One of the things I’ve learned from my Chinese lessons so far is that the language is almost musical in sound. That when talking, the tones, the highs and lows, are like singing. Before I started learning Mandarin, I did not hear this when I’d come upon two people conversing in it. This observation has affected my writing, and the way I not only see our world, but the way I see other worlds, the ones I create. How do people who communicate telepathically sound to someone? Do they speak in pictures. Do their words have sounds in our heads? What do we sound like to them, since our speech is more verbal than visual? So where am I going with this? Humanity’s view of language can be very narrow, when communication as a whole is very broad. As writers, our job is harness communication.
When compared to other tongues, the English language can be very flat indeed, but even so, there are different tones to our language throughout the country that keep it from being drone. The South has a slow drawl, and we often hear people describe it as honey. And it’s not a surprise to many of you when I say that. But did you know the East Coast tends to lose their r’s and that the speech is often clipped and rushed, much like the pace of the bigger cities. Out West, everything slows down, including the language. In the middle of our country, vowels are drawn out, extending the time it takes for the person to say the word, and though you do see this in the South, it’s much slower in the Midwest. Another observation I’ve made, it can drive an Easterner nuts. Many Easterners will finish a sentence for a person who speaks slower than they are accustomed to. Bad manners? Maybe, or perhaps the trigger is a geographical impatience, the same one you hear in the language.
This brings my thoughts back to a wonderful art teacher and a particular class I had in high school. I remember walking downtown with my art class, talking about observing, seeing with our left brains. Now, as many of you know, the left side of the human brain is what many refer to as our creative side. When we write, paint, draw or partake in any exercise that demands creative thinking, this is the side of the brain that is most active. There are exercises you can do that will fire up this side of your brain and there are books out there that will help you with this. Learning Chinese, I have discovered, is one of those exercises. Don’t laugh. I’m 100% serious.
Back to my art class. We were doing an exercise on left brain thinking that day. As we stopped in front of a large glass window of a store front that displayed mannequins dressed in various garments in different poses, my art teacher pointed at it and asked, “What do you see?”
“I see a woman in a red dress, a man in jeans and a tee shirt,” one student piped up. Several more comments followed describing the display. What came next, I will never forget. A quiet girl spoke up from the back. I see cars moving behind us. The clouds in the sky, curious faces peering back. That girl saw a different world than what was before her. It was for me, a creative epiphany, and it has had a huge impact on my writing, as well as my art ever since.
You always hear the advice, engage all the senses in your writing. But this doesn’t always mean using them in every paragraph as you write. It means opening up your mind and really seeing, experiencing what your characters see and feel. Much like looking in the window. Ask yourself, what do they really see and feel, smell or hear?While learning a new language, I had another illuminating experience. I realized that there is song in language. Yes, I’ve been told this, but I don’t really think it sank in until that moment while learning to speak Chinese, what they really meant. Merely writing a story is one thing, singing it another. We’re often told by our editors to listen for tones, to change sentences with the same structure, to vary. Don’t repeat words, they echo (Unless the point is to emphasize them.)And Sally selling sea shells by the sea shore, might twist up a brain, as well as a tongue. This is why you often hear advice to read your story out loud as you edit. You, my fellow authors, are listening for the song, not just the mistakes.
Okay, let’s review. What I’ve learned so far—Basic Mandarin. What I’ve really learned—the ability to hear the song in the words. So that leaves me to ask you. What have you learned today?Keep learning, you never know what you’ll discover.