Shaun Levin

Page, Head, Mouth

In Writing on September 9, 2020 at 8:59 pm

Speaking of unfinished thoughts, I’m having one at the moment. Something to do with what’s on the page, what’s in your head, and what’s in your mouth. Language, and the relationship between what you see on the page, what it sounds like in your head, and what actually comes out of your mouth. I’m at that stage in Spanish when I see things on the page before I say them, like I’m first writing them down (in my head) then articulating them, not always but a lot of the time. Sometimes I stumble on a “c” or “z” or “d” when they should appear in the mouth as a”th”. I say to my Spanish teacher that I think it happens because I see the letters on the page before I say them, the words are first words and only then are they sounds.

My Danish teacher says it’s important with Danish to learn the sounds more than the written words, to listen to what words sound like, because really there’s often no connection between the way you say a word in Danish and what it looks like on the page. With Arabic I stumble because it takes me a while to read what’s on the page, each letter a discovery, an uncovering. I’m wondering if that’s why I never enjoyed reading in Hebrew even though my Hebrew is pretty much at the level of a native speaker. What’s on the page doesn’t sit well with me, doesn’t come easily, which isn’t entirely true. An unformed thought.

My sense is that this is connected to writing, to what we do when we write a story, that there is the story on the page, the intention in our head, and although we don’t actually speak what we write, there is the spoken version of our story, the story being recounted to the people gathering round to listen. Reading out loud is a great editing tool. What doesn’t feel write in the mouth will not feel right in the head, particularly the head of the reader. When we stumble over words as we read them out loud, something in the reader will stumble, and even though they may not register this at first, too many stumbles and they’re lost. They give up.

I don’t like to stumble when I speak Spanish, when I read Roberto Bolaño and a strange word appears, when I can’t catch the words you’re saying. I want fluency or nothing. There’s something here about the relationship between writing and speaking, writing and telling, telling a story on the page, in your head, to the people sitting there with you. The extent of our vocabulary defines the shape of our stories. The extent of our emotional vocabulary defines the depth of our stories. What are you saying? I don’t know what I’m saying. What’s he saying?

My Spanish is better when I’m speaking to people I like, or more precisely, when I’m having conversations I like. The words form with greater ease. I forget that there’s a page and that the words have spelling. Spelling, spell, spiel. It’s harder to talk to the pharmacist about probiotics (I stumble) than it is to my Spanish teacher about Wittgenstein or horchata, even though I know nothing about Wittgenstein. It’s easier to write about things you love and that intrigue you, than it is to write a utilitarian story. The thing is, it’s not always easy to know what’s easy for you to write. It changes.

Enjoyment is not always about ease. Discovery. I’m thinking discovery. I’m thinking of worlds opening up when you learn those first phrases in Danish, in Arabic, when you hear whole sentences in Spanish and you think, a few months ago I would not have understood what he just said.

What are the stories to which your heart opens with curiosity and wonder? The stories that make you grateful to have a pen in your hand? What are the stories you speak as if they were your natural tongue? By speak I mean write.

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