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Alphabet Blocks

Child's play. Forming letters, fashioning them into words, putting those words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into stories, lines, poems, scenes, chapters, novels. Hemingway said, "Begin with one true sentence." This is harder than it seems. How are we to know the true sentence when we read one? Is this like the old Supreme Count definition of obscenity: I can’t define it but I know it when I see it? How do we know it? In our gut somewhere.

I think of the ending of Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King. Henderson is flying back to the U.S. from Africa over the pole. There's an orphan of American oil company parents brought up completely by Persian servants on the plane, knowing no English, being shipped to his grandparents in Carson City, Nevada. After the flight attendant points him out, Henderson takes a liking to the boy and Henderson keeps the boy in the seat next to him, shows him pictures, they eat dinner together and the kid falls asleep in Henderson's lap. When they wake, the plane stops in Newfoundland to refuel. Henderson carries the boy out onto the ice, holding him in a blanket, and runs around the plane with him. "I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so we went running—leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence."

Why does that work? It doesn't change or resolve anything; it has little to do to directly with the action that has come before. Why does it feel right? Hard to say, hard to know. Maybe because a little while earlier, while the child sleeps in Henderson's lap, Henderson recalls working in a shabby amusement park in Niagara Falls, riding the roller coaster with a sad old bear named Smolak, remembers how "we hugged each other, the bear and I, with something greater than terror" and how "he held me in his arms and gave me comfort," deciding, "Whatever gains I ever made were always due to love and nothing else." Whatever the sense in terms of meaning, it is the sense in terms of the language itself, the sonorousness and the sensual feel on the tongue, that creates the lift-off.

My son makes stories from strings of b's. "BahbahbahbahBAH" he'll hum, or call out "Ba! Ba!" when he sees something that delights him, like birds flying up under the eaves. Other times he'll declare "BABABA" in a loud, commanding tone. He builds imperfectly with these alphabet blocks, but takes apart masterfully.

There is command of the language. There is knowledge of words, and the grammar that regulates the combinations that produce meaning. There is the ear, that hears felicities of order and sound. But there's also a knowledge behind all that, lived in the bone. It's not the sum of everything one has experienced or heard tell, but it's something like that. The well that sends back a "plink" when the stone thrown its gullet hits the sweet spot at the bottom.

Writing is aesthetic problem-solving. So are the other arts, but working with words puts one a further degree removed from the actual. The medium of writing is representative, symbols. So, to write, you must not only know the words as such, but what they do and can refer to as well. This is why I think it's such an occupational hazard for writers to get in their own way. Writers must create the concrete, the immediate, the feel of "reality" or "surreality" or even "unreality," all with the most abstract of abstracts, words.

How many years of associations a reader builds up, to understand. This block in my hand has an "H" carved on one side, a "U" on the opposite, and a horse and an umbrella on two others. My son mouths them unconcerned for meaning, runs his fingers over ridges that are simply ridges, but he's forming associations all the time.

When we write, we call on all those elementary and pre-elementary associations. What if we could excavate the personal history behind each of our words? That's a job for the imagination.