There are lots of wishes we as writers make: to be published, to make more money, to find the perfect pen, to type faster, to wake from a dream with a whole and perfect story ready to be written. My brain continues to generate more even after I stop typing here. As a writer, I can’t help it: wishes are the stuff of stories, and words are the only way I know how to express them.So what would it be like if we could escape language? If we could be like babies again; if language was learned out of necessity and not design; if an R carried no sound, no context, but only shape—if we even noticed that? To escape, to re-know language as the mysterious, aesthetic, magical thing we no longer recognize because we have mastery over it.
For almost three weeks this fall, I vacationed in South Korea. I didn’t know one word of the language, spoken or written, when I arrived. My stay was certainly not English-free—“headline” words (“sandwiches” led off a menu otherwise written in Korean, for example) were common, and many other words were romanized, so they were at least familiar looking to me; my partner traveled with me; and many people, including the school children we’d pass on the street, who greeted us with choruses of “Hello! How are you?”, spoke at least a few words of English. But it was the closest I’d come, since I was born, to being linguistically isolated.
Words on a page weren’t words. They were individual lines and circles. The simplicity of the box next to the vertical line was elegant; the equally clean squared C over the upside down T didn’t draw me in as much. The color of neon the word was written in became part of its meaning to me. I noticed fonts more, and many times I noticed only what amounted to linguistic pictures simply washing over me—background art. In trying to remember words from my dictionary to recognize them on signs, I broke their components into shapes I knew: there was what looked like a person standing on one leg, a wine glass, lips moving toward a cookie. The written name of one popular brand, which I know made canned drinks and heavenly ice cream bars, looked to me like a person wearing a hat, followed by the English grunt “HEH.” There’s that man again, I’d think as I licked chocolate out of a chocolate shell, laughing at the fact that he had coerced me into spending another dollar on sweets. Unlike most of my past trips abroad when I took language classes, what few words of Korean I learned to speak I came to know without context. Sentence structure, verb conjugation patterns, connotation—everything I take for granted about language was gone. Instead, I discovered what solo words or short phrases I needed—sometimes surprisingly—the most: thank you, hello, goodbye, stop, here, please, delicious, how much, two (because that’s how many of us needed tickets, meals, etc.), nights (for reserving a bed), bathroom, just a minute (because there’s always a need to regroup, flip through the dictionary, try to come up with a successful way to communicate), and never mind (because if my mispronunciation made me unintelligible, I needed a way out of the conversation, a way to say the other person didn’t have to keep standing there, trying to figure me out).We never stop learning new words, even in our first language, but in languages completely new to us, words become gifts. A man on the subway asked if I was traveling with my chingu. In response to my puzzled look, he said in English, “Friend.” I replied in the affirmative, then added, “Gamsa hamnida.” Why not thank him? He’d given me a really important word. But because it hadn’t made my survival list of thank you, hello, etc., I hadn’t bothered to look it up in the dictionary and learn it. The word for “friend” became a precious thing. This past fall I received the answer to a wish I hadn’t known I had. Did seeing and hearing my tools—words—in a basic form, clear of meaning, clear of rules, help my writing? I’m not sure that that was the point. Instead, I’ve been reminded that language is amazing all on its own; the magic doesn’t happen only when a perfect sentence comes together, nor only when I wake from a dream with a whole story ready to be written.
About the Author
Kristin Thiel is a freelance writer and editor, found online at www.kristinthiel.com and www.indigoediting.com.
Even before she knew how to form the letters of the alphabet, Kristin was “writing,” dictating stories to her mom to put on paper. In 2006 she won the Elisabeth A. McPherson Award for Women Writers and earlier this year, the Ooligan Editors’ Choice short story contest. Her story “Pilgrim for Hire” is in the recently released VoiceCatcher anthology.
An associate editor at Indigo Editing, LLC, Kristin works with other authors “to strengthen . . . their voices and empower their words.” Visit Indigo’s Web site for information about the company’s editing services, classes, and literary journal; also check out its blog, www.indigoediting.blogspot.com, for book reviews and general musings on the written word.