Inventing Language

I have two entirely different and diverging spiels to divulge about this topic. The first, which I’ll probably (forget to) talk about later, is inspired by Dr. Eric Levi’s post about changing the culture of medicine by changing the words we use when we talk to each other.

The second, which I’ll talk about now, has to do with the way we produce and consume Jamaican literature. I say Jamaican specifically, because I think the Caribbean on a whole is doing much better with producing stories that are told in the language of the people. But I can’t shake the feeling that as Jamaicans we aren’t quite there yet.

Prolific writers like Erna Brodber and Kei Miller (among many, many others) must be commended for following the ample footsteps of Miss Lou and putting our dialect on an international stage. But when I read The Last Warner Woman (Miller) or Nothing’s Mat (a recent release by Brodber) I don’t feel like I’m hearing the voice of the man or woman on the street. The dialogue and narration tend to feel like a weirdly off-brand version of Jamaican dialect, the distinction growing when they employ the use of Patois. It’s not that they use Patois wrong (because it’s a language with its own rules and I’m very adamant about that but I should probably leave that argument for another time) it’s just that it doesn’t feel right.

Of course I might be judging their writing too harshly. It’s much easier for me to say that Tamika Gibson captures the essence of the Trini accent perfectly in her YA novel Dreams Beyond the Shore because I don’t live in Trinidad and have no reference for the nuances of their everyday conversations. But I know what I expect Jamaicans to sound like, and the bar I set might be too high to realistically reach on the page.

Another reason for my discomfort with our language in print might be that the sounds and phrases I hear in Montego Bay are noticeably (albeit only slightly) different from the turns of phrase used in Kingston or other parts of the island. So maybe Miller and Brodber are staying true to their own ears, while alienating mine.

In either case the point remains that I have yet to read a Jamaican novel that rings true with authenticity*. It either feels like I’m watching Jamaica through the eyes of a foreigner or like I am the foreigner with strange and altered expectations for the writing. It doesn’t help that most Jamaican writers live abroad, and I have often wondered if it is easier to write home from the Diaspora or if the distance does something to the translation. As if in their habit of making our language and culture more palatable for the foreign audience it loses the vivre that makes it appeal to the local one.

Where does all of this thinking leave me? Tamika Gibson mentioned in an interview that she wrote the award-winning manuscript because she wanted Trinidadian youngsters to have a book that was in their language. Growing up all the stories she read were about foreign places and foreign people and she didn’t want that to continue.

Neither do I. But as I grapple with the idea of writing an authentically Jamaican story I recognize that my struggle is in the physical act of putting one word after the other. Having read so many novel and stories and poems generated by a largely cosmopolitan author base certain phrases and descriptions spring readily to mind. Certain combinations of words naturally trip out of my fingers, but none of these fit our local setting.

There’s no set or pre-defined way to describe Montego Bay because it just hasn’t been described often enough. So the task that rests with the writer who talks about home is really to build the language brick by brick in a slow meticulous operation. Because it’s never really been done before so you have to pay attention to get it right.

It’s the difference between moving into a densely populated neighbourhood where all the houses have been around for centuries and moving into a neighbourhood where all your neighbours are still building the houses from scratch. It’s grunt work, fantastic work, and it will take elbow grease, grit and determination. Luckily, we’ve got those in spades.

Chasing Creativity

The muse of inspiration is a very elusive fellow. The mole in Whack-A-Mole comes to mind, or that crafty Bugs escaping poor Elmer Fudd. Maybe it senses my subconscious’s mixed feelings towards creativity (like, why did I choose such violent analogies?) but whatever the reason inspiration is certainly not sleeping in my bed at nights.

Of course, if being inspired isn’t part your day job, it’s much harder to clear the cobwebs from your boxed up dusty mind at whatever odd times you can snatch to first be inspired then find the time and will and consistency to write or paint or choreograph. If you’re not in a state of continuous and conscious open-mindedness (as, for example, in my day job where being closed off happens whether you want it to or not) your task is that much harder.

My problem isn’t getting inspired though. I frequently think of topics I’d like to talk about at length, or story ideas to get on paper (someday) but at the exact moment of inspirational breakthrough I am nowhere near pen or paper or laptop. I’m in a taxi, or about to head out to work, or in the middle of seeing a patient and my brain goes ‘We’ll just file it away for later’ and it goes the way of the Dodo.

(I cannot be the only person whose brain does this).

The obvious solutions are to jot down a quick line on my phone so I can remember at least what I was so inspired about. Or to walk around with a voice recorder (or, again, use the one on my phone. Ha.). But, that quick line on my phone often fails to capture the essence, the vivre, of my brief excitement. The line goes dead and hangs limply in black pixels, mocking me with its wasted potential. Repeat ad nauseam.

Perhaps the real solution is to quit my day job and roam the streets, laptop or notepad in hand, digging for inspiration like a coal miner: grubby, starving and desperately grateful for the light of the sun.

Engage Me. Engage, Me.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that human beings love interaction. It’s one of those inescapable facts of life, like me quoting Jane Austen. We like interaction in all its forms: good publicity, bad publicity, likes on Facebook, retweets on Twitter, and comments on WordPress

Yes, comments on WordPress. Nothing feeds a blogger’s greedy little soul (and writers are always greedy for recognition) more than having people respond (thoughtfully, cleverly, desperately) to what they write. And in this age of instant gratification, no one is sitting at home waiting for fan mail. So it’s disheartening to write something that goes unnoticed and unremarked upon. It simply means that as a writer you’re . . . unremarkable. But this is not to be borne!

The internet is teeming with advice on how to write more engaging blog content. 16.1 million articles, to be precise. It’s a bit overwhelming, to say the least. And I can’t quite convince myself that it’s not all one big scam.

‘Listen to me,’ they’re all shouting ‘I’ve got the best advice on the web’. Maybe they do, they’re all saying the same thing. Do search engine optimization, host polls, ask questions, be witty, have great titles. All good advice. And yet a niggling feeling in the bottom of the stomach at the back of my head (there is in fact a stomach at the back of my head; it’s what digests the words) leaves me skeptical.

And the simple reason is this: all the bloggers I love to read don’t look like they’re following any of this advice.

I don’t read many (any) professional blogs; they’re all little bits and pieces of some suburban housewife/working mother’s life (yes, my demographic confuses me). I don’t see my suburban demographic carefully selecting their titles to pull in more readers, or liberally sprinkling keywords throughout their writing or even asking questions most of the time. Or maybe they do and make it look so effortless it’s unnoticeable.

Mostly what they do is write interesting, funny, or heartwarming stories about their lives. Or share pictures of Paris or their cats. Or talk about their insight into a particular issue that wandered across their mind some idle Tuesday morning. But it’s usually written in a way that makes it seem like such important content, content that I need to keep reading because I’m consumed by a desire to know about them and their lives and what makes them tick and how is it different from what makes me tick and how can I apply the principles they’ve figured out to my own life?

I want to mirror their methods, but I’m concerned about talking about myself too much on the internet, or I don’t have enough stories or this isn’t even really a personal blog – I only started it just because.

And my answer is this. You are interesting enough. Your life in Jamaica is just as interesting as their lives in Texas and Washington and South Africa. Your passions are not their passions but you have your own passions that people will love hearing about. You do things and you think about things and yes, you’re afraid of sharing most of the things you do and think about but 2015 is the year to beat that. It’s the year to do like Hemingway: sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

You Don’t Want it Enough

When something you want desperately lies just out of reach, all the muscles in your frame stretch a little bit further, risk spraining an ankle or dislocating a shoulder just so your fingers will close around it in triumph.

That’s how it goes when you want something badly enough. You stop at nothing, risk everything, try anything to get it. And if you haven’t exhausted all your options and your mitochondria then you simply didn’t want it that much in the first place.

I first heard about Calabash in third form – 2005, the early part – and how elated I was to find out that an event purely about books and writers and writing was happening on this island, my island, which I had come to regard as sort of a prison that kept me from being truly literary.

I was fourteen at the time, and therefore required supervision for the cross-island journey. The only family member who showed any interest was my aunt and she suggested that we drive on down to Jake’s-on-Treasure-Beach-St.-Elizabeth to soak up some literature.

She has been suggesting that every year since, and suggesting is pretty much as far as it gets (through no fault of hers – because she reads this blog and hello Aunty, I’m not blaming you).

The fact remains that I have never been to a Calabash festival in any of its incarnations, and I have never overly exerted myself to do so, beyond the usual pestering by a child of a disinterested adult.

Q.E.D., I did not want to attend the Calabash festival badly enough.

And yet.

I feel cheated by time and circumstance and academic obligations and finances. I rage against a universe that perpetually sets me back in this one specific regard: that I will always have an uphill battle with literature. That it will never be enough to merely want it, that I will always have to want it so badly I cannot breathe, or else I am condemned to a Sisyphean sort of life and my boulder will never breach the hill.

In the day-to-day choices I have to make between the literary life and the medical one where every decision leaves me riddled with guilt over conflicting obligations, the question is never whether I want it badly enough; it’s whether I can afford to.

In the Words of Bugs Bunny, this Means War

There’s a trend going around where people share their words for the new year and I’m joining the back of the line. This magical word is supposed to guide your actions for the next 353 days, and it might be a silly idea but no one ever said it was a bad idea so I’m forging ahead.

Attack is one word I think I’d like to throw around more. I have this habit of hanging back and hedging, letting decisions get made through inaction. It needs to stop or I’ll never get anywhere that looks remotely like somewhere I want to be. And as I ease out of the minor road called Getting an Education onto the huge terrifying highway called Having a Job I need to take the car off auto-pilot and steer that thing myself. It isn’t going to be easy.

I could have chosen action, I suppose. But attack speaks more to going out there, grabbing my life by the lapels and shaking that bastard down for loose change. (Whereas action kind of sounds like me sauntering over and asking rather nicely if he could spare some change for gas).

I’ve been scared/lazy/unfocused with my writing and it’s led to this cycle of ‘not writing-well, no one was going to read it anyway-still not writing’. Attack is the word to get me out of that spell. Attack will be my mantra when I juggle 24 hour duties with writing articles and blog posts because one pays the bills but the other feeds my soul.

Attack will be screamed at me during middle of the night studying, cramming years and pages of knowledge into my diminishing grey matter so that the next few months can be the smartest of my entire life.

Attack will be whispered in my ear when I try and fail to get something published, when I surprise myself by writing something inspired. Because attacking is the start, not the outcome; the attempt, not the end result.  At the end of this year it won’t matter if I’ve failed because the whole point was to try. Failing just means I tried. And it means I can try again.

2015 is going to be a defining year, whether I like it or not, so I can only say one thing: Bring. It. On.

This Post is so Meta

I find it almost impossible to write around a cohesive theme. Am I alone in this?

I’ve been taught how to do it, I’m not incapable. It’s just that I lose focus so easily when I’m tapping away at a keyboard. In high school all our essays had to be centered on a specific topic and I used to be fairly brilliant at English back then so clearly I know the theory behind it. It’s the execution that escapes me.

It doesn’t help that I am so very, very easily distracted. In the middle of spoken sentences I will call attention to a bird or rainbow or sudden thought I’ve just had that’s completely unconnected to the actual conversation. I only just noticed I was doing that and now that I’m taking steps to fix it I realize that it’s almost a compulsion, almost a defense mechanism against being too absorbed by a serious conversation. Or that could be a made-up excuse for my ADHD. (I don’t have ADHD. I think).

I want to be more focused in my writing because I think it would help readers to keep up with me, and it makes a lot more sense to talk about one thing and go from start to finish than to flit about the beginnings, middles and ends of a hundred different things.

But then I also like the flashy creativity of not planning things 100% and flying by the seat of my pants. The trouble is that my pants don’t have wings yet. Either that or they’re totally confused about the directions (which they would be if they were my pants) and they’re just flying any which way.

Another thing I hate about being so muddled is that I never know where to end things. What’s a logical conclusion? What’s an illogical conclusion? At this point I would take any conclusion that tells me how to  end a one-sided conversation.

Identity Crisis

It is really hard to hear my voice above the cacophony of other writers. It’s even worse when I am reading an author that I particularly like because my voice gets so tiny and lost. In my awe, it shrinks to a whisper. Conversely, when I read an author whose work leaves me wanting, my voice begins to shout. “This is how I would have done it!” it says, and my mind works at a mile a minute, leaving my fingers playing catch-up several paces behind.

It doesn’t help that most authors I read are so far removed from my social situation as to make all hope of inspiration from that quarter hopeless. They say write what you know; I only know how to write white: American, English, Canadian. These are the habits I have picked up, the cadences that play in my mind. These are places and people and things that I have assimilated, not ones I have experienced.

My Jamaicanness is lacking. I don’t know how to turn a phrase in my own accent, how to describe the poui trees as the flowers fall, how to capture the essence of our language in stark words on a sterile screen. Frankly, I’m not sure it can be done. I find reading Patois somewhat tedious, and I think the way we handle written dialogue is disappointingly stilted. It’s because the vivre of the Jamaican character is portrayed in glances, gestures and subtle changes of tone and volume; most times it is only in our enunciation.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people I can look to for guidance. Madame Bennett is perhaps the most famous example, but not a very good one because her poetry was created to be performed. Reading it has about the same lustre as reading Shakespeare. Anthony Winkler is the only other famous writer that springs readily to mind. Our agents of literature are too few and far between, and they’re not cultivated or advertised as they should be. Because reading in Jamaica is considered, by and large, to be a waste of time and they care even less about writing.

Which leaves me stuck between a world I can narrate clearly but am ultimately not a part of, and the world I live in but am unable to talk about. Talk about an identity crisis.

In which the author scolds herself

Why is it so much easier for me to slog through medical school than it is for me to sit down and pen an entry?

Since when has medicine been easier than writing? Well, easier than writing well at least. Usually my procrastination habits work the other way around, and I put off everything that resembles work-and-study for a few hours’ bliss of just typing out whatever comes into my head. I think, somehow, I have made writing a lot more like . . . work.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – getting better at something takes dedicated practice – but when it’s coupled with my habit of avoiding everything that I have to do, well, you get the picture.

The bottom line? I need to pull myself up by the britches and get some work done, instead of just lazing about. This clerkship is such a golden opportunity for writing (and, more importantly, writing time) and I’m just wasting it.

For shame.

Comparisons and Confidence

This post brought to you by Procrastinating on my Surgery Case Notes.

Catching up on the blogs I’ve been ignoring has left me with deep-seated feelings of insecurity. Why can’t I write as well as she does? is the question that flies around my head, torturing me and then infecting the wounds. How come I’m not as popular as she is? As interesting as she is? Why am I not good enough? 

I whine a lot, yes. But this is only one facet of my insecurities. I feel this way about pretty much every aspect of my life – school, dance, you name it. I always feel less than adequate. The only difference is that I keep on pushing with those things. With writing and blogging, it’s entirely too easy for me to cover my head with a blanket and stay in the left lateral position until I don’t feel so bad any more. I don’t work through the insecurity. And I should.

If I run away every time I’m confronted with a problem, or with something I don’t feel strong enough to take on, then I’ll never become strong enough to do it. Or good enough. Or ever feel like I’m good enough. I tell myself to fake confidence until I have it, and so far it has been working.

(Seriously, people keep telling me how confident they think I am and I’m just like ME? The girl who used to hide in the bathroom and cry all the time? The girl who used to make lists of her imperfections?).

I can’t continue to get discouraged every time I read a blog that makes me laugh/cry/think. Because as much as these writers are all super-talented and were probably born that way, they also have way more experience than I do, both in terms of age and occupation. So I may not find myself clever enough or interesting enough at this stage, but maybe in the next decade or so people will be thinking that I am super-talented and was probably born that way.

Right?

29 ways to stay creative [Pt. 2]

See Part 1 here!

Collaborate (preferably with creative people), because collaboration opens you up to different points of view. My issue is that I’m sort of a control freak, and I need to learn to let go of the reins sometimes. Taking risks? I am not there. Too lazy. This is something I need to work on, because I’ve realized that whether it works or not trying something new always leaves me feeling revitalized. Getting lots of rest makes my brain feel good. The mornings after I get a good night’s sleep I wake up feeling I could write the world.

Going somewhere new wakes my brain up! It shakes up all my preconceptions and stagnant old ideas and forces me to look at everything like its brand new. Counting my blessings helps to remind me that I am awesome (despite beating myself up sometimes). Dancing stretches my muscles and gets the blood pumping to my brain, plus the sheer movement leaves me feeling electrified all the way to my fingertips.

Don’t force it. Seriously, don’t. Every time I force my writing it ends up sounding strained and unsatisfying. Kinda like how straining on the toilet bowl doesn’t leave you with half as much relief as  when everything flows freely. Not that I’m comparing writing to poop. But there may be hidden connections.

Break the rules. But first you have to know what the rules are, right? People who have bad grammar and spelling because they’re lazy are not being creative. I think having a healthy respect for the rules allows us to use them in novel ways, not necessarily breaking them but bending them a little. Plus the rules are more like guidelines any way.

Except this one: Read a book. Read a book. Read a book. Read more than one. Read them all. A clever Harry Potter fan once told me that the progression of fandom was thus: first you read, then you write [fanfiction] then you RPG. For me, reading was the water to my seed of creativity and the world around me was the nutrients in my soil. The sun is sometimes hot but you can always bring much-needed rainfall by opening a book and disappearing into its world. Reading directed the turn of my thoughts and marshalled the flow of my words; reading taught me to think and speak and write. The act of reading (and reading critically) is indispensable to being a writer.

And while you’re at it, stop trying to be someone else’s perfect. I need to tape this one to my wall too because goodness knows I have pushed myself and pushed myself to be what other people want, and all it leads to is frustration and a whole lot of guilt.  We humans have about 70 years to enjoy this world, try to be happy and somehow leave behind a legacy. Most of the time the perfection we are trying to achieve is a figment of our imagination and that someone would have been just fine with us being ourselves. The important thing is to find what perfection is to you, and be that. Or as close to that as possible. (And if you figure out how to do that, tell me).

Just like making lists, it’s really important to write down your ideas. No matter what you tell yourself, they are not going to stay in your head. This has happened to me several times. What I’d like to try is writing out my ideas as soon as they pop into my head, not just one or two lines but a whole paragraph of novel thought.

Cleaning your workspace works for the simple equation that a clutter-free workspace = a clutter-free mind. When I am surrounded by unnecessary crap, my brain feels surrounded by unnecessary crap and I get this mental image of piles of garbage I have to dig through before I find that one nugget of inspiration. It’s much easier to tidy my desk than it is to go searching through the layers of my mind.

We’re winding now, and finishing something gives you such a boost of confidence that you can harness to start something else. I am at my most prolific when I can finish a good draft in one sitting because it spurs me on to write two or three more. I have learnt not to underestimate the power of feeling accomplished.

And, of course, along the mad, creative journey we’ve all chosen to embark upon it’s important to have fun. I have learnt this time and time again. As long as you’re having fun, you’re not doing badly at all.