This site is an archive. Content is no longer being updated.

Verbal compulsion

In Reasons on March 16, 2009 at 8:31 pm

What’s that Neruda line – “It was at that age poetry arrived”? Quoting Neruda’s a bit of a cliché. Except that everyone likes Neruda. Except those who don’t.

I feel like he said something really basic but meaningful in that tiny excerpt, though. About that particular point when words started falling out of your fingertips as well as your lips.

I was this – hmm, not necessarily quiet child. But, for that, I often didn’t say a lot. (This doesn’t mean quiet, per se.)

There was a lot I couldn’t say. And a lot of vocabulary I lacked to be able to put thoughts into words. No words for the sensations you are experiencing is rather like being alone in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language and there’s something you need to communicate.

I started getting myself drunk on adult words when I was seven or so. I talked Enid Blyton between skipping games in the playground with my friends. Under my stealth duvet (I was a seven year old insomniac. And I used to do my homework at 2am. But that’s another story), I devoured my mother’s Fay Weldons and Lynne Reid Banks.

And here’s what happened:

There was a lot I needed to say, and a lot I didn’t dare to say. Adult books mirrored emotions I had experienced and was experiencing. Confusing: I was only a child. Reassuring: they seemed to understand me in a manner for which my peers at that age had no scope.

And then the words, reformed, started pouring back out of my fingers. You inhale, you exhale, right?

I mostly kept the overdeveloped vocabulary a secret. There are all sorts of things you are not going to say when you are eight, ten, twelve years old. There were all sorts of stories I wasn’t going to tell. All sorts of things lodging in my throat.

Whilst I kept my speaking voice on demi-mute, I basked in the white glow of notebook pages. Whilst I failed to tell anybody anything that really mattered in my speaking voice, I let my fingertips speak for me. I escaped between pages of reading. I catapulted myself into the pages I was writing.

Aged eleven, our end of primary school assignment was to write a ‘book’. So I … ‘wrote a book’. Or, at least, the longest story I have ever written. The teacher and the class blinked “Roberta’s written a … book’. It got passed around every year. No-one had realised that all the words I was stockpiling inside myself had to go somewhere. My fingers were frantic whilst I mostly kept my mouth shut.

There’s always that danger of sounding pretentious when saying things like this – but I can live with that. So many writers seem to say they don’t ‘choose’ to write – they ‘have’ to write. Writing chooses them. Owns them. However it goes.

When my writing dries up, I worry that something has died inside myself. I possibly excel at melodrama, yet I mean that. Without a creative outlet, I feel like I’m made of wood. Without some belief that I can expel words that are twisted up, words that could throw someone just a little, make them feel they are being told something for the first time – without these things, I worry that I’ll start dressing in beige. That I’ll start shopping at IKEA. I worry that I’ll homogenise. Stop creating. Something like that.

I can draw a thousand pictures, string nine hundred necklaces, but here is how it goes: the words come first. If I don’t let them back out, I worry that they’ll choke me. Speaking aloud, sometimes I word-stumble. Lose my lexis. ‘Um’ and ‘ah’. Just the usual. It happens. But you put words to page and you can pretend to own them. Play with them, shape them, make them perfect as you like. Who doesn’t want to partake in that game?

I value silence. And I value speech. Sometimes I forget to balance the two as well as I could. I soak in stories a lot. I get told a happy spill of secrets with reassuring regularity. Some days, I’d have to armour each one of my fingertips with thimbles to stop them writing. And that would be ungainly.

Roberta Lawson keeps thimbles off her fingertips just long enough to word-splurge at PIFFLE and Atmospheres of Perfect Silence. The latter contains link-ups to a couple of weird and wonderful experimental zines where her work has appeared or is forthcoming.

Advertisements
  1. “There was a lot I couldn’t say. And a lot of vocabulary I lacked to be able to put thoughts into words. No words for the sensations you are experiencing is rather like being alone in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language and there’s something you need to communicate.”

    This describes the feeling I always get when I think of being a kid.

    I’m glad you found a way to dislodge those things in your throat. (Um, that sounds close to yuck but you know what I mean.)

Comments are closed.