the anthony dobranski blog


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Merge and purge (writing and language)

My first draft was 220,000 words of symbol-laden passages and over-described locales. Over years I steadily replaced sets of words with smaller stronger ones, refining the language to heighten the story and the emotional viewpoint. The never-quite-articulated goal was for the words to hold more weight relative to their size thanks to their structure.

In four passes I got down to 120,000 words. I cut few complete scenes. Mostly I just kept redoing the language, finding slenderer shorter beams for each bit of structure, abandoning ideas that were less essential. It was like starting with an Art Deco skyscraper and renovating it into a geodesic dome, bit by bit.

Now I hope to write less in the first place but I am not sure it is turning out that way. At least I outline more, or more frequently, nothing grand but enough to guide me. Still, once it’s prose, my process scales to it. Less is an asymptote. Even a small post like this, I write and rewrite, in layers, questioning the questioning.

Yesterday going through the magazine pile for something to read with my soup, I stumbled upon an article discussing linguist Noam Chomsky’s controversial recent ideas about the beginning of language. Chomsky theorizes early humans created the foundations of language by developing a new ability Chomsky calls Merge, the ability to group mental objects and work with them as a unit.

I’m no judge of linguistics theory but as an idea Merge resonates with me. Something in my process also looks to merge, or at least more densely encode, meanings – and wants a lot of meaning to encode. Just as we care about both increasing bandwidth and compressing data, maybe the drive to merge is tied in with communication in multiple ways, a circle of acquiring and optimizing we have yet to map out.

I also confess a happy feeling about my own fiction’s truth. One of the angels to appear late in my novel is of_clumping, which I felt was a driving force in our universe, from stars to black holes. How nice to think this is an angel of meaning as well.


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Notes on bad posture (symbol much)

I have a bad stance. I stand, walk and sleep with my feet pointed out. It’s always bothered me, but only mentally. I suspect it’s why I’ve never been much of a runner. It never hurt, however, nor derailed my skiing and skating. I thus never got serious about stretching the tight butt muscles that cause this splaying.

Now in my advancing years, I walk night hallways to soothe my infant son. My knees click. They click less if I point my toes straight. I can force that to happen, but for it to be natural I have a lot of stretching ahead of me, both in discrete sessions and in changing my postures of habit (goodbye cross-legged sitting).

The other day my dad came to visit. As I sat, he corrected me sharply, as only a parent-surgeon can. “Why sit sideways like that? You’ll hyperextend your knee.” He started naming ligaments. I just tuned out and shifted in my seat.

Later, as I forced myself along another oddly straight night walk, I considered the moment. I do often sit so one leg lies sideways across the chair, with my other leg over it. Had I ever thought about it, I might have called it my reaction to a world too short for me, like my leaning back on the rear legs of chairs. Now I see another adaptation to my bad stance — muscles so out of balance that it is more natural to sit like the Tarot’s Hanged Man.

This is a little story but for me an instructive one. Things that seem unrelated or rooted in different causes turn out to be the same buried problem, layered over and accomodated like a tree growing around a fencepost, creating all kinds of distortions. My last few years have involved re-seeing much of my life in this way, an unpleasant and humbling process but one for the long-term good. If nothing else, my knees should make it a bit longer. Perhaps I along with them.

Also, perhaps, another instruction: that the world is full of good advice and it comes out when one needs it, but it takes a modest attitude to hear it all.