Tag Archives: fluency

The keyboard Inventor

                                      Flickr.com

The high threshold implied in the word “invention” explains why writers block, speakers freeze, and the rest of us may fumble through even a simple response. 

Sometimes we can be surprised by a word that pulls us up short. We didn’t expect to see it on the page. Such a moment came to me as an undergraduate dutifully slogging through the words of the important Roman rhetorician and statesman, Cicero. He noted that creating a message to be presented to others was an act of “invention.”

That’s it.  For 50 years I’ve puzzled over that term. You might suggest that I ‘get a life,’ but my sudden annoyance was  triggered by this less-than-obvious word summing up a communicator’s obligations. I wasn’t ready for a  term that seemed to scale up a process that seemed like it should be less onerous. Bach or Edison might have been the creators of “inventions.”  And give Tesla and Berliner their due. But surely writers and speakers can get by with a lot less. It seemed like overreach.

Bear with me a moment.  There’s a useful lesson here.

Most of us think of language and its various forms are already “out there.” I was certain that good lines of argument or amplification came from prior forms that were adapted, borrowed, or recycled from other sources. And there is a sense in which this is true. But the Latin “inventio” implies more. The idea sets the bar higher.  Indeed, the original term sits there on the page as something of a taunt: it begs us to believe that an effective speaker or writer is on the hook for engaging in a full-fledged act of creation. It turns a communicator into an originator rather than a user, an active agent rather than a pliable imitator. After all, invention was presented not as a minor idea, but the term that would represent the most important of the traditional five “canons” of rhetoric, along with arrangement, style, delivery and memory.

Are creative word-workers really in the business of innovating their ways through the world, like so many garage tinkerers who have given us gadgets we didn’t know we needed?  To be sure, inventio is sometimes translated from the Latin to mean “discovery,” or the process of “devising” a “stratagem” for a suitable verbal response. It turns out that Latin doesn’t a have rich vocabulary in this area. Even so.

Lest you think we’ve drifted into the realm of counting angels on the head of pin, the challenge Cicero laid down is real.  We confront acts of invention every time we sit in front of an empty sheet of paper or a blank screen. Some kind of situation requires an appropriate response. It might be a death in the family, a note to explain why we can’t attend an event, or—at the other end of the scale—an explanation of a guiding principle in American foreign policy. Cicero’s point is that the best response to the question “what can I say?” should be more than a paste-up of another’s ideas.

 Fluency requires bending words to the peculiar social circumstances that lie before us.

This explains a lot. The high-engagement threshold of invention accounts for why writers block, speakers freeze, and the rest of us fumble through a simple response that we wish we could retrieve. The hard truth is that off-the shelf comments usually don’t work very well.  Ideas meant for another time and audience often sit dead on the page.

The lesson coming from this single word is hard for my students to grasp. To be a writer means committing to an innovator’s level of engagement. Good writing is work. Knock-offs of written or spoken prose are easily revealed as the counterfeits they are. Fluency requires bending words to the peculiar social circumstances that lie before us:  a task unsuited to the intellectually lazy.

Very Verbal People

Leo McCary Wikipedia.org.
Leo McCarey                           Wikipedia.org.

Some of us are waterfalls of language. But we can be too sure that a constant flow of dazzling fluency will solidify our relations with others. 

I had a friend who had an aversion to people who constantly filled a room with talk.  It was probably the eastern mystic in Paul, who was constantly chagrined by people who had dedicated themselves to replacing whatever silence they encountered with their own observations.  I never asked him why he recoiled from these conversational marathoners.  But I think I knew.  He favored words chosen carefully.  He liked comments that had a point, but not ten points. Most of all, he recoiled against Very Verbal People who turned their opinions into a circus of logorrhea.  Speaking before fully processing what you wanted to communicate wasn’t his style.  Not surprisingly, his care with words and comfort with silence made him a wonderful listener and a good colleague.

Even so, there are times when we do love verbal people who light up a space with their wit and responsiveness.  For most of us that room is usually a theater.  It helps when we can witness a conversation that has been worked out and honed by a room full of crack writers. It helps as well to have actors who can deliver the perfect response with a naturalness that lets us forget that their words came from a script.

The performer as a Very Verbal Person is something of a showcase for the possibilities of language, a model that we may admire for putting a difficult person in their place or, better yet, restoring the will of someone damaged by the worst that life can give.  A good script perfects what is never quite so clear in real life.

My favorite cases include the Schlegel sisters in James Ivory’s 1992 film, Howard’s End.  E. M. Forster’s  two young women are confined by the conventions of the day to stay close to their modest home in turn of the century London. But they are full of ideas and thirsty for conversation, even if the potential conversant is simply a clerk who shows up at their front door to retrieve a misappropriated umbrella. Their curiosity makes them seem fully alive.

There is also the pleasure of hearing the complex overlapping dialogue of a Robert Altman film, especially his classic M.A.S.H (1970).  Its the same satisfaction a viewer gets from vastly different television classics like WB’s Gilmore Girls (2000) or The West Wing (1999).  Writer Aaron Sorkin’s breakthrough series about the Bartlet administration is defined by Sorkin’s love of dialogue structured as a series of intense interrogatories and responses. No voiceless and moody reaction shots here, which is supposedly the stuff of television. In Sorkin’s world characters are always duty bound to frame their feelings as complete counter-arguments.

The surprise in the otherwise more conventional Gilmore Girls lies partly in the fact that the actors were running through scripts that were often twice the number of pages as similar hour-long shows.  Indeed, the long-running series now in re-runs owes its best scenes to the rhythm and pacing common in 1930’s film farces.  Who knew that Lauren Graham would be an heir to the traditions of the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell?

In these and other entertainments the fun is in watching Very Verbal People trade rebukes and put-downs using a logic entirely their own. The point obviously was not the real-world relevance of the logic, which only makes sense within the manufactured world of the narrative, but the pleasure of seeing people completely comfortable with the task of explaining any and everything.

And so it goes for Irene Dunn and Cary Grant, playing a couple who have drifted into a split in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). The pair have talked their way into a divorce that neither wants:

Jerry: In a half an hour, we'll no longer be Mr. and Mrs.  Funny, isn't it.

Lucy: Yes, it's funny that everything's the way it is on account of the way you feel.

Jerry: Huh?

Lucy: Well, I mean, if you didn't feel that way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.

Jerry: But things are the way you made them.

Lucy: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

All of this boils down to our love of the idea of total fluency.  We spend a lot of our waking hours trying to imagine the right thing. . .anything. . .that will resolve the challenges of dealing with prickly others.  Its only natural to admire the Very Verbal People who make it look so easy.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu