Last week, during the Wonders Blog party, I began wondering about “words, and the fact that any of us manage to communicate with each other at all, given our incredibly different world views and the shades of meanings words carry for all of us.

I’ve been thinking about this all week, in fact.  I’m a writer.  Words are my world – for me every single one has its own shades of meaning, sometimes an actual color or smell or texture.  Putting the right words in place, making sure they all play nicely with each other, that there is harmony and balance as well as meaning, becomes an artistic challenge.   Sometimes the music the words make wins out over meaning for me, and I’ll change what I thought I wanted to say in order to accommodate the demands of the language.

However.  Presumably, I’m trying to communicate something – to cross the divide of space and understanding that separates me from everybody else on this planet.  I have come to believe that putting across any precise or exact meaning is probably impossible.  If you doubt this, go sit in a college Literature class as a once beautiful poem or story is dissected.  Everybody has an opinion about what the author meant, most of the time probably light years away from what the author intended.  

Now, you might say that this is the fault of the author – that she was not specific enough, detailed enough; that she failed in her task of painting her reality for others to share. 

I disagree.  It occurs to me that what I mean by red and what you mean by red, are probably two completely different things.  You might be seeing drops of blood, while I’m seeing a sunset.  And no matter how specific I try to be, however I try to paint the color of that sunset for you, we’re still going to run into difficulty.  Sunsets are different on the prairie, in the mountains, by the ocean.  And even if we are, say, brother and sister, growing up in the same house together, who can say that what I see as red and what you see as red are exactly the same thing.

When I read a beautifully written book, I’m totally unconcerned with what the author intended.  All that matters is my experience of the book, what sense the words make to me.  Something has been created that speaks to something in me, that strikes a chord that engages my emotion, my interest, my imagination.  When I write, of course I consider my audience.  Some.  I’m more concerned with orchestrating the words and ideas into a pattern that makes sense to me, and then trusting there are others out there who will take interest in the same pattern, even if it speaks to them in a different way.  

The same problem, of course, occurs in everyday conversation, only then I’m much more concerned with meaning and don’t care a great deal whether the words are musical or not.  And yet the simplest messages go astray.  Everything we hear is filtered through our experiences, our beliefs, our understandings, so that what was said and what is received are two entirely different messages.  This distortion is abundantly clear to anybody who has ever facilitated a marriage counseling session.  She says, “I really need to get out of the house more,” and he hears, “You aren’t helping me with the children.”  Now, maybe she meant this.  Maybe she was thinking about getting a baby sitter, or taking the kids to the park.  You all know what I’m talking about.

Maybe this happens because words are only representations, and never the thing itself.  A tree, for example, is not really a tree.  We call it that, because it is convenient and that’s the word we were taught as babies.  A chair is not really a chair, a cat is not a cat… you get the picture.  It gets even more complicated when we move into the realm of the abstract.  When we speak of love, for example, how do we know we are talking about the same thing?  Even if we refine this, ruling out maternal love and platonic love and settle on romantic love, how do I know that the feeling I get when I think of love, is the same feeling that you experience?  At the least our experiences of love are similar enough that most of us can say, “ah, yes, I know what you mean.”

In reality, we probably don’t, but if we believe we do, that has to suffice.  We come into this world with a built in need for connection, and spend our lives trying to attain it.  Some of us come close.  There are people whose experience, whose perception, is near enough to ours that we are confident that we have been understood.  With other people, no matter what we say we’ll never get it right.  Some of us strive endlessly against the odds, trying to reach people who are fundamentally incapable of understanding what it is we are trying to tell them.

So where am I going with all of this?  Nowhere really.  Just thinking out loud.  One of my novels in the works, Swimming North, deals with this issue and so I am grappling to understand what my book is trying to tell me.  Any thoughts on this?  I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.

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