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Perhaps you’re uninformed or perhaps you’re already hip to this series of blog posts, but here’s the idea: the four of us Charlotte Street folks who are here for writing or writing-adjacent projects got together one January Thursday to discuss… well, it wasn’t exactly clear in advance, but the thought was we’d talk about writing or writing-adjacent topics. We’d record the conversation, maybe transcribe some parts, and write blog posts about it. We could do what we wanted. Or, as Jason’s email put it, we could “transcribe/edit/transmute/regurgitate/re-purpose/retell/misread our conversation.”
Jason was the first one to write his blog post. Why not? After all, he was the one who initiated the project, the one who came up with the idea, scheduled a time for us to meet and got a friend of his to run the audio through a transcription program once we were done. His post contained this passage:
The question passes to DV.
JP: Who are you?
DV: We are all writers.
DV: I’ll talk about writing.
DV: I’m not a writer who’s usually talking about writing.
My first reaction: I didn’t say that. How could I have? I love talking about writing and language and basically do it nonstop and direct it toward anyone within earshot.
Then again. I have been known to be bashful/shy/reticent from time to time. Was it possible that I was just a little nervous? This would have been the first time I’d spoken during this conversation. Perhaps I was bluffing, waiting for hands to be revealed, standing by as the literary wolves ravaged each other over Oxford commas. (Kidding. Mostly.)
Or maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe Jason was misreading the conversation for fun. To get to the truth he wanted to tell. That’s why we make up stories, isn’t it? The encroaching thunderstorm reflecting a character’s mood, a green light symbolizing everything our hero cannot have, the telltale thumping of a heart rendering the narrator’s guilt unbearable, it’s psychological truth, sure, but not truth in the physical, knowable way of the world. Misreading the world – and its relation to our lives – is what creates metaphors: our own attempt to make correlation equal causation, to derive symbols from nature, to create meaning out of coincidence. To fictionalize life, you have to misread life, don’t you?
There was only one way to figure out both what I said and Jason’s intentions: Listen to the recording.
Here is a more accurate (or maybe only “more accurate”) transcription of that part of the conversation:
JP: Who are you?
DV: Excellent question. I am someone who would like to announce, like, for the record that Lucas is wearing houndstooth chukka’s which are, like, rather splendid and he deserves to be acknowledged and credited for that.
LW: More of a herringbone, I might –
MH: We are all writers who will do whatever it takes not to talk about writing. Oh God.
DV: I think I’ll use that. I don’t naturally talk about writing because I think it’s, uh, a little bit of an amorphous process. I don’t want to use this-the term “mystical” but I think language is one of those things, like maybe DNA that its process and development have gone on for so long – like just naturally, like, literally like 10,000 years at least – that’s it’s impossible to trace the roots, to fully understand it.
So, yeah. So I’m not a writer who’s usually good at talking about writing, one who’s fascinated by both language and narrative structure. So I guess, in like, the poetry or fiction question, if that’s a question, like I’m like fiction because it has both things.
I learned a few things. For instance, I say “like” a lot. An embarrassing amount, it turns out. “So” too[i]. But more importantly, I start my answer with what I consider a lie:
I don’t naturally talk about writing because I think it’s, uh, a little bit of an amorphous process.
Lie might be too strong of a word, perhaps “accidental, in-the-moment falsehood” is more correct. Because, as I go on to say – both above in this essay and later in the same recording – I can talk about writing all day. I do talk about it naturally. I’ve gotten into arguments over the usefulness of semicolons, how to swear effectively in prose and the ways in which metaphor works. And contrary to my recorded self, the one who said, So I’m not a writer who’s usually good at talking about writing, I promise you this: I am fucking great at talking about writing.
But that’s not the only lie in the transcript. The others are harder to discern, more difficult to parse. They’re the things the transcript can’t catch. Not quite lies of omission, the words are all there, but lies of incompleteness. They’re my pauses, the way my pitch and volume inflect meaning, the way I draw out words, stretching “rather” into “raaaaaaather.” The crosstalk between us. The way I say “houndstooth” and Lucas mumbles a corrective “herringbone.” What does it mean when a transcript can’t catch the meanings imbedded in tone, enunciation, pitch and volume? When those speaking (me!) acknowledge that what they’ve said is an incomplete, flawed or flat-out wrong version of what they really think? In short, what is it that a transcript can do and what does that tell us about writing and language?
Big questions, but maybe I already answered them. After all, I said this:
I don’t want to use this-the term “mystical” but I think language is one of those things, like maybe DNA that its process and development have gone on for so long – like just naturally, like, literally like 10,000 years at least – that’s it’s impossible to trace the roots, to fully understand it.
All of these transcriptions/edits/transmutations/regurgitatations/re-purposings/retellings/misreadings are important to language – I think – because they are language. It strikes us as odd to think of it that way – in our lived experience language is one thing, permanent, nearly immutable. Words have definitions. English means what it means. There are correct and incorrect ways to say things.
And our lived experience with language is accurate in every way that matters… except one. Language isn’t permanent. It is mutable. Perhaps language is a more reflective of a specific time and a place than anything else. Understand it from a 10,000-year lens and suddenly it becomes clear why you barely understood Shakespeare in high school, why you don’t know how to use “whom,” why you think “on fleek” is an annoying thing to say and why your parents don’t know what “on fleek” means. Accents – southern drawls, Irish lilts, shrimps on barbies – are a similar phenomenon. Other languages could be thought of as accents spread across hundreds – even thousands – of years.
To bring it all together: This push and pull between our lived experience with language and its evolution is why I can say something – on the recording, in the transcript or in Jason’s retelling – and not recognize it. (“I didn’t say that.”) But it doesn’t matter if I can recognize it. Because even if I’m not cognizant of it I am – as are you, your friends and everyone everywhere – part of the evolution of language. It’ll take a long time to take hold – centuries, most likely – but the evolutions are already in progress. Which means to transcribe/edit/ transmute/regurgitate/re-purpose/retell/misread language is to create it, a word at a time.
[i] When used like this these two words – and others – are known as discourse markers. A 2014 study found that they were indicators of more conscientious thought and conversation. Yes, I got self-conscious enough about that to look it up. Duh.