Save our species, read more.

How often do you come across a book, poem or story that you should have written?  I mean a piece of writing that reaches right inside you and expresses something you have been thinking ought to be written, if only you could think of a way to approach it.

There are books I’m excited by, and think, ‘I wish I could do, or had done, that,’ while knowing that the subject material is not really mine.  They’ve transported me to other worlds, lifted me out my slothfulness, or boredom, misery or complacency.  Often they’re adventures – I’m a sucker for clever active characters who dare to do things that would terrify me.

The books that I love and admire are not necessarily all ones that I should have written.  I have shelves full of books that I can’t bear to part with, which I return to at significant moments for the therapy only they can provide, but many of those take me out of myself.  They allow me to slip into another character’s world and explore feelings and responses from a different perspective.

The kind of writing that makes me think, ‘Damn, this is my story,’ often does the reverse of that.  It says something that I recognise I have been trying to say, maybe forever, and failing.  I found this quote from Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985), the other day, and had just such a eureka moment.

The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of ancient prohibitions.  The unconscious speaks – in dreams, in verbal slips, in sudden associations – with borrowed words, stolen symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these territories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.

You see, what I get from this, regardless of what Calvino may or may not have intended, is that we have to keep trying and, maybe, slightly failing, to successfully convey our ideas through language or even symbol.   Thinking too much about how that process works can act as a block.

Once I accept that words are a different language, I become a translator.  I hope to find the right word, but accept that not all languages have as many ways of describing love as the Welsh do, or of snow as the Inuit’s do. So I have to play with the vocabulary I have, finding other ways to convey what I feel, see or know.  Sometimes the bridge that links the unconscious to ‘the language of the waking world‘ is made up of the gaps between words.

Me, cheetaPoems, songs and radio plays know this.  On Saturday, when I listened to John Malkovich in Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, on BBC Radio 4, it wasn’t the detailed scene setting that transported me back to the sets of Tarzan or the parties with Johnny Weissmuller, it was the absence of them.

The best cinema in the world happens inside our minds, where it is augmented by the associations that come from our own histories.  The wonderful part of that process, in my experience, is that it doesn’t restrict us.  It utilises the same principles that creative writing does, by connecting what I know, a remembered sensation, and transferring it to a time and space I have never visited.  In this way, I’ve not just travelled the world, I’ve explored a variety of universes.


Print by Alberto Manrique


23 thoughts on “Save our species, read more.

  1. “The best cinema in the world happens inside our minds” is absolutely the case, but you’re also correct in observing that certain authors have the knack of capturing a notion that we’ve had trouble in expressing in words. I know that’s sometimes why I scribble down sentences or passages I’ve just read, not because I necessarily want to preserve them but because the act of writing helps to crystallise the thought or image in my mind, to join the other amorphous concepts flitting around in my brain box.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, to capture them, that’s what I love about quotes. I have a too-beautiful notebook gifted by a friend years ago, and rather than add it to my collection of ‘wrecked’ rough-books I use it to save such pieces of writing, the act of writing them down seems to intensify their effect, and let’s me ‘re-find’ them.

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  2. Hello Cath. I read a book recently that has stuck with me. It somehow connected with my “inner self,” although it involves situations far from my experience. The novel is Chaim Potok’s I Am The Clay. It is set in Korea during the Korean War.

    Bye till next time–

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a post. “…words are a different language, I become a translator.” I hadn’t thought about it that way but I treat words exactly like that in my Man vs. Nature series. They’re a vehicle of communication, only. Love this post, Cath.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Jacqui, it was lovely to write. Sometimes the words just flow, and this was one of those days.
      Born In a Treacherous Time sounds like a novel I need to read, I do like Man vs Nature stories.


  4. And as you describe the process, Cath, it proves that diverse ideas, known or unknown, meet and merge to create something new. I’ve always considered that words have their own agenda. I watched a wonderful short video from the BBC about vowels – each had an identity and a place over and above the way we use them. Words are the same.
    Great post. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thought-provoking as always, Cath! Italo Calvino is a great writer, full of unexpected insights. I suppose language is a kind of fossil record, crying out to be reassembled. Must listen to that Cheeta prog. I think learning what to omit is the art of writing, as Hemingway discovered. As you effectively put it: “Sometimes the bridge that links the unconscious to ‘the language of the waking world‘ is made up of the gaps between words.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Dave, glad you enjoyed it, and nice to find a fellow Calvino fan.
      A fossil record, that’s good. Kind of rearranges my thoughts, and I do like your suggestion that they’re ‘crying out to be arranged’.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. From one who is reading about seven books now (not all at once, obvi, but tough to choose between them), I totally agree. Writing, esp. good writing, drives us forward and in, taking in what’s out there in the world and transcribing it for our own worldview. I love the experience reading provides me with and wonder why so few people still engage in the exercise. Perhaps that’s why so much of the natural world is going extinct. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 2 people

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