Part of my homework in Poetic Medicine this week was to “invent” new words. We were to then use them in a poem. You may have some words you use in your family that you (or your kids) invented. In my family, “moofy” is an adjective used to describe crackers that aren’t crisp, bread that is stale, or food that’s been around too long to taste good. “Nagle” is a generic name that can be used to call anyone whose name you don’t remember the second you need it. We were ahead of our time–it’s gender neutral. Even the cat can be Nagle in a pinch.
You may know Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky–the nonsense poem that begins:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
OK, you understand the assignment. We are allowed to alter an assignment in a way that makes sense to us. I created the list of words, and then I began to wonder what it would be like to invent letters, too. The graphic sense of letters is almost lost on us, because they don’t look like graphic elements, but words with meaning.
Stripped of meaning, invented letters take on a simple graphic look. I made a collage out of the letters, adding strong shapes to the piece. The center, blue paper with inked squares lines up under the circle, reminiscent of the lower case ‘i’ but still just elements.
What surprised me is the reaction of the people I showed it to. Every one asked me “what does it mean?” When I said I had invented letter shapes, but not assigned them phonetic meaning, one person asked, “How will we know what it means?” When I said, “It’s not a code, it’s simply the idea that new letters could lead to new meanings. This is unknown now,” the person felt cheated. She wanted me to explain the meaning to her. Without a meaning, the letters weren’t satisfying for her. Even when I suggested she could make up her own meaning, she said, “But then I’d have to explain what it means to everyone else.” Interesting. We aren’t understood unless others agree on the meaning of words.
Art allows for interpretation, but the made-up letters brought a thought out: When we are learning a language, we often miss nuance and subtlety. We grab the words we know and guess at the rest. Knowing a vocabulary extends your ability to express yourself. Limiting your vocabulary limits how well you can express yourself.
If your vocabulary is limited, it also cuts down how you listen. You can hear what a person is saying, but you miss words, ideas, meanings. If you don’t speak the language well, you listen slower than the speaker speaks. Whole ideas get swamped in sounds.
Now let’s say both people speak the language equally well. But one person’s experience is different than the others. The same words carry different shades of meaning. Phrases like, “You aren’t hearing me,” have nothing to do with how well ears work. It has to do with personal experience that can’t be exactly transmitted to someone else.
I teach writing, and every day I realize how hard it is to communicate to someone else and get the meaning right. That’s what this collage means to me. It’s not easy to be heard.
—Quinn McDonald teaches writing and is in a program to become a writing therapist. She is interested in how we listen to each other. Now more than ever.