Tag Archives: language

I’m Almost Fairly Certain

It’s about what we don’t let in. That’s how I sometimes think about the things I don’t think about. Don’t as in can’t, not as in don’t want to—the former being incompetence or limitation, the latter being sloth.

One thing I know nothing about is swimming in one of those natural water holes with mountain water running into them. Or in the water that surrounds huge hunks of rock in the middle of somewhere. I don’t even know the names of those formations, though I do know what a butte is. Also, a saguaro cactus. Mesa is the Spanish word for table, that I know. My own name means something when pronounced in Spanish, but the words are nonsensical. This is something that embarrasses me a little bit. It’s like meeting a foreigner whose name, when pronounced in English, is the word armpit or jelly.

Sometimes I’ll be at a dinner party and someone will say something amazing that I don’t know and would never have thought to think about. I hear the amazing thing and wonder how long I will remember it. If you think about these amazing things, you will discover that all of them are linked to everything else; everything is a body of knowledge, and has a history and a future. In 3015, someone will say the same amazing thing. Someone back in 1642 also said that amazing thing (accounting for cultural and time-period differences). Nothing is new, which is of course not a new idea.

The other night I sat down specifically to read an article and learn something new—maybe something to save up for a dinner party or a horrible wedding reception dinner, trapped at a circular table with the second cousins no one has seen for years. And I did—Providence, Rhode Island, is almost twenty-five percent Hispanic, and of those Hispanics, most are Dominican. Is this interesting? Better to store up the thing I learned about LSD, but then I suppose I would risk being judged as someone who thinks about LSD.

If we are what we think, are we what we know? And are we thus what we don’t know? Someone should do a study on this so that not so much of it would be not known. Maybe someone has, but I don’t know about it.

I have noticed that the things I don’t think about take up more room in my mind. Things that aren’t there are like the white space in a poem: nothing is there except for everything. The nothing holds the everything together.

I’m older than I once was—this, at least, is provable. One thing I do know is that the brain changes along with the body, but the only reason I know this is because I happen to have a brain and a body, so I have exclusive access to a primary source.

I learned a new recipe the other day, and also the other day I made up my own recipe, which tasted delicious. I have no idea what I did.

I definitely don’t know how my car works, nor do I know the details of most systems—governmental or utility or finance—that hinder or enhance my life every day. The biggest problem is when a child is around. Children ask very good and obvious questions, seventy percent of which I cannot answer. At one point, I, too, must have asked questions like that but now can barely come up with one. Or maybe it’s that I have so many questions, such as what are all the workings of the above systems, that they just stay packed in somewhere because knowing the answers—I’m sure of this—won’t help me much.

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, and you’d think that this would be a subject of great interest to me, but it isn’t. Plus, the moment I begin reading about it, I’m lost and bored, and start playing computer solitaire.

Someday, computers will know everything about us. They will know our mood at any given moment, our desires, our diet, our behavioral and geographical patterns. They will have all of this data. They will be like the annoying party guest times two million.

The Internet knows a lot of things, and it isn’t shy. It knows so much that I don’t know which part to listen to. Knowing how to know something like that seems to presuppose a certain body of knowledge that I don’t have. It’s like being in a forest without a compass. The people who know a lot of things are the ones who would just make their own compass. But most smart people, such as art historians, cannot do this.

I find that sometimes things I could easily learn, in theory, just won’t go into my head. It is like part of the mind is a tyrant and won’t allow certain things to be known. Or known only tangentially, such as when you’re pretty sure you know something but cannot remember how, and therefore just shrug it off in order to reserve room for the new recipe, which for sure you know because you have assembled the ingredients on the counter.

I’m positive that next week I will not know certain things I thought I’d never forget. Or worse: I will not know things that I will realize I didn’t know even the week before. In five years, I should know more than I do now, but I can say for sure that this year I know less than I did five years ago because I have to keep looking up the same things in books. Also, I sometimes confuse my nighttime dreams with reality, such that sometimes when I say something or think something, I am not sure how I know it, and sometimes I assume that what I am talking about actually happened, but then I panic and realize that I don’t know for certain that I am certain.

The worst is when I am telling someone something that I know and I begin to understand that the person already knows what I am talking about, and I realize that what I didn’t know until very recently is something that is probably common knowledge, which raises another related concern, which is how it is that I couldn’t have known what I recently didn’t know? There are so many obvious things to know, obviously.

Collectively, knowledge is a curious thing. We know more than we ever have about everything and yet the same problems remain. Some groups that know exactly the same things come to quite different conclusions when exercising an analysis.

I was listening to an interview with a charming experimental classical composer. He knew all about music. He was asked a question about whether he feels the effect of all the other music and audiences out there encroaching on him and his art. He said he didn’t know anything about that. I just liked that he said that.

There are times when I discover that I knew something that I really could not have known; that is, I am totally correct about something I’ve never given much thought to. Who knows how I knew. Then again, I’ve been very sure about something only to find out that I was completely wrong. I will wonder how I could have been so wrong when my “right” feeling is often correct.

The things that I don’t know can bring me down. I read many informative articles that illustrate to me very clearly that by having read those articles, my knowledge about the topic has improved, but the byproduct is that I have a sense of yet another body of knowledge that eludes me.

It is easy to want to put your finger on it: “If only I knew this or that.” Such as, if your cat is missing, you’d like to know where so that you could go get the cat. My friend once had a cat that disappeared. She called a psychic, and the psychic knew where the cat was: the neighbor’s garage. The neighbor had gone on vacation, and the cat had gotten trapped in the garage.

In theory, psychics know everything, but they are not always correct, and can they really tell you what you ate every day for the last month? What I want to know is if psychics use calendars. I’m fifty percent sure that they don’t.



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Ma vie in sentences


Celebrating my new digital subscription to the New York Times and happily zooming around the site, I came upon a recent blog piece by Jhumpa Lahiri titled “My Life’s Sentences,” which is her distillation of her craft at the sentence level and a deconstruction of her process. Typically I don’t care to read about deconstruction of process—and maybe that’s strange, since I’m a writer and process is what produces not just prose but a prose of one’s own—but I liked her post, and maybe this was because of her focus on sentences.

We writers get to the final product however we get there—we can listen to how other writers get there, and maybe that knowledge will help us, but mainly, as with other types of artists, we have to find our own way. Possibly that personal, unique way (process) informs the result (product + voice) completely causally. If the former is altered, will the latter necessarily be?

I don’t know. I know that what works for me works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t, and the product is the product, and eventually it has to stop evolving and become the something that you ultimately walk away from.

But what of a discussion about sentences? These are to writers what notes are to musicians, what paint is to painters, what body parts are to dancers, and what a room’s objects are to interior designers. Taking the latter as an example: when we walk into a room that makes us feel, say, alive and stimulated, we can point to the way object, space, color, and pattern (among other things) are carefully arranged (which is to say either harmonic or purposefully discordant) to produce “sense,” to evoke the magical synchronicity of place. My experimental-composer brother once told me that, growing up, he realized that music—but more specifically, sound—“did something to [his] body.” This profound, perhaps mystical, experience of sound made him the composer he is.

Similarly, the effect that sentences (and, by extension, phrases and words) “have on my body” is responsible for my becoming the writer I am.

I did not begin with story. That is to say, although I liked stories as a child and even wrote a few (with illustrations) in grade school, my mature encounters with words, phrases, and sentences came in the form of writing poems. This was in middle school and high school, and, looking back, these early experiences formed my whole relationship with language. It was such meditative joy to lie in a quiet room and give symphonic, linguistic life to emotional impulses. Even the struggle (the search for the right word, the effect of white space or a dash, the struggle to get the “word music” exactly right) was joyous.

It was then that I, like Lahiri, could be caught anywhere with some compilation of words forming in my head, and onto that scrap of paper they went. Sometimes this random (divine?) intervention becomes the jumping-off point (or literal first line) of a work I haven’t even conceived of yet. (Is it worth pointing out that the point of biological conception happens before the mind-body is aware of it?) Sometimes the scraps of paper get scrapped. Most writers would probably agree with me when I say that the ratio of used-to-scrapped is not that important: what’s key is that the words flow, and keep flowing, because if they don’t, the body isn’t registering anything and you lose a part of yourself.

Lose how? We hear psychologists talk a lot about interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes certain personalities are continually drawn to the same kind of other personalities, and usually the context of these discussions is that the unthinking “drawing in” is hurting both people by allowing them to constantly re-enact misfortune and trauma in a futile attempt to “solve” it. The parties keep subconsciously wrestling with themselves, unable to recognize the pattern.

Like all of us struggling with dynamics and patterns, I also struggle, as a writer, with a similar confrontation—but in relation to characters and even plot. I think of this struggle as “the great wrestle” I have with any given piece of work, lately mostly fiction. The great wrestle is the frictional, anxious process of making sentences work together to create character and story. Despite now being a more mature writer, I still wander through the chaos just as I did in middle school, gathering promising pieces of half-conceived puzzles and throwing them down somewhere, forming sense out of nonsense, and not really resting until they are together both coherently and distinctively.

But the great wrestle is not just winning the fight against chaos, because as you proceed, you learn about life. The great wrestle is about learning how to think about something or someone, or some human tendency or type; it is about formulating personal and ethical internal responses; it is a constant reminder that we are all different but also exactly and maddeningly the same.

The great wrestle helps writers understand the real world, which in turn informs their fictional ones—even their fantastical ones.

And we get there word by word, sentence by sentence. The wheels keep on spinning, interpretations get re-interpreted, thoughts get thought again and again, and together they are the story of humanity.




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