inlooking #001: Language is like space
20210214: cablese, Hemingway, #countryliving
Happy Valentine's Day! Or at least, it's Valentine's Day as I'm writing this. No doubt I will be sending this some other time, as it's 0643 right now and my kids are almost certainly going to interrupt my morning writing time before I get this off. No matter...
New job; new novel; new vista
The Mosquito Coast
The Title of This Thing
Evelyn Waugh; Ernest Hemingway
An Imperfect Metaphor for Language
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It's been a year since I dropped an email newsletter on anyone, and a lot has happened in that time. You already know what's happened in the world (I hope), so here are a few quick words about my life:
I have a new job: Since last March, I've been working as executive director of a nonprofit writers community called The Writers Grotto, in San Francisco. We run a pretty robust online classes program (at https://www.sfgrotto.org/classes-at-the-grotto/upcoming-classes-at-the-grotto/ — new classes go up in a few weeks), we offer a free conference by and for writers of color, and we count about 125 narrative artists of all stripes among our members, from emerging writers to big-time prize-winners. There have been no end of challenges over the last twelve months, but we have some interesting plans afoot for this year, so stay tuned for more on that.
I wrote a novel: It's a sprawling, big fantasy novel for young people, about twin princesses who venture forth from their brokedown palace to go in search of their wayward dad. I don't yet have an agent for it, but I'm going to send it off to a few people in the next couple of months. It's been incredibly fun to write. Hopefully, it's incredibly good as well.
Because the novel involves the figure of a wayward dad, I've read a number of books in similar vein lately. The best was doubtless The Mosquito Coast, which is the story of malcontent inventor Allie Fox, who takes his family off to the rain forest for a chilling (in many senses) adventure. As dads go, they don't get much more complicated (in the root sense of something having many parts woven together) than Fox. And Paul Theroux does one of the best jobs anywhere of portraying the adoring gaze of the eleven-year-old boy forced to come to terms with the perilous complexities of who his father really is.
My own family's adventure has brought us to new vistas as well: We're holed up in the country these days, in a tiny town about an hour out of San Francisco. Our neighbors on one side keep chickens. The neighbor on the other side is a veterinarian who keeps dogs, ducks, geese, and two miniature horses (they're about three feet tall), and we're down the street from a goat farm. So our girls (who are now eight) are in #countryliving heaven.
Unfortunately, all this has meant I have set aside teaching for the moment, though I have some interesting ideas for classes I'd like to do at the Grotto, so you may hear more on that in a future missive. I really enjoyed my class on Writing About Place, and I'd like to do that one again, at some point. I also want to deconstruct some novels and stories with people. Not sure when or if I'll have time for any of this, but let me know if any of it sounds interesting, as I'm sure I'll try to do something at some point soon.
The title of this newsletter—inlooking—is taken from my days as a wire-service reporter, at Reuters. It was at Reuters in New York that I cut my teeth as a journalist. Part of the routine there involved a messaging system that journalists and editors used to communicate with each other—this was the early '90s, so email and instant messaging were far from the ubiquitous tools they've since become. (I can't remember what the system was called; I think I remember it being introduced when I was there, around '94, but memory dims.)
I was on the equity desk at Reuters, which meant the pace was pretty brisk—like, constantly breakneck, from the moment you sat down to the moment you left for after-work drinks (you didn't go home after work). That's because we were constantly trying to beat the other wire services—Dow Jones, and then Bloomberg—at the game of breaking news. And on the equity desk, that was "tradeable" news, i.e., news that traders on Wall Street could take action on. A lot of big trades happened based on the headlines crossing the wires, and so the wires competed to be first with the news. If we got a company's quarterly earnings—or its insider trading scandal—on the wire before Dow Jones did, it was our headline that prompted the trades that made or lost millions for the people on the other ends of them. So time was at a premium in everything we did—including internal communications.
That, and the hangover of tradition, was part of why we our newsroom communications still used the strange journalist's cant sometimes known as "cablese," which made use of portmanteau-esque creatures like OUTCHECK (for "check out") or LONDONWARD for "to London." You can find some of this in Evelyn Waugh's fine send-up of the news business, Scoop, in which a character is said to be "urgenting eight hundred words a day"—that is, he's filing 800 words of breaking news daily. (An "urgent" is a story of some importance, usually brief, usually breaking news or a scoop of some kind.) That book is as fine a piece of social satire as there is, and while I haven't read it in some years, I'd wager it still holds some pointed lessons for the media landscape of today.
So: INLOOKING. Looking into. That's what I'm doing here. This letter (which you'll probably get no more than once a month) will contain a few pieces of news, as this one does, occasional recommendations, and a short bit of musing on something I've been looking into lately, or that I thought I'd take the time to think about for a moment. Right now, I'm thinking about cablese.
Cablese was born of the need to save money at a time when communication costs were charged by the word. Bay Area journalist Richard Harnett, who died about 20 years ago, had this to say about it in a book called Wirespeak: Codes and Jargon of the News Business: "The idea was to reduce the number of words and shorten the message. Cable companies charged for transmission by the number of words, ranging up to 30 cents or more per word. A word had to be 15 or fewer characters in order to go at the single word rate, and you couldn't just join two words to get the single word rate."
It's said by some that cablese helped develop Ernest Hemingway's style of concision and fine control over the imparting of information. There's no doubt that writing for newspapers did, though even more so I think it was Hemingway's own interest in how emotion got expressed by language. In this it was a brevity of ideas that captured Hemingway, rather than an economy of word count (though that's there too).
One of my favorite Hemingway quotes is this, from the opening of Death in the Afternoon:
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it.
The sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion. Hemingway's assertion here is that whatever his characters might be feeling could be evoked by describing the series of actions and conditions that gave rise to those emotions—that they were a kind of shorthand or code, just as cablese or the Phillips code (which gave us acronyms like POTUS, for instance) were shorthand for use in news dispatches.
Though it's driven by a different set of pressures, the logical conclusion of all this (or one station along the road, anyway) is internet slang like lol, wtf, idk, and roflmao, among so many others. Plenty of pundits more trenchant and voluble than myself have inweighed on the value (or devalue, as it were) of this phenomenon. (See what I did there?)
Regardless, what's interesting to me is that each of these cases is born of the constraint of brevity (a gift I don’t seem to have, you may have noticed). I've no idea whether this is true, but it seems to me that language generally grows through expansion. Words come to mean more than they once did, not less. New words are generally born when we want language to do more than we see it doing at the time. But cablese and internet acronym English (and are there others? there must be—Morse code comes to mind) are "languages" that have grown by shrinking—not necessarily by shrinking meaning (though some might argue that they do), but by shrinking bandwidth, by doing more with less, or in a more compact space.
Language is, practically speaking, boundless: you can add as many new words as you can remember, or convince other people to use. But it's interesting to think it might be boundless in both directions, like space: we can explore outward, like the universe expanding, and we can explore inward, as well, discovering ever smaller particles at the center of things. It's not a perfect metaphor. But it's an interesting one.
So, language is like space. Let's explore.
Til next time,