference between a $10 bottle and a $40 dollar bottle when the labels are switched. It’s not because they are frauds. They can demonstrably and repeatably identify 10 or more wines when they know what their options are. Their palates are amazing. But their minds are more amazing. Of course they are. Most of palate is in the mind. They are changed by what they bring with them. Studies have shown that food with an elegant garnish tastes better than identical food without the garnish.
A curious rebellion is what the makers of the vodka were after. That was the dream, even if they never articulated it. They undoubtedly fermented distilled after batch, making tiny corrections, until they could taste the dream inside the liquor. Maybe it was then that the phrase arose. Sometimes we do not know what to call the path we are on until we reach the end.
Or maybe it was a poet who teased the words out of the vodka-mist air. Perhaps the distiller heard it and their eyes lit up and they said “yes! That’s it! That’s it exactly!” We can capture indescribable experiences with clunky and imprecise words. That’s why writing is infinite. That’s why poetry can put mountains into couplets and sunsets into lines.
The difference between two similar sentences may be tiny at first glance. They are both sentences. Nonetheless, one might be hideous, flat, and with a single perfunctory meaning. And the other might be a thing of beauty and depth that evokes tears and rage and contemplation. The difference might be slight, but the important ones often are.
Nuance is everything.
The Ringmaster and the Weary Clown
A Writing Fable
The ringmaster leaps out into the center of the circus tent and throws his arms out as he beams up at the audience. He is dressed head-to-toe in an outfit of fire-engine red and gleaming gold scrollwork. His tophat is so tall its a wonder how he holds his head up.
“Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages!” he belts out. “Have we got an act for you! A performer renowned the world over for his ability to captivate audiences and leave them spellbound! Prepare for a performance the likes of which you have never seen before! I present to you, the Amazing Magnifico!”
Out from the edge of the performance area walks a clown. If he can be called a clown. He wears a dark grey business suit which wouldn’t look out of place on bank manager, save for a patches of washed out pastel cloth sewn randomly across its surface. Their shabbiness stands in stark contrast to the otherwise crisp suit.
On his head sits a blue wig that looks less like clown hair and more like the grey-dyed-blue you sometimes see in old ladies trying to unsuccessfully hide the yellowing of their aging hair. His clown-face makeup barely deserves the name. White foundation, black circles barely bigger than his eyes, brick-red lipstick that doesn’t even double the size of his lips. It curves out into the barest hint of a smile. As if he didn’t know what a smile was supposed to look like
He walks out to the center of the tent, struggling to drag a large trunk. It takes him over a minute to get to the middle. Long enough for the audience to begin to shift in their seats and mutter to each other. Once there, the clown unfolds the trunk into a table. He carefully hangs a banner in along the front of the table that states, in brightly colored but faded print, The Amazing Magnifico.
The clown reaches under the table and begins to pull out fifteen or so wine glasses. He juggles them in groups of four or five in a half-hearted way before placing them on the table. He pulls out a pitcher and pours various colored liquids into the glasses. Then he begins to rub his finger along the glasses’ rims. It plays a discordant and somewhat unpleasant tune. It goes on for several minutes. He stops for almost 20 seconds. The audience believes he is finished. Then he stares fixedly at the glasses, adjusts the liquid levels, and resumes playing.
In the audience, children tug on their parents pant legs and ask when the elephants are going to come out. A number of people walk out of the tent. Some of them are going to the bathroom, hoping that when they get back this supposed clown will be gone. Some of them aren’t coming back.
When the song, if you can call it that, is finished, the Amazing Magnifico picks up each glass and drains the liquid from it into his mouth. He makes a disgusted face as he does so. Then he packs up his glasses, sighs, and drags his heavy trunk off of the stage. There is a bit of scattered applause.
“Now, straight from the circus,” he says in a neutral voice, “the Amazing Magnifico.”
A scraping sound echoes from the side of the stage. A man walks out, dragging a huge black trunk. His heavily made-up face is mask of frustration and resignation. The trunk is too big for him. He doesn’t want to be here, but what choice does he have? Over a long, agonized minute he drags the trunk to the center of the stage. He stands up straight, and for the first time the audience gets a good look at his outfit.
Is it a business suit, or a clown suit? The outfit doesn’t seem to know, and so neither does the clown. He just dressed up for work. He wore what he was supposed to wear, even if it didn’t make any sense. His makeup is applied carefully. The circles around his eyes are perfect. The white foundation covers everything, and it evens his skin tone into flawlessness. It is impossible to see the real color of his skin. Underneath the layers of paint, he could be anyone. Or no one. The lipstick suggests the smallest of smiles. A smile that is always there. Put there deliberately. It isn’t real, it isn’t warm, and it doesn’t reach his eyes. But at least he’s smiling.
The clown…or businessman? opens up his trunk into a table. He hangs a banner along the front that says The Amazing Magnifico in faded color. It is obvious how bright and flashy the banner used to be, and it is obvious how much they have faded. The person who made this banner wanted to make an impression. The person who made this banner cared. That was a long time ago.
Magnifico pulls what look like fine crystal glasses from the trunk and begins to juggle them. His technique is amazing. This is a master of the craft of juggling. At the same time, there is as much weariness as grace in the performance. And not a single gram of passion. His face is neutral, and he doesn’t appear to be paying any attention to what he is doing. He isn’t watching the glasses or looking at the audience. He’s staring off. His mind is somewhere else. Thinking about his mortgage, maybe. Or his impending divorce. A good performer is supposed to make you forget about the world. But how can he, when he can’t forget?
He places the glasses down on the table. He pulls out more and juggles them, too, before putting them down. He pulls out a pitcher and pours colored liquid into the glasses. Different colors come out of the same pitcher. A magic trick. With just a hint of showmanship it could be dazzling. It is barely noticeable.
He is very careful with the liquid levels. For the first time he seems to care about what he is doing. He places his fingers on the top of two glasses and begins to play.
It isn’t beautiful music. It is discordant and unpleasant. It is what nails on a chalkboard would sound like, if they were lovingly and meticulously calibrated into an instrument. It isn’t beautiful music. But it is beautiful.
It is a symphony of sadness and meaningless perfection. Right next to the cringe-worthy dissonance is a flawless expression of both expertise and helplessness. This is a man who has studied music. This is a man who has practiced a craft no one else in the world could ever care about until he was its one and only master. Every sound is deliberate. Everything that explains the patched clothing and the badly-dyed hair and the faded banner is expressed, to those in the audience with the ear and the temperament to hear them It isn’t all of them. But it’s enough.
Several minutes later he stops. He stares down at his instruments. He adjusts the water level. He moves them around. Apparently they weren’t right. They weren’t perfect. He begins again. When he finishes he looks up at the audience. They stare back at him in silence. He picks up one of the glasses and throws it back. Like a shot of cheap whiskey. He grimaces at the taste. He stares down at the rest of the glasses. He picks the next one and throws it back. Then the next. His face says he is disgusted by what he is doing. Disgusted at himself. But what else can he do? He drinks down the bitter, candy-colored brew, one by one, until they are gone.
There is a critic in the audience. He isn’t moved to tears. Of course he isn’t. He’s been in the game for a long, long time. His review of the even comes out two weeks later. He talks about the poet, and the singer, and the other artist who performed that night. But mostly he speaks about the Amazing Magnifico. That’s the performance, he says, that stayed with him.A performance the likes of which he has never seen before. He writes how the audience was captivated.
The goal of writing is to communicate ideas from one mind to another. But sometimes it’s difficult to find the right words. We all have these marvelous, complex, nuanced worlds inside of our heads. It is staggering that other people can’t see them. They’re so obvious.
Or sometimes you want to express to someone the depth and intensity of emotion that churns inside of you every time you see their smile. But the sensation is too big for words. So you stutter, and struggle, and stammer out “I love you” like you have eight billion times before.
You hope desperately that they understand that when you’re around them your blood cells become rose petals and the air becomes honey and when they smile that sweet hot wicked smile you feel like a dolphin must feel when it bursts out from the ocean after a deep dive and fills its lungs with tropical air. But the images hide under your tongue, and you don’t want to puree your metaphors.
Wouldn’t it be great if could abandon the clunky tool of language and pour our thoughts directly into each other’s open minds? Wouldn’t it solve all of the worlds communication problems if we could just ditch this inefficient talking nonsense and communicate telepathically?
If humans had telepathy there would be no miscommunication. Imagine that world for a moment. Every one of us would be able to convey to everyone else exactly what we thought, with no mistakes or errors.
Or subtleties. Or nuances. Or metaphor, symbolism, or poetic imagery. Because nuances are by definition ideas that are not conveyed clearly. They are tiny little things, clinging to the edges of our words and hiding in the shadows cast by our expressions. What is poetry but an attempt to communicate in small packets of words ideas that should take a thousand pictures?
The goal of writing is to communicate ideas from one mind to another. But the beauty of writing comes not from the perfection of communication, but from its flaws. The power of writing emerges from the way sentences planted by the writer blossom into great torrents of foliage in the reader’s mind.
Therein lies the paradox of writing. As a writer it is your task to communicate your ideas with purity and clarity. But the strength of your writing lies in its carefully sculpted use of miscommunication. It lies in the gaps between what you intend to say and the flawed and limited medium with which you say it.
There is no magic in the word sunset. Those six letters alone cannot convey the majesty of the pink light as it scatters across the cloud-laced twilight sky.Your writing cannot perfectly pluck the sunset from your brain and flick it into the eye of your reader. But somewhere in every reader’s mind is the memory of that moment when they looked up at a sunset and it was magical. If you choose your words with care, maybe you can reach in, touch that memory, and wake it up.
That is the paradox of writing. Not to achieve perfection, but to fail spectacularly.