Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Magic of Twenty-six

Thought: I have largely lived my life within the bounds of twenty-six letters.

Sitting in the specialist's office today, reading Louise Erdrich's essay "Two languages in Mind, But Just One in the Heart" (in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times), I was struck by something.

Well, I was struck by two things. The first was how eloquently she put her love of a second native language in harmony with writing the essay in English. The second was, when she noted how verbs and nouns differed, that most of my lived experience, and my reading experience, and my feeling experience I can express, happens within the bounds of twenty-six characters.

Thought: There are only three letters difference between "I love you" and "I hate you." Only three between "I love you" and "I loathe you."

There are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. The things we build from twenty-six letters. Novels, poems. Newspapers. All the things that come from language, our stories. Many of us live out our lives in twenty-six characters. An arbitrary number. Slightly more if we start adding accented letters so we can steal words and phrases from other tongues, for the things English has yet to find a concise way to say. More than that if we start to include punctuation, considering the mad growth of emoticons entering the language in the age of digital communications. And languages like Chinese and Japanese with their thousands of characters and nuances...but let me stick with my native tongue, and limit myself to the capacities of the twenty-six I know.

In twenty-six letters, you can read Nabokov's Lolita. King's The Stand. Stan Rice's Red to the Rind. Vampires and werewolves and eighteenth century drama and erotica and war and death and sublime beauty and bodice-ripping romance and the history of centuries and the parts of a tulip, all in twenty-six letters. My dissertation-in-progress. My grocery list. Most of my music collection.

And what mastery of those simple characters can do! I vaguely remember learning to write in those lined booklets they give (gave?) children, where the middle dashed line dictated the size of the small letters, and the solid top and bottom lines dictated where the letters should stand and reach to. The struggle to make letters look uniform. The way I beamed when I could make my own name; how my mother hung it on the refrigerator as a statement of accomplishment. The wonder at equating the words I could write with the words in the books my mother read to me. The magic of being able to name myself and everything else in an indelible way, in a way that could tell others after me "I was here, and this is what I saw, and this is what I have to say about it." This led to a love of reading what others had left behind. Which led to a love of libraries, and my eventual career.

Thought: there is only a one-letter difference between "don't" and "won't."

I am convinced there are two kinds of writers in the world - those of us born with stories to tell, and those of us with a love of language so deep that only writing, building new realities with words, gives us an outlet for it. The first kind, I think, become novelists, journalists. The second, if they never learn to really structure themselves, become poets. There are all sorts of other divisions that can be made, on different lines. But this one feels true for me - I am a poet mostly because i love language and the beauty that comes from pairing certain words, just so, without worry of how I am going to carry a plot or character development or any of those other things requiring a much deeper commitment to a story. My commitment is, as Richard Hugo might say, to the music.

And still, it comes back to those twenty-six characters, and what mighty castles and pitiful houses we can build with them.

And what happens when people are given these letters? Why, they tell stories. And their stories ring of truth, and a story written down is a story that refuses to die. A story written down outlives the bearer of the story, and killing the bearer does little to stop the spread of the story. Violence becomes less useful as a silencer, and morphs into something meaner, something smaller, a punishment that has no hope of stopping anything, a spiteful tantrum with a goal but no chance of real lasting success. These people make songs. Because when we conquer a people, we can steal their language and forcefeed them ours, but eventually, they build their stories and recast their songs. I think of the African American authors, women writers, accounts of Holocaust survivors, the war-torn, the ignored, the invisible, the exiled and dispossessed. The ones who did not, in the end, get to write the histories, but who grow to be the ones to add the details the conquerors would forget.

The story wants to be told. All we need is the will and the tools.

Thought:Give people a camera and the word will see them screaming their stories on the news, faded by next week. Give them literacy, and pen, and ink and their stories will live forever.

And so books are burned, and schools are bombed, and children are scarred and maimed. And they may have more or fewer than my twenty-six, but I would build them blocks and carve their characters. I would give them to all the parents and the children, and I would have them build stories with their languages, borrowed or stolen. I would have them build music and stories and bridges.

No wonder there are grown men in Afghanistan willing to throw acid in a young girl's face for the crime of attending school, where she might learn to read and write. Let her cook for her family, and nourish them quietly and in silence. Let her learn the feel of a weapon, perhaps to load bullets, and aim, and fire. Or to pull a cord or push a button, to detonate herself and leave her legacy splashed on bricks, to be baked dry and fade under the sun. But to allow her a pen and paper, the time to put letters together, to form words, to record her own thoughts, dreams, desires and outrages...that, my friends, is what danger is made of. *That* is what kills empires and builds nations. *That* is power.

No comments:

Post a Comment