Archive for September, 2014
As the title implies, this blog post is about double negatives. You’re not supposed to use them, right? Well, most of the time they’re not appropriate. Generally they don’t sound good, they’re unpleasant to listen to, and so often suggest a limited intelligence or vocabulary, especially if you use them frequently. Also, we’re told the second negative tends to reverse or countermand the first one, and the double negative really becomes a positive. In that sense, the title actually means, “Go ahead, use a double negative.” And that’s what I want to talk about.
In most cases a double negative is bad, but there are a few places where a double negative is useful. I ran across this when listening to other writers try to answer the question, “Why do I write?” The writing magazine Poets and Writers has a department that appears in most issues called “Why We Write.” Most of the writers who contribute to this section have a particular reason to write, such as to tell a personal story, or to memorialize a family member, or some other specific reason. But there’s also a broader reason for writing, one that I and, I suppose, many other writers have a difficult time addressing. The usual answer to why we write is, “I can’t not write.” And the double negative rears it’s ugly head.
Strictly, that phrase, taken at face value means, “I can write.” But that’s not what we writers who use the phrase mean at all. Of course we can write. We’re writers. It’s our business. But in the statement, “I can’t not write,” the double negative is appropriate because it states a fact that can’t be stated any other way. At least not well. I write because I have stories to tell and I want to tell them. They’re in me and have to come out. I feel drawn to the computer keyboard in a way that I’m not drawn to anything else. At least not since I stopped going to work every day because I was drawn to the workbench in a virology laboratory where I experimented with viruses, trying to figure out how and why they caused disease. That was quite a draw. I spent over forty years doing it, and now the computer has become my new workbench. I can’t not write.
Do you write? Why?
As language progresses, some words go out of style. Some words disappear completely, while some become meaningless, that is, they’ve lost their meaning out of disregard or displacement. The recent death of Joan Rivers brought this lesson home because she, as well as all other females who tell jokes, was referred to as a comedian, not a comedienne. I grew up with the latter term, but in recent years it has almost disappeared. Women who tell jokes or star in comedy movies or TV shows are now female comedians.
Likewise, a woman who stars in a show of any nature is an actor. Not an actress. Awards now are given for “Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading (or Supporting) Role.” Nobody is an actress anymore. The term “actor” indicates a performer of any sex (or should I say, gender), and actress has no meaning.
So we now have words going out of style. Actresses and comediennes no longer exist. These words are now nothing more than collections of letters without a meaning. This is different from words of a long time ago that are still around and have meaning, but are little used. For example, words such as “thou,” “thee,” and “thy.” But referring to a woman as an “actress” is considered an insult. It’s as though women performers want to be included in the same category as men, i.e., as “actors,” for reasons I can only guess at. But one of the most important reasons for the existence of language is to provide a collection of letters, that is, words, that identify specific meanings. Language points out nuances and essences. Different meanings usually get different words, in spite of the existence of synonyms. It seems unnecessary to include women in a category with men, but if that’s the way they want it, I guess that’s the way it’ll have to be. It just means that we now have words that have completely lost their meaning and are flying around like feckless wads in the wilderness (to quote a friend of mine).
There must be other words that have lost their meaning. Can you think of any?
Someone asked me a few days ago how much of myself I put into my writing. I replied that was a hard question to answer. And even having thought about it for almost a week, I still can’t answer the question in full. The only answer I can give directly is that I don’t consciously put any of my self in my writing. I have never written a character based on me. Since I write science fiction, I make up fictitious worlds and develop people to fit those worlds. Many of the inhabitants on those worlds are much different from humans. They do what I want, and I try to make them act reasonably and logically for those worlds (people on another world aren’t always going to act like us here on Earth). Still, there must be traits that are common to all forms of life everywhere (I admit that’s a debatable proposition and may not be true at all. But…). A science-fiction story may be a good place to put myself in as a character, or to give one or more characters some of my own traits, but so far I haven’t. I wonder how many authors have.
But that’s probably not what my friend was asking. I suspect all of us writers put some of themselves in their writing even if they don’t intend to. Writing is such a solitary and personal activity, it must be hard to not to take a part of yourself and cram it into your writing. In fact, I wonder if that’s what writing is all about–putting ourselves down on paper or on a com screen for all to see. I wonder if the act of making up fictitious characters is our way of letting the world know what we really think and feel and wonder about. Of telling the world what we want to say without coming out and saying it. At their very basic levels, our characters are us, whether we like it or not. We cannot write without saying how we feel about life, about other people, about civilizations, about the universe. A memoir and an op-ed piece are the forms of writing that allow us to do that directly and openly. Fiction and, to a certain extent, poetry, on the other hand, obscure who we are to the point that readers may not understand what is made up and what is really us.
As I write this, I’m listening to classical music. Different composers have different styles, and it certainly must be true that composers put themselves into their music in a big way. Tchaikovsky is much different from Mozart, but Tchaikovsky bears some similarities to other Russian composers of the late 1800’s. Theirs was a very nationalistic style and their music is a reflection of themselves. Writers ditto.