L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burning patterns and burnt language

This past Saturday, I co-emceed at a literary event.  Gigi and several other fantastic writers - some real heavy-hitters among them - read at the second of an ongoing, quarterly series, Burnt Tongue.  "Burnt" refers to writer and teacher Tom Spanbauer's workshop challenge to "burn" language, deconstructing/reconstructing language in the service of defining character, as a way to discover literary "voice".*  A central figure in Portland literary life - most of the writers who read are, or have been, students of his - Tom read last, a beautiful/awful passage from his current novel.

And everyone's work was really wonderful - funny, smart, touching, challenging - and the audience was rapt and appreciative.  But being as incredibly self-absorbed as I am - I'm an artist; I'm supposed to be that way, right? - I still found time to be overly critical of my emceeing performance.  Because it wasn't what I had imagined it would be; I certainly got the job done, but I wasn't the brimming font of charm I'd hoped to be.  That, combined with the dislocating effects of only-on-Facebook friendships - and more than half the crowd were FB friends of mine - got me snuggled up against old, negative behavioral patterns, the kinds of social (non)interaction I thought I'd gotten past, grown out of.  And then, finding myself down that rabbit hole, turning and wondering, "hey, I remember this unpleasant locale; how the hell did I wind up here again?"  Sunday - on Facebook, bien sûr - I mused a bit on my experience of the previous night.


First thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading:
Married to a writer, I go to a lot of readings and hear a lot of great writing. But last night was something very special. And one of the incidental delights of the evening was watching Lidia Yuknavitch** across the room - she was in my direct line of sight - just beaming as she listened to the other writers read, her love for what her fellow writers do and who they are was so obvious. And I keep thinking that it was just the perfect expression of the amazing, loving camaraderie that is what Portland's writer's community is all about.

Second thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading:

I got a good smacking from that weird FB condition. You know, that thing where you know SO much about your FB friends - their politics, their love life, their kids, their family, their job, their vacations, their health, on and on - and you have great, smart FB interactions, but in person, you don't know them AT ALL. I often find that gulf
very hard to bridge, makes me paralytically shy. And when that FB friend is someone whose work I tremendously respect, or even if I just think them very cool, it gets that much harder. So, trying to break the cycle, I'm outing myself to my top three from last night: Dear Monica Drake, who is a good egg to be sure, in the future I will try to do more than just bid goodnight as you and Kass exit the building. Mr. Mingo I will attempt more than a handshake or a wave; we might speak of large vegetables and France, even. And Miss Lidia - great, lustrous, vibrating soul of a woman - I will try to make it past just telling you that I'm kinda scared of you. Oy!

Third thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading:
When I was younger, whenever anyone complemented me on anything, especially on my art, I - always - felt compelled to tell them what was wrong with the thing at hand, to tell them where I had failed in whatever way. Somehow, I guess I felt my over-critical self-honesty would be a service to us both; no one should be fooled. But at some point, someone pointed out that that was actually a pretty ungracious thing to do, that it denied, even disrespected the experience of the other; it spurned the gift of their complement. And really, it was very selfish, saying that my experience was more valid than theirs. And at some point, I stopped doing that.

We all try and grow up and come to an acceptance of the muck of our experience, remold ourselves into a shape that better suits who we really are on the inside. And then, there you go. In an unplanned dive, you find yourself back in an almost forgotten, but still awfully comfortable, uncomfortable place. Which sounds - terribly - important but, really, I'm just trying to say that people were so nice to me last night about my co-emceeing stint. And because - I - didn't do quite what I imagined I'd do, I proceeded to bat away their kindness. Well, basta! Thank you, sweet people. I do appreciate it. xo 

Fourth (and final) thought about last night's Burnt Tongue reading: 

It was really all about the WRITING! (Beautiful, beautiful writing....)


*  Tom Spanbauer, giving a fuller explanation of the concept of "burning" language: 

[from a workshop description]  "... the first thing we will encounter is voice. How to create it. Saying it wrong, saying it spoken rather than written, saying it raw. By challenging old creative writing workshop language, we will investigate what my teacher [Gordon Lish] called Burnt Tongue. The New York Times, in its review of  The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon [Tom's best known book], called it Poisoned Lyricism. Character lies in the destruction of the sentence. How a character thinks is how she speaks..." 

[from another workshop description]  "Participants should expect a close look at their writing. Sentence by sentence. What we’re really doing is deconstructing language down to the fundamentals, in search of voice. Character lies in the destruction of the sentence. By analyzing parts of speech – adverbs, abstract nouns, received text, clichés, “proper” grammar – each student will get to scrutinize his or her language as it goes onto the page, and in that scrutiny, come up with some new and exciting ways to get rid of that creative writing sound, or that weird way one’s writing sounds formal, distant, boring, drab."

[from an interview]  "Lish’s workshop met once a week, and there were maybe 120 people in his class. Instead of being theoretical, it was all, What does this sentence sound like? How to create a voice, and to get authority of voice by “saying it wrong”—what he called “burnt tongue.” It’s a way of writing as if you were speaking, of making your prose sound raw or strange or off or wrong or weird. Basically of fucking up your syntax."

And a quote from Chuck Palahniuk, Tom's best-known student:

"The next aspect, Spanbauer calls "burnt tongue." A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés." 

**  In case you're not familiar with the names, Lidia Yuknavitch and Monica Drake are two of the best known and respected writers who happen to live in Portland.  (They're also part of the same writing group that includes the above-quoted Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed - rare air!)  And their respective - and also very talented - spouses are Andy Mingo, a filmmaker, and Kass Alonso, a writer.


  1. More catching up with your archives, years after their posting--- hoping that this doesn't amount to "dredging up" things long forgotten.
    Our behaviour in public settings, as opposed to how we imagined it beforehand, is a subject in itself. There are no easy explanations for our off-the-wall utterances apart from old fashioned self-consciousness. Yet when it comes down to it, aren't all social occasions flawed? Meaning, in their function as vehicles of communication. It must be wonderful to say the right thing at all times; but I find practised charm somewhat suspect. Give me sincere awkwardness any day.

    As to the issue of how an artist ought to take a compliment graciously, well---you have nailed it.

    1. It's been very interesting to see where you might "land", where your very interesting comments might appear, I assure you. (Of course, I'm very flattered by your attention and erudite response.)

      This particular post was one of the more personal, of course, coming as it did after a - rather - uncomfortable evening. But it's certainly instructive for me to re-read, as some things, at least, have improved in the last two years: during that time I've "MC'd" several other literary events where I did the job, it was generally agreed, swimmingly. It - is - comforting to realize "how at my age one still can grow"!