Creative Language

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

As a movie buff, at some point in my life I began collecting movie quotes. It has become something of an obsession with me. I have a database of well over 1,000 now, and try to get a “keeper” from every film I watch. The rule is, stand-alone quotes only. So “I’ll be back” doesn’t really work, but “Tomorrow is another day” is fine.

This quote, spoken by Orson Welles’ character in the 1958 version of The Long, Hot Summer, came to my attention recently:

Selection of dialogue from the motion picture The Long, Hot SummerIn the context of the film, the character is talking about age and class differences between himself and another character. But it applies to a great many situations.

Language isn’t just the literal words that we speak. Of course, our expression, tone of voice, and gestures are important. But each of us speaks a “language” based on an accumulation of our own beliefs and experiences. It’s not just the words or how we say them, but the intent and the unique reality behind the words. For example, an insomniac might find it amusing when the average person says, “I couldn’t sleep last night.” And some people might have found the phrase “separate but equal” acceptable on paper, but others knew the intent was never really “equal,” only “separate.”

This difference in language does, indeed, give us “aches and pains.” It can cause arguments between individuals – think of all the times you’ve had a simple misunderstanding of words with another person, leading to a larger conflict. You were speaking the same language but still didn’t fully understand each other.

I’ve had many co-workers over the years who were not native English speakers, but one in particular tended to struggle with English. Even though she was not fully fluent in English, how well she was understood often had more to do with the listener. Those who were patient and didn’t care about language differences usually understood her just fine. Those who were impatient – and perhaps didn’t care for “foreigners” – were never going to understand her very well, no matter what. Our attitude can contribute a lot to not only what we communicate, but what we hear from others.

All of this is important in our personal and professional lives, but I’m also thinking about how writers, in particular, can make use of this “language barrier.” If you’re writing fiction (short stories, novels, screenplays), the aches and pains caused by this “behind-the-scenes” language we all speak can be an important tool to guide how characters interact, and how conflicts are created and resolved. If you’re writing non-fiction, it’s incentive to understand the backgrounds of individuals involved in your narrative, because that can illuminate the motives behind their words and actions. You can go the dramatic tension route, or build up a comedy of errors.

A good fiction example is the series Sneaky Pete, which my wife and I have been watching recently. The show has an ensemble cast of characters who consistently lie to each other. One thing that makes the characters consistently interesting is their changing motives for lying. Sometimes it’s out of purely selfish reasons, other times it’s to protect a loved one, and other times it’s out of sheer embarrassment at the situation they’ve gotten themselves into. Constantly rotating stories and motives make for a cast of characters who all speak a different language.

One way to become more in tune with this background language – both your own and others – is to approach life with an open mind. Human nature tends more toward close-mindedness, and that’s not an easy habit to break. Opening your mind to what others are communicating and how our individual histories might cause us to interpret the same messages differently can be a powerful habit to develop. If none of us ever has access to perfect information, we’re all, to some extent, wrong. That means that coming together, by integrating our multiple points of view, is the only way we can be truly right.

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