Sunday, February 02, 2014

Learning the Language.

Every week, The New Yorker arrives in the mail and I sigh. Another one. For me, that publication is like the gym for my brain. I really don't feel like wading in, but know that I have to. Journalistically, it is one of the few boot camps amid a sea of recumbent bikes and sofas.

I scan the table of contents like a kid hoping for a snow day announcement: Maybe this week's issue will be full of pieces I consider skippable, which usually means they are written by Adam Gopnik (sorry, Adam Gopnik) or are in-the-weeds pieces about politics, here or abroad. But usually I spot some compelling author or a topic and feel a combination of resolve and fatigue: Crap, I will have to read this. There will be no escaping the mental workout today, and my other reading, which is also worthy but usually has nothing to do with current events, will have to wait. But it will be worth it.

Any responsible New Yorker fan knows that The 16,000-word Obama Piece by David Remnick is not skippable. Still, I don't know—Obama. Are you with me? How much do I really need to read an in-the-weeds politics piece about Obama? We've got two years left of this and I've got to pace myself. Hell, even Obama knows that we are over it:
"[B]y definition, the President of the United States is overexposed, and it is natural, after six, seven years of me being on the national stage, that people start wanting to see . . .” 
“Other flavors?” 
“Yes,” he said. “ ‘Is there somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement?’ I don’t spend too much time worrying about that. I think the things that are exciting people are the same things that excite me and excited me back then. I might have given fresh voice to them, but the values are essentially the same."
But, see, this is why you end up reading the entire Obama Piece by David Remnick. Not just for the fun details about presidential life (never knew Obama's limo is dubbed the Beast and has his blood stashed in the trunk in case of emergency) or insights from the man (it may be disappointing to some, but it's refreshing to me that Obama is willing to see, and argue, both sides of an issue) but for the exercise of following one formidable intellect as it tries to capture another, along the way reminding you of what an elegant, incisive sentence looks like.

Earlier in the day I read this from Ann Patchett, in an essay about writing: "Why is it that we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? ...If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, "I'll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!" you would pity her delusion, but beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker."

Patchett argues that in order to be a writer, one needs to practice it like any other craft, and the piece from Remnick, who has been working at it diligently for more than 30 years and has been the magazine's editor for 15 years, is just another proof of that simple truth.

Last month, I began taking Japanese lessons. More than having an abiding interest in that country and culture, I wanted to challenge my own linguistic boundaries. I'd studied Spanish in high school and college, but wanted to go beyond that: learn new letters, new words, new sentence constructions. 

I study for the pleasure of getting better, putting brick on top of brick. Now I know the hiragana. Now I can count to 100. Now I know how to say what my name is. And so on. It is thrilling, for me, when I can see something written in Japanese (say, こんばんは), slowly but surely convert it into sounds (ko-n-ba-n-wa), and understand what it means (good evening). 

I study knowing that there is a very small chance I will ever be able to converse with someone in Japanese. The point is to become better, to push myself.

That is a worthy pursuit, but I also know that it is partly an excuse to step out on my native tongue. Over the past several years, I have fallen out of love with English. I am tired. I don't know what to say. What I have said has been inadequate, in some way, or has already been said. My love of the language, whether it's the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson or AP style, does not seem to have much market value these days.

I have not practiced enough, and thus I have failed. On one level or another, I made the mistake of waiting for the mythical "magic of inspiration." Or, as Steven Pressfield puts it in The War of Art, "the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him." (As you might gather, I'm seeking some inspiration lately on how the hell to rebuild my relationship with writing.)

There's nothing wrong with learning Japanese. But I still must continue to learn English, with the same beginner's attitude: the point is to become better. I still am trying to give fresh voice, as Obama puts it, to the happenings that excite or move me. I still am learning—have not worked hard enough—to articulate the inner world that both sustains and sometimes hobbles me. Recently I was trying to express something to Sir UncMo and words failed me. Tears took their place. Finally I was able to say it. "Why didn't you say that before?" he asked, exasperated.

I didn't know how. I am still learning the language.

Music: "More Than This"