Word Storage: Creating Experience for the Future

Many of us have heard or said these words: “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”  Soft words, vulnerable words.  Such words whisper the necessity of those bonds that sustain us while at the same time admitting of their frailty — as far as things go here on Earth.  On Earth, time wears at us as if we were clay in its riverbanks.  Also, unforeseeable events shoot bolts from the blue that alter or end our earthly future.  When we are gone, what remains?  Gravesites that circumstances may also conspire to sweep away; that remarkable willing suspension of disbelief by which we look forward to resurrection and reuniting with departed loved ones; intricate genetic stories that run backward through time, and that might, if folks are fortunate, unfold into the human future.

As a species, we have one other outstanding characteristic: over millennia we have begun to amass wealth in the form of recorded words.  Perhaps for the same reasons people spin their epic genetic tales — that is, out of love and longing — we developed a drive to erect and stock warehouses and cathedrals with durable and exalted language.  Among such word-hoards we may perhaps find lost loved ones.

“But,” many rightly complain, “reading or listening to her words is not the same as having her with us.”

This is true.  People communicate not only through words but also through touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste.  All these integrate to raise our language to whatever coherence we achieve.  Yet recorded language — especially the best of it — contains a will to live that may run a course parallel to that of the genetic will.  It may even be possible a person’s language bears imprints and information resembling what’s contained in DNA. Strands of a person’s sentences may retain the wisdom of linguistic forebears as well as keys able to unlock newly forming gateways into secret gardens of unfolding human potential.

Another complaint against language: Some think it an inadequate means for capturing experience.  But any failure in language here may lie in the belief that language’s purpose is to fix or arrest experience so that later we may extract its full effect, as if any experience is a known quantity of minnows to be scooped up in a net then salted and dried for later use.  Suppose that isn’t how language works.  Suppose we fiddle a bit with this belief about language’s inadequacies: Language is an inadequate means of creating experience.  Now, de-negating it may not trouble us so much: Language is an adequate means of creating experience, perhaps even one of the most important means.  Capturing … creating: Two different actions having two completely different intentions and effects.

In the first case, language fails to pin down experience to our satisfaction.  Very resonant in this belief — sometimes even more resonant than any surviving captured meaning itself — is an uneasy sense of loss, a feeling that something has escaped us.  In the second case, language creates experience, which means it is experience.  As with other kinds of experience we may have more or less satisfying adventures in language, but “capturing” experience is not the concern of language whose thrust is to create experience.  The life-changing insights I experience reading the words of authors dead for decades or centuries occur as something that happens between their language and mine.  Such “being with” authors can’t be canned, corralled, or controlled. 

It interests and comforts me to know the words I put out there in whatever form they take — blog posts and comments included — will provide my children possibilities to interact with me in places I can’t prescribe, predict, or control.  When they meet me in my words, there will be no “capturing” or attempts to capture — only new outbursts of experience facilitated through the workings of human language.  Anyway, how would one go about capturing experience with something that is itself an experience?  Maybe it’s natural that we are unable to capture meaning because as big as life is, it stands to reason that we aren’t aware of everything going on during any given experience.  Get used to it!  Maybe this idea of “capturing” experience is an outdated metaphor harking back to the hunter-gatherer way of making ends meet.

Or … maybe not.  Aboriginal Australians believe that the wild Australian landscape thrums with vibrations, jiva or guruwari, seed vitality, the resonant blastosphere of the present containing, like a seed, past and future simultaneously.  Language, too, has jiva or guruwari — creative energy that has traveled out of the past on its way to the future.  Thank you, Aboriginal Australians, for such a wonderful metaphor.

I write because language opens up new possibilities for me here and now as I push the boundaries of what I think I know.  I want my kids to tap into this energy — this languaging — in recorded words in general and in my words in particular.  I want this as much as I desire for their good health to continue, for their intelligence to magnify, for their overall beauty to blossom, and for them to find within other genetic qualities such as combined to lead to their creation in the first place.  When events conspire however they may to usher me off this Earth, I want my family to know what to do: look for me in my words. Make of them what you will, but please, be reasonable.  I hope that I will have left such words behind as to meet both the immediate and long-term needs of friends and family.

We live in a remarkable world, where nowadays our language may be cached without any special efforts on our parts, especially here on the Internet.  What a great service to our collective and individual futures.

And, “capture experience,” indeed.  Let it live wild, I say.    

12 thoughts on “Word Storage: Creating Experience for the Future”

  1. I was in the middle of writing this post as a response to Laraine’s untimely passing when I learned of conservationist Steve Irwin’s accidental death. My daughter has been planning to go to Australia and work at his zoo since we we first started watching his shows, when she was very little.

    A sad weekend.

  2. When I first started to explore my Mormon experience through writing, my main worry was that someone who was deeply involved with the parts of my life I was writing about would accuse me of misrepresenting the events or interpreting them badly. Especially since I was trying to bring a new interpretation to events that already had an accepted interpretation.

    I had this idea that the writer was supposed to (whip out your Norton 18th Century Lit Book!), as Pope said, “hold a mirror up to nature – or religion, or family, or whatever. But I like your approach better. My writings are a creation from the raw material of life. Authoritative only insofar as they reflect what I was thinking at the time. Approaching my words as documentary probably isn’t very constructive. Thinking of them as my subjective attempt at make A meaning out of life, is probably better. That way, the beleaguered reader is focusing more on why I’m writing the way I’m writing, rather than fuming about my misconceptions.

  3. Stephen said:
    I had this idea that the writer was supposed to (whip out your Norton 18th Century Lit Book!), as Pope said, “hold a mirror up to nature – or religion, or family, or whatever.

    Mirrors have their uses, but when we talk about the relationship between writing and framed glass, it’s windows all the way. Pope’s little metaphor is clever (and distracting), but if he had said that the writer’s role is to knock holes in walls and install windows, improving both interior lighting and access to distant views, thus helping people see there’s something beyond their structures, we might be farther along in our literary and cultural development. Of course, the catch is that the writer ought to always be on the lookout in his/her own structure for new places to install windows. The experience he/she gets knocking holes in his/her own wall makes for less trouble with those pesky motes and beams.

  4. Patricia,

    You ideas about writing creating experience, rather than preserving it, is a very interesting one to me because of the difficulties of being a writer and a parent.

    You’re right that writing creates experience and that that experience can be reinterpreted by however many people read teh work. The thing is, sometimes I notice that I let real experience pass me by because I”m busy creating written experience. This especially bothers me when I’m not paying attention to my children in favor of writing.

    I remember reading about a lady who spent the last few weeks of her life writing birthday cards to her daughter so that she’d have something from her after she was dead (cancer). I wonder if I’d do the same thing. If I only had a little time left, would I create future experiences for my children (and therefore have to be away from them), or would I take the real experience I could get with them while I had the chance?

  5. Stephen,

    Huh! I’ve been turning these same questions over in my mind for a long time but especially recently.

    Many years ago, I had a talk with Marden Clark (father of Harlow and Dennis, among others) where I said off-handedly, “My writing is a by-product of my living.” Alarmed, Marden said, “You must never say that! Your writing should be the most important thing you do.”

    I loved and respected Marden and looked to him for advice, but this time his words fell flat for me. I loved being with people and with nature and any creative writing I did sparked and caught fire because of the sorts of adventures I had in the course of daily living. If I had been forced to choose between developing relationships with people, animals, and landscapes or developing my writing I’m pretty sure I would have dropped writing right quick.

    But back then, I didn’t have to make that choice. I was single and had time on my hands to play with people, have fun, and learn good stuff. And I had plenty of time left over to write about it all. Not just in my poems etc. but in my journals.

    Then I married and had children and did have to make the choice. Except for a few drafts of poems I never had time to finish, I went cold turkey with my writing habits after the babies started coming. In my family, the childhood stuff went extreme at times and I thought I’d never be able to write again. But if I had abandoned my disabled daughter in favor of my writing she may well have failed to develop as much of a life as she has. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have a pretty clean conscience about stuff like that. And I may be wrong, but I like to think that all the time I gave my children back when they needed it has made it possible for them to leave me alone now when I’m working and not resent my shouts of “QUIET!” or “STOP THAT! I’M TRYING TO WORK!” or bouts of psychological absence when I’m in my “zone.”

    That said, I muse sometimes (okay — I fret) that while my 2 “normal” kids are growing up and giving me more room, the continued care and feeding of my disabled child will in the end prevent my building up a critical mass. I guess we’ll see. We have to make our choices, do our best, and accept responsibility for how things turn out, looking forward to a time when we can do better. I know that plenty of writers (and other sorts of consumed types) use their writing to avoid taking responsibility for other aspects of their lives, but IMO such writers will always produce inferior work. Why? Because the underlying hungers of their lives will growl in the bowels of their language, whereas language that has given care multiplies and replenishes the earth wherever it touches it.

    BTW, I hate either-ors. If I only had a little time left I’d do as much of both — create future experiences in language as well as live with my family in the present — as I could. I might lean more toward living with my family in the present. But I’d certainly need time to work out my feelings about my impending demise in writing. I’d even cut back on watching reruns of _Law and Order_ in order to get some extra writing time in if I had to.

  6. Well, I think you’ve done a pretty good job so far. I was finally able to relenquish the$25 to buy Petroglyph Murders (I got a new, much better paying, job) and that read is going great. I also love Flying in Enclosed Spaces. I noticed that one of the Mormon Lit classes at UVSC had your essay as required reading.

    Responding to your comment that people who haven’t put real work into their real lives often turn out work that falls flat, I think for the most part you my be right. However, I also wonder if that hunger you describe doesn’t become the muse they follow. Perhaps they write about hunger, while other writers focus on becoming filled.

    For example, one of the writing teachers at my graduate school wrote beautifully and perceptively about humans and their relationships. But in real life, she was cantakerous, childish, and really no fun to be around. I wonder if her writing was a way to redeem an otherwise sad and destructive existence. She created a space where she could do good in the world.

    The most interesting thought you’ve fostered in me is how have your “created experiences” taken care of you? I ask this because one of the main reasons I write is to be in conversation with people. Back before the advent of the blog, I’d publish stuff here and there and get really excited about it. But then it would hit the page and I’d never hear from it again. It would just sort of sink into an ever-growing pile of magazines.

    The best writing experience I had was when I published The Weight of Priesthood in Dialogue and Levi Peterson did a little interview thingy with me on By Common Consent. The questions he gave me (some of which were written by another person) were so probing and perceptive that I knew the writer had really read my piece. The questions brought me even deeper into a piece i thought I knew inside and out. After I answered the questions (it took me a whole weekend to do so), the people on BCC really made me glad that I had taken all those months to write that essay. We had a great conversation that left me feeling filled.

    That’s why I write: to get the conversation going. To bring us a level deeper into our thoughts. To do my best to nourish other people, and to draw out their genius. Sometimes I succeed, sometime I fail.

    So I’m interested, have your created experiences spawned other created experiences that have returned to you?

  7. “However, I also wonder if that hunger you describe doesn’t become the muse they follow. Perhaps they write about hunger, while other writers focus on becoming filled.”

    Good point. I failed to differentiate between hungers. The kind of hunger I was speaking of above is destructive hunger. I wrote about dangerous language at length in my series of blog posts, “The Working Language of Good and Evil.” Part I may be found here: http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=153.

    “The most interesting thought you’ve fostered in me is how have your “created experiences” taken care of you? I ask this because one of the main reasons I write is to be in conversation with people. Back before the advent of the blog, I’d publish stuff here and there and get really excited about it. But then it would hit the page and I’d never hear from it again. It would just sort of sink into an ever-growing pile of magazines.”

    I guess the general estimation of how many people read blogs without responding to them (without joining the conversation) is 80% plus. IMO reading, even w/out speaking up, is joining the conversation. But I think I understand what you’re getting at. You wish to know folks are getting those messages in bottles you’re tossing overboard, and the only way you’ll know they are is if people come around looking for you after the waves have carried your words to their shores.

    You’re looking for community. I’m looking for that, too, though perhaps not as intensely as you are. I was intense about it when I was younger. In fact, I had a ravenous appetite for it and would sometimes say something provocative to start conversations and ignite community. Now I’m easier with the idea that I may never know what my words have gone off and done without my being aware. As long as they aren’t taken out of context to support a tyrannical or extremist agenda. But I don’t think I’ve written anything that would interest a tyrant or extremist.

    The main thing my creative experiences do for me is take me to the edges of what I think I know. Then as I reach to find a way to get to the other side of what I know — that is, to get over to what I don’t know — language comes through for me as my main vehicle of transport. I don’t mind crossing some stretches alone.

    There’s a quote from George Santayana I like. Forgive me if it seems a bit overdone:

    “At best, the true philosopher can fulfill his mission very imperfectly, which is to pilot himself, or at most a few voluntary companions who may find themselves in the same boat. It is not easy for him to shout or address a crowd; he must be silent for long seasons; for he is watching stars that move slowly and in courses that it is possible though difficult to foresee; and he is crushing all things in his heart as in a winepress, until his life and their secret flow out together.”

    You can substitute whatever word you think appropriate for that word “philosopher” — “thinker,” “writer,” “artist.”

    So, “Have your created experiences spawned other created experiences that have returned to you?” Yes. And no. And I don’t know. But I’m not as dumb as I used to be! I hope that counts for something.

  8. I really like that Santayana quote. I gotta get off my intellectual hiney (or else quit my job – but then how would I buy books?) and read more of his stuff. I listened to Will Durrant’s history of philsophy and was very intrigued by Santayana.

    You say something that rings true with me as well. Right now blogging is the fastest way for me to get responses to my little bottles of writing. The problem is, blogging, by its very nature, is usually little thought out. Bloggers aren’t known for putting weeks or months into a post. You don’t go read blogs to be blown away by the writing, or to have your head turned inside out by someone who was willing to put real time into their thoughts.

    Writing for publication is much more intensive. But also tremendously rewarding on a personal level, as you say. You’re right, it stretches us out. It brings us to the edge. And, often the most important journeys we take are taken on our own.

    Thanks for all your responses, Patricia. It’s very luxurious having one of my favorite authors in such close communication.

  9. Oh, I was going to qualify that “little thought out” blogposts assertion. Your posts are always a treasure trove. I just have to pick a paragraph, and something amazing pops its head up between your beautiful metaphors.

    (stop it Steve, you’re gushing now – it’s embarassing)

  10. Well, just for that, here’s another quote from Santayana for you:

    “This is a dark age for the spririt, an age of secret preparation. We mustn’t expect our people to understand their own predicament for decades, perhaps for centuries.”

    From _The Last Pilgrim_
    by George Santayana

  11. Thanks for this thought-inspiring post, and the fascinating discussion afterwards. I agree that language has tremendous creative power. And I’m glad for the internet so as to peek in on conversations like this. I think the web is, or at least can be, a great boon for language and community.

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