Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Fiction-Linguistics Interface

Hi.  My name is Cara, and I write YA fantasy.  I'm also a grad student.

Being an aspiring novelist and having a blog seems to be par for the course these days.  And though book reviews and writing updates are all well and good, they aren't all that interesting in and of themselves.  But trying to be funny or intelligent or engaging all the time is tiring.  What I often find interesting is when my two lives collide, not my secret life as an internet pornographer (oh wait, I wasn't going to mention that!) but my life as a writer and my life as a linguistics grad student.

Basically, I fell into Linguistics entirely by accident.  During college I was busy learning Japanese, taking classes on Buddhism and Musical Theatre, and hitting people with swords five days a week.  But the one thing I did not do was take Linguistics classes.  (Okay, I took one.  I learned about punctuation.  It was kind of cool.  Did you know that there used to be a combined exclamation point/question mark?  That would have been so useful, I thought.  Now I'm beginning to be glad that you have to make the choice.)

I was also taking creative writing classes where I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I can't say I was a great writer (because that would be a lie) but I was prolific, if unpolished, and I gravitated to genre fiction.  Mainly I stuck out because of the fact that I tended to submit stories that actually ended, rather than just hung around with a premise and a setting, and because most of my stories played with Mafia elements, or fantasy, or anime references, or teenagers.  That was when one of my writing profs said, in her inimitable way, "Some people just have YA voices."  This stung bitterly for the rest of college.  I wrote a lot of things with an excess of eroticism and violence afterwards.  Including my thesis, which was a novel, and the first time I every really figured out how much work goes into writing a novel.  Did I do all this work?  No.  Of course not.  I wrote and revised and edited and basically floundered around, knowing that it wasn't good enough but not having any idea how to improve it.

This sucked.

So when I graduated college and went home - with an impressive degree and no job, nor prospects for one - I had a plan.  I would revise my novel and become a novelist, and it would all be awesome.  Unsurprisingly, this brilliant plan did not pan out. I revised and rewrote and reorganized, and at the end of the process I looked at my result and went, "damn, this is worse than what I started with."  And I gave up.

I mean, I thoroughly gave up.  I wasn't writing anything, except maybe the occasional piece of fanfiction, which only made it worse, because no one was reading it, and my dad was glowering down on me and telling me I was wasting my (lack of) talent writing unoriginal schlock.  I read a lot of Law and Order fic, and considered, very seriously, the prospect of taking the civil service exam and working at the courthouse or sheriff's department.  I shot out a couple of applications, none of which I heard a word of response from.  I wanted to work for Pixar, but my attempt at teaching myself computer animation didn't really go all that well.

At the end of the summer  I was so miserable, that I realized I needed something, anything, to get me out of the house.  So I started sitting in on classes at the local University.  I took a film class, and realized that I didn't really like movies very much.  I took Hinduism and Queer Theory.  And then, the next semester, the only classes that struck me as interesting were all in the Linguistics Department.

The idea that understanding more about the structure of language would help me with writing definitely hovered in my mind for quite a while.  The fact that I had been writing and speaking for over twenty years without ever realizing that there was this huge amount of underlying structure to what I was doing was quite a shock.  I was curious, and I wanted to know more (and I needed health insurance) so I actually enrolled in a few classes.  I did pretty well, and the professors said I was good at it.  So, when I found out that my grandmother and my cousin were both moving into my parents' (two bedroom) house, I realized it was time for me to go to grad school.

I should have just gotten a job as a line cook.  Grad school is not just an easy wonderful place where they give you money to mess around and take classes.  There are expectations.  I realized that, right after I accepted a school, and spent the next six months frantically writing and revising a new novel.

Grad school, for me, is basically a crash course in learning tightrope walking.  I want to be a good student and I want to be a good writer, and although these things are not particularly compatible, they aren't mutually exclusive either.  But I can't just let either one slide, or I will slip right off that rope and be eaten by the tigers below.

My intention for this blog is to talk about the moments where writing fiction and where doing linguistics intersect.  There have been quite a few of them, and I hope having a place where I can think and talk about these moments will let me solve the one big question: does knowing what you're doing actually help you do it?



1 comment:

  1. I look forward to reading what you have to say about that intersection.