No urge is more human than the urge to express ourselves. We are hardwired to tell stories: our first stories appeared in the form of magnificent cave paintings tens of thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks told epic stories to memorialize great heroes; Native Americans told stories to explain the origins of the world. Today we tell stories on front porches and bus stops, in newspapers and on national public radio. We tell stories even when we’re condemned to solitude: prisoners wait to hear the jingle of keys disappear down the hall before passing notes between their cells; sailors lost at sea send messages in bottles hoping to one day be found. More than love and be loved, humans want one thing: to be seen and be heard.
Language is how we accomplish the extraordinary feat of understanding and being understood. When we impose order on the clutter of our thoughts, when we fit nebulous notions into clearly defined semantic categories and arrange them in comprehensible sentence structures, we can reveal the hidden depths of our souls. Words make it possible to bridge the gap between ourselves and other people. Without words, we’d be like Marin County and San Francisco, within sight of each other but eternally alone.
Sadly, it’s not always possible to cross the uncrossable distance between people. The most profound experiences are beyond words. How can words ever communicate the colossal grief of losing our mother? the unbearable void left after we broke up with our boyfriend of ten years? Not only are the difficult things hard to describe, the beautiful things are as well. The simple pleasure of waking up on a frost-bitten morning to find our lover still warm wrapped in our arms, the enormous relief we feel when—after missing for a few hours— our lost dog returns home. Joy and bliss, catastrophe and crisis: all are ineffable.
In his lovely essay in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, novelist Khaled Hosseini ponders the many limitations of language. Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you? They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers. The result? A treasury of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus III, and Elizabeth Gilbert.
For his passage, Hosseini chose the opening line of Stephen King’s “The Body,” a coming-of-age story that is perhaps more recognizable as its classic 80s movie adaptation “Stand By Me.” In the passage, the protagonist, Gordie LaChance has a distressing epiphany: the most important things are the hardest to say. The tragic irony of being able to speak, he realizes, is the things we most need to express our beyond our capacities:
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them— words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”
For Hosseini, the opening lines of “The Body” remind us no matter how fundamental our need to understand and be understood, we can never be completely seen or completely heard. Why? Because there will always be a rift between what we want to say and our actual words. Ultimately, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he says one thing but means another, he projects an outward persona but conceals his inner self.
“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players,” Shakespeare once wrote. To function in society, we must confine ourselves to our appropriate role: subservient suburban housewife, corporate CEO. The problem? A part is a performance— it’s not our real self. A woman might play the part of shallow housewife when she gossips over mimosas at Sunday brunch, but— behind her Botox-enhanced lips and designer Louie Vuitton — be able to hold a spirited discussion on existentialist philosophy and recite T.S. Eliot by heart. Similarly, a frat boy might spend his weekends displaying his machismo in bar fights but reveal a more tender, sensitive side when he’s away from the aggressive masculinity of the frat house with a girl he loves. Reflecting on his first encounter with Stephen King’s opening lines, Hosseini recalls:
“When I first read those lines I was twenty— not a teenager anymore, but certainly a young man. At that age, especially, you feel like the world doesn’t get you— if only people could look inside you and see all you carry inside! This passage is an expression of how alone we are, really. How fully we live inside our minds, that the person who walks down the street and shakes hands is only an approximation of the self inside. The personas we inhabit publicly are merely approximations of who we are internally— shrunken, distorted versions of ourselves that we present to the real world. This is because the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”
Just as our oversimplified exterior selves can never capture the interior complexities of who we are, what we write never quite expresses what we wanted to say— our words stumble short of our ideas. The painter who tries to reproduce the surreal midnight blue of a starry sky, the novelist who attempts to articulate the inexpressible yearnings of the heart: anyone who calls himself an artist knows the exquisite torment of expressing oneself. The artist is a dauntless explorer who sets out on the expansive sea of the blank page to discover new worlds. The problem? Much like Columbus, we intend to go to one place but often end up on the other side of the globe.
There will always be a gap between what we envision and what we execute. The painter’s cheerful shade of blue won’t quite capture the mysterious wonderment of that surreal summer sky; the novelist’s heartbreaking scene between estranged lovers won’t ring true. So what are we aspiring artists supposed to do? Zadie Smith advised we resign ourselves to the “lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” The witty Michael Childress put it another way: accept that “a book is best before you’ve written a word.”
Hearing this advice, you might wonder: if we’re inevitably going to be disappointed with what we create, why write at all? Isn’t it a cruel form of masochism to try to accomplish what we prove— time and time again— cannot be done? To write, in the words of Bill Bryson, is to “come to terms with the dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill.” Though the summit continually retreats by whatever distance we press forward, still we stagger on…what else can we do? Most writers would say they write— not to arrive at the top of the mountain— but for the thrill of trying to get to the top. Though writing involves discouragement and disappointment, Hosseini affirms it’s ultimately a joyous, humbling experience:
“This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship. You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through different filters in your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen— it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.
When this happens, it’s quite a sobering reminder of your limitations as a writer. It can be extremely frustrating. When I’m writing, a thought will occasionally pass unblemished, unperturbed, through my head onto the screen— clearly, like through a glass. It’s an intoxicating, euphoric sensation to feel that I’ve communicated something so real, and so true. But that doesn’t happen often.
Even my finished books are an approximation of what I intended to do. I try to narrow the gap, as much as I possibly can, between what I wanted to say and what’s actually on the page. But there’s still a gap, there always is. It’s very, very difficult. And it’s humbling.”
I once read that words are the instruction manual for reassembling our ideas. As writers, our job is to outline our thoughts so clearly that our readers can reconstruct them for themselves. If we don’t arrange our points in a logical fashion or use signposts to signal a shift in ideas, they’ll be like the unfortunate soul who tries to assemble an IKEA coffee table without the instructions— they’ll struggle to connect the parts of our argument into a coherent, comprehensible whole. The result? They’ll end up— not with a functional table— but a wobbly three-legged nightmare.
This analogy attests to the difficulty of ever truly communicating with someone. Transmitting a message to another requires reasoning abilities far more advanced than those required of a whale’s song or bird’s squawk. Yet no matter how eloquent or sharp-witted we are, our capacity to express ourselves will falter. Why? Because not only are we imperfect writers, our audience is composed of imperfect readers— they can always misunderstand us. As Gordie so poignantly observes,
“…you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
And isn’t that what so often happens? We so fear being misunderstood that we safeguard the gems of who we genuinely are in the vault of our hearts. Think about love. Perhaps we’ve been dating someone casually for a few months and our initial seeds of infatuation are beginning to blossom into love. Do we confess our feelings? Of course not. What if they think we’re needy/clingy/psycho? What if dating as an adult is just as infantile as having a crush on the playground? What if the moment our schoolyard crush knows the depths of our feelings, he ceases to like us? After all, isn’t reciprocation a surefire way to repulse someone? If we say how we feel, he might think we want a deeper commitment and run off. Or—having finally won our affection— he might get bored and seek to conquer another woman’s heart. Our biggest fear is being rejected and misconstrued. The last thing we want is to utter those immortal words from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not it all. That is not what I meant, at all.”
Yet no matter how impossible it is to be truly seen and truly heard, no matter how likely we are to be misunderstood, the beauty of literature— of all art, really— is it bridges the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between ourselves and others. “Books make us less isolated,” exquisitely erudite philosopher and re-inventor of self help Alain de Botton once wrote, “They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.” An exalting line of poetry, a richly imagined novel: despite how challenging it might be to form close bonds in real life, art reminds us of our common humanity and alleviates our terrible sense of being alone. Hosseini concludes by celebrating literature’s miraculous ability to connect people in a disconnected world:
“But that’s what art is for— for both reader and writer to overcome their respective limitations and encounter something true. It seems miraculous, doesn’t it? That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog. Great art reaches through the fog, toward this secret heart— and it shows it to you, holds it before you. It’s a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens. You feel understood. You feel heard. That’s why we come to art— we feel less alone. We are less alone. You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have— and you feel better.”
For more wisdom on writing and the writing life, visit Maya Angelou’s writing routine & the exquisite torment of the creative life, Anne Sexton’s advice to young writers, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood. For even more guidance from our era’s most dazzling literary lights, delight in Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, grammar school & the necessity of unlearning instruction, Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut and Mary Oliver on attention, the artist’s many selves & the mysterious love affair of the creative life.