A response to the ‘how to do things with words’ session

At the Landscape Surgery session on 15 October, we were treated to excellent presentations from Miranda Ward, Liz Haines and Katie Boxall on rather different takes on a theme of ‘how to do things with words’. I would like to take the opportunity to share some thoughts and reflections I had during the session on creativity and on language use in geography. (It is with irony that you will note the dull monotony of my prose, however; as far as writing creatively is concerned, my mind is willing but my body is weak…) What follow are personal reflections on some of the underlying themes of the talks and discussion.

Exploratory uses of words. Using words to explore. Writing the world. All phrases used yesterday. I felt an interesting lack of reflection on the imagined geographies of writing here. In what ways do we “explore” with writing? There is an idea here that writing is constitutive of ways of experiencing the world, and yet simultaneously there are geographical connotations to the ways we think about writing. And I’m not thinking here about the act of writing as embodied, or an etymologically-exact process of ‘earth-writing’ within geo(-)graphy.  My point is specifically that the very language words we use to think about creative writing and geography have a geographical bent to them.

It was the thought that writing is constitutive of worlds and experience that also made me think of lexical, accidental and semantic gaps ( see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accidental_gap ). Think of the grammatical rules where you turn a noun into a verb and vice versa—a thinker, thinks; a farmer, farms etc. But a farrier doesn’t ‘farri’. It’s not that word couldn’t exist; it’s just that it doesn’t. A related type of ‘gap’ is when a concept doesn’t have a name within a language set— for example, there is no English word for that feeling you get when you go to introduce someone and realise you’ve forgotten their name, but the scots language has it covered; tartle. Where am I going with this? (again, a geographical metaphor) It’s either a Foucaldian idea or something which I’ve made up and attributed to Foucault to legitimate my own idea, that the thoughts we are able to think, the worlds we make, are in part comprised by the language we speak. Not so much limited per se, but enabled and worked through grammatical structures, terminological limits etc.

Obviously, there are links here with some of the discussion after the talks, thinking through the idea of creativity with/in existing structures. Harriet’s point that Shakespeare sonnet’s following a particular set of idiomatic patterns and yet being ‘creative writing’ is a wonderful example of this. So it seems that when we look for creativity, there is actually a relatively small range of things to which that creativity can apply. We follow patterns of iambic pentameter, syllable counts and rhyming patterns, but this makes the sonnet all the more brilliant, in some ways- cleverly using the rules to show off the mind at work.

“ Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”

Usually, we seem to practice particular conventions. Stravinsky thought that ‘The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self’. I find myself agreeing, but only to an extent. It is having rules and conventions within linguistic/artistic domains that make things become comprehensible. The thought occurs that those considered to be the most creative are those who are able to follow most of the rules, but change something otherwise consistent. Cézanne, for example, painted in colour, with a brush, on canvas, following 99% of the conventions of others. He’s still thought of as ground-breaking, though. This thought is juxtaposed with the seeming problem of introducing ‘creativity’ into writing that needs wider recognition and legitimation as ‘good’. There is clearly, as also mentioned in the discussion, a strong politics of normality and acceptability here. Legitimacy here is framed within following certain rules. Lengthy sentences. You shouldn’t contract words; don’t do it. Subversion of such norms seems to be done by putting in extra layers of meanings, almost for the fun of it—for example, I’ve started each paragraph with a vowel, going in alphabetical order (A E I O U), mainly just for the enjoyment of seeing if I could. However, a more promising form of subversive/imaginative writing might come from changing an aspect of the writing that is being done creatively, while keeping other aspects the same. People who are retrospectively thought of as ground-breaking maybe changed too much too soon to be appreciated contemporaneously. I’m advocating a level of ‘creativity’ that isn’t comprehensive, but is, rather, comprehensible.

Giles Lindon, M.A. candidate

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