Head and Heart and Brains (…and Words)

Zombie attack

“Calculating,” my colleague said, looking at me with a warm smile. “Whatever Professor Carpenter ends up saying, she chooses her words very carefully.” I felt myself smirk. Whether I liked the monicker depended on whether I remembered a moment when my heart had been there while I used words – or not.

I don’t know why I’m good with words, but I am. My mind leans that way, always has, even when my best friend had to tell me what the hell was happening in seventh grade grammar class. “You’d just doodle on the worksheet and shade in all the words perfectly,” she recalled to me recently, exasperated even in retrospect. I think I was classy: I was always kind enough to wait for her to teach me what I’d ignored.

That bent of mind makes me a poor study when it comes to actually teaching others how to write. I want my students to have had nine years of grammar like I did, a love for beautiful writing like I do, and an ability to absorb the lessons of good writing implicitly like I do. They have absolutely none of those things. I fret about that as a professor, worrying over both their illiteracy and my struggle to sympathize with it.

Words are a knife-edge, and with them we can carve a beautiful face or dismember like a surgeon. Words are powerful. And they are most powerful when they neatly come to a point.

See what I just did there with knives and edges and shit? Yeah, I’m clever as hell. It’s actually almost bad writing: it’s too well-ordered around its little metaphor, and threatens to mean too little because its symbolizes too much. What I mean is this: words are imprecise, and there are two ways to ruin them by forcing them into precision. The first is to remove everything distracting from a sentence. “Thou shalt not use a metaphor or a metaphorical verb.” Yeah, well: that’s boring, not precise. The second method is to use an image until it has died a horrible death of strangulation. “I have the perfect metaphor for this and I will explain each aspect of it to you.” Congratulations: it’s not a metaphor anymore.

But I’m not sure I’m being helpful in that paragraph. I know what I’m talking about, but do you? Have I made myself clear? And that’s the thing, imaginary reader: imagining you in a way that helps me write for real people.

This is where we return to the heart. Perhaps it is simply strange, but I write best when I have an idea of the emotional impact of a phrase. I speak best like that too. Words have feelings as well as meanings (or rather, meaning provokes feelings, and therefore so do words). When I hold that in mind, my writing is infinitely more effective. Again, I might well be odd. I always threaten to forget the heart. Words are almost like geometry for me: shapes whose proof is found in each other. They are interrelated sets of relations cohering together. I’m good at that, good at seeing the forms and relating them, and I don’t need to feel anything to be effective at that. I can even be cruel, calculating in the negative sense. I can build a beautiful but empty cathedral.

If I am angry, my words are cut glass.

For me, then, to feel is to grasp the shape of meaning in a way that can actually welcome others. Readers, listeners. And it softens me, soothes the edges of my creativity. I am first a creature of form, and the temptation is to forget splendor.

Many writers strike me in the inverse: immensity of conviction without a supporting structure. Words poured all against one another in a mess of paints. Restraint and grammar have all but vanished, making the sentences weird and long – or almost angrily terse. Academic writing, for all its insufferably boring contortions, is also like this. Meaning gets all lost in the face of word-using. Nobody remembers grammar here, either, even if they’ve also forgotten feeling.

Academic writing is horrible. Mostly the sentences are too long.

Having a heart for an imaginary reader seems to be a key point of departure in either affliction, the one of the heart or the brain. There in the imaginary reader, after all, it is necessary to imagine someone who is intelligent but not an expert, who needs something reasonable and clear. And if that someone has a heart, then he or she feels the impact of words. Can be moved or can resist. The reader doesn’t end up looking like one person, and the writer doesn’t end up with one solution.

So I should perhaps teach my students how to imagine a reader.

Oh God. How do I do that?

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