Struggling with Language

I subscribe to a daily electronic newsletter called Today in Literature. Each issue features several literary events related to the date. The stories are warm, revealing, and sometimes funny – and a bonus is that I’ve learned a lot about literature that wasn’t covered in my academic programs.

A recent issue commemorated the publication of Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust in 1939. West chose the Hollywood film industry as his subject, and his novel is widely hailed as a searing critique of popular culture.

One point in the article particularly caught my eye. West intended to write a novel along the lines of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath…”but when he sat down at the typewriter, everything came out as satire.”

West was such a superb novelist that The Day of the Locust is listed in the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the Century. Why wasn’t he able to write the novel he wanted?

The common-sense explanation is that West  – despite his gifts – was not a strong enough writer to complete the task. But there’s another possible explanation: West was struggling with language, and he came out on the losing side.

Crazy as it sounds, that’s the explanation I’m going with. And I’m going to push it further to argue that everyone who sits down to write – from high-school freshmen to Nobel Prize winners – sometimes gets caught up in that struggle.

When someone writes a weak paper or an unpublishable book or article, we usually diagnose immaturity or a lack of skill, experience, or discipline. We think of language as a tool, like a hammer or screwdriver. When something goes wrong with the writing process, it’s obviously our fault: Tools are lifeless and inert.

I’m going to argue otherwise. One of the most important insights from postmodernism is that language has powers of its own, along with a strong will that can resist our fiercest efforts to keep it under control.

I’ve often begun a writing task with a clear idea of what I wanted to write – only to see it wander off into parts unknown, despite my best efforts to steer it. Writers face this struggle all the time, and you can see the evidence in the unfinished projects that clutter our hard drives.

I want to focus on this problem today because I think we often misdiagnose our writing problems, blaming ourselves (or, if we’re English instructors, our students) for a problem that’s much bigger than we are.

As evidence, I’m going to cite a therapeutic tool favored by many psychologists: Freewriting about a problem.

A friend sought professional help in shoring up a foundering relationship. Her therapist told her to fold a piece of paper and write all the positives on one side, the negatives on the other side.

My friend was furious. She was paying $100 for advice that her mother could have given her! Besides, my friend had been thinking about the pros and cons for months. The exercise was clearly a waste of time.

But the therapist insisted, and my friend folded her piece of paper and started writing. Fifteen minutes later she looked up, astonished. “I’m breaking up with him,” she told the therapist. The act of writing released so many insights that she saw clearly – for the first time – what she needed to do.

I find it useful to think of writing as a kind of archeological dig – you never know what you’re going to find. Spoken words can work the same way: How often have you been astonished to hear a new idea or fresh insight coming out of your mouth in the middle of a conversation?

But there’s a downside too. That tendency to go deeper and farther is wonderful if you’re on a search for the unknown – but it can create huge problems if you’re aiming for a sharp focus.

The next time you’re stuck in the middle of a writing task, take a moment to ask yourself whether the problem lies not with you but with the mysterious medium of language. It’s even ok to get angry for a moment or two with Cadmus, the god of writing (and a lot better than getting mad at yourself!).





2 thoughts on “Struggling with Language

  1. Anne Windsor

    Thanks, Jean. Great example with the therapist’s exercise. In addition, I think that the very act of writing, especially when it is actually done with pen and paper, combines both mind and body in ways that pondering or speaking do not.

    Thanks for the good advice to beware language’s ability to open a proverbial can of worms — great for juicy stories… not so good for term papers.

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