For Christmas last year my wife bought me a copy of a The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach. It’s a collection of essays and exercises intended to challenge and inspire writers (not just poets) at all literary levels. I’ve only recently begun to work my way through it. Typically I can only make time to do this when the hopper managing my ‘free-time lottery’ kicks out the writing self-improvement ball. Unfortunately, this number must be improperly balanced as I don’t see it very often, but for the times it has, when I’ve reached for this book, I’ve found it to be a useful resource for helping me ‘go deeper’.
One of the first exercises (okay, THE first) is from author, poet and essayist Ann Lauterbach. In it she challenges readers to consider their first memorable encounter with language, either written or spoken, and then to describe their experience of it. Was it exciting? Enlightening? Confusing? For me, my earliest, most powerful language memory was made while riding the bus in early elementary school.
I typically sat in the first or second row of the bus near the driver. Mounted in the right beside the HUGE mirror the driver used to monitor any and all activity on the bus, was a black metal sign stamped with large white letters which read, “Do Not Stand Forward of Line While Bus is in Motion.”
The first time I noticed the sign I was already a decent reader. I was able to get every word on the sign except ‘Motion’. I kept hearing it in my head as “mott-ee-un” and no matter how I tried it, I couldn’t figure out what a “mott-ee-un” was. Ordinarily, this would be no big deal, but since I rode the bus twice a day and every time I glanced forward it was there staring back at me, I couldn’t avoid seeing this message I simply couldn’t understand.
I inevitably spent each bus ride trying to puzzle out its meaning. I even found myself reciting the words, including the unshakable “mott-ee-un” mystery word throughout the day. (A bit obsessive I’ll admit.) Nevertheless, the longer this went on the more I secretly began to worry that maybe this was something I was supposed to know. Surely whoever hung it so prominently in the front of the bus must have thought what it said was important, right?
The day I finally figured out the last word I remember feeling a bit surprised at myself and strangely disappointed. I knew what ‘motion’ was and I used the word, I just didn’t recognize it printed, but I’d been staring at it for so long I was expecting something more from it.
Still, even after I’d *mastered* the sign, I couldn’t get the words out of my head. I kept wondering why the person who wrote it wrote it the way they did. If the idea was to keep kids from tumbling down the steps while the bus is moving then instead of writing ‘Do Not Stand Forward of Line…’ why not write ‘Stay Behind Line…’. And instead of ‘While Bus is in Motion’, why not “Until Bus Stops’. Or better yet, a much simpler and more direct version of the entire thing, ‘Stay Seated Until Bus Stops’!
As a first memorable encounter with language, this one turned out to be one of my most formative. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawn to consider the subtle ways in which word choice, even word order, in a sentence can so drastically change its tone and its intended or implied meaning or as in my bus riding example, actually obscure the meaning altogether.
I suppose it would have been much easier if I had simply asked someone to tell me what the sign said. (For the life of me I still don’t know why I didn’t.) But in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. We learn so much more from our mistakes and from grappling with life’s questions for ourselves than we do when anyone, even with the best of intentions, simply gives us an answer. The real value in the struggle is not getting to the right answer in the end, but it’s in how the effort to find it shapes us and makes us into better versions of ourselves, whether we ever find the answers we were looking for or not.
So what was your first encounter with language like? How did it affect you?
Post your comments and let me know!