So, I was working on some prep for an upcoming class I have to interpret and I stumbled upon a passage in an essay that not only struck me but absolutely blindsided me in its perfection and appropriateness. In fact, this is going to be my go to now when people ask me what it means to be an author or, in her lovely parlance, a novelist – which sounds far more like the image I have of myself – sequestered in a lovely, seaside town with a leather chair, a fireplace, and my laptop, writing and writing and writing.
Of course, this image flies in the face of my reality – I’m usually on the sofa, holding off anywhere from one to three dogs who DESPERATELY NEED MY ATTENTION RIGHT NOW and answering questions from my husband while trying to find the right way to describe a creature that heretofore exists only in my mind. That, of course, is luxury; there are also the harried moments of trying to get a sentence typed while simultaneously trying NOT to slide off the seat in a moving bus, or typing out THE BEST DIALOGUE I HAVE EVER CREATED with one hand at whatever desk I can find at work – as the other hand tries not to drop my lunch onto the keyboard.
Anyway, enjoy this passage from “How One Should Read a Book,” by Virginia Woolf. She is, as per usual, spot on. I will have some thoughts to share after you’re done.
The thirty-‐two chapters of a novel—if we consider how to read a novel first—are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.
-Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read A Book
Right, so anyone that has written anything will tell you that this is one of the more challenging aspects of the craft – take what you have experienced that inspires you and turn it into words, with all their “dangers and difficulties.” While I do agree that it is difficult, it occurs to me that I have an advantage that I hadn’t thought about until today – I am fluent in English, but also in American Sign Language (ASL).
I know, it’s a stretch, but stay with me.
ASL, like all other signed languages, is a visual and spatial language – English, and other spoken languages, are more linear in their approach to conveying a message. It is part of the language to describe things, to make the building that Woolf mentions in that passage. You can’t convey the meaning, TREE without conveying what the tree looks like. It is built into the language!
I haven’t gotten to the advantage yet, so if you’re still lost, that’s okay. Here we go.
In order to express TREE in ASL, I have to visualize the tree. Whereas in English I might say “the old oak tree with the outstretched branches” to describe the tree I’m picturing now, I would use one sign in ASL: