When I was young and fragile, I could never find the right words. Words seemed obtuse and overbearing, letters became hieroglyphics to my infant eyes, and my body could not be encouraged to engage with Where the Wild Things Are or Clifford: The Big Red Dog. It seemed tedious. And for a child preoccupied with so much, how could I escape the nine to five drudgery called daycare to begin developing my skill set for the workforce?
Words were enemies. My family giggled as I stumbled through pronouncing my favourite hockey team — the “Phil-a-dul-phu-la” Flyers, as I routinely misspoke — or invented new idioms. I really wasn’t the sharpest fork in the barn. The words never came. Instead, they scampered across the page, mingling among sentences at a Friday night social. First cranes were birds, then in the next line they were machines. The rose was a flower, but also what I did in the morning. Flowers in the morning? New languages made further mockery of the matter. At Sunday dinners I would sit in ecstasy as the settled-steam rose over the rafters in a gentle wave. “Hello,” my aunts would greet behind a blissful smile, and ciao became the topic of the late evening. I scribbled and scrawled endlessly through my frustration, with my chicken-scratch darting through the page and flirting with meaning, but never finding its desired truth. It was hopeless. I was lost for words.
In grade three we began to learn about astronomy. New words surrounded old ideas, backing them into a corner and bullying them into submission. I was only eight, but bits of pearl grabbed me in a way leather-bound-covers couldn’t. I wanted to return to Chilliwack beach. Instead, I got ‘supernovas’ and ‘galaxies.’ The universe had an order, apparently. The Big Bang launched Latin characters across the Milky Way, and I was stuck here, in a sweltering classroom on an absorbing summer afternoon, trying to grasp them. “The universe was at my fingertips.” If I can’t navigate through the slits and spans on the page, how can I articulate my astronaut navigating the galaxy?
Ms. Page threw up an image on the screen. “Here,” she tapered off to build the cheap suspense, “is Man’s first image of the world.” It looked nothing like the blue blobs covered with green jigsaw pieces I had been sketching all my life.
“That can’t be right!” I quickly chimed, knowing my fact versus the proclaimed fiction.
“Why, Michael, what on earth do you mean?”
“That’s not the Earth. See, I’ve drawn the Earth here,” I furiously sketched the undeniable-image of the blue planet upon which we stood and held it up, as if I had tamed the lion and conquered the kingdom. It was an everyman truth. Our planet was our planet.
“Michael, that’s just a cartoon version. A depiction. It’s not real. It’s how we express it,” she explained, with a curious whimsey behind her voice. My adamant rigor faded into the artist’s Eureka. An approximation: this is what I had once understood. A half-truth held the complicated reality’s spot in line. After school, I ran home, snatching and plucking the gifts of my available landscape, and each element of nature donned a new shape and focus. The green became jade, envy, and serpentine. I ripped a fistful of dew-covered grass into my hand, and scurried home in a dogmatic fervour. I wrote in a psychopathy, of what the grass was, what it did, and why it mattered. The words lurched at me, though in a childish and illegitimate way. The world held my full attention.
I spent unhealthy hours gazing at frozen moons or sullen trees. I was a literature-luddite turned bubbling writer. The ideas were impalpable, naive, but they were rich and genuine too. My creative pursuit drew up new understandings, as I efforted to encapsulate the unspeakable into the unforgettable. ‘When aliens come,’ I supposed, ‘my work will bring us together.’ My mother was endlessly relieved. I went from a quiet, incommunicable, and stubborn child into a jukebox of creativity. I wrote of silk blankets basking in-front of glowing flames on smooth Saturdays. I wrote about my fraudulent fear of monsters behind closets and under beds. I wrote of rugs tucked beneath furniture with imprints forever marking them like the imprint I wanted. I had thought.
As I aged, the rug was tugged, then ripped, from under me. My words were my grounding, but they were the wrong words. Today, I was reminded of my once-vibrant curiosity. But it is forgotten. Language has gone from a tool to ingest the colossal and the immense to an ill-fitted machine that clunks, stutters, and spats. They tell us, “we need to fix our words, ‘precision over freedom,’ to mean what we mean.” Say what you want to say. George Orwell, a favourite author of mine, eloquently describes the failures of language in his essay, Politics and The English Language. He shows how language is convoluted, filled to the brim with aberrations, and soaked in craziness. Here’s Orwell:
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Orwell’s comment is parody, but it’s spot on. I am working to write for the right reasons. Creative pursuits now dominate and decimate academic efforts in terms of quality and frequency. Poetry is how we express ourselves, but is apparently quelled by the ‘vast utility’ of academic writing. Academic writing is sloppy, and may as well be considered in its dotage. Each discipline comes with its set of defined vocabulary to umbrella its poor ideas and underthought aspirations from the rain of legitimate criticism. Ken Robinson stormed the TED stage with a brilliant speech entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity? where his dry humor aids his expression of this unspoken subject ‘ranking,’ where sciences out-value the arts. This idea is even more ubiquitous. It is a parasite that is killing writing also, with essay language overtaking offbeat and outspoken creative phrasing.
I’ve only begun to remember the journey of loving to write. Rediscover the particularities, flirt with drifting dreams, and uncover the veiled mysteries. It is your imagination that will drag you into free-thought, but only if you’re willing to accept the words. They’re out there, but you must find them.