Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Perspective

A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.

Don’t answer

I’ve been talking my mouth off about writing all week. There is something funny about talking about writing and there’s something not at all funny about a writer not getting to write much. But in the course of yapping away, I rediscovered something so persnickety and detailed, an opinion of mine so exclusive to writing that normal people would think I’m barmy to care and writers would again recognise me as barmy but also as one of their own.

Naturally, then, I’ve got to tell you. For once, it won’t take long, either, as it’s so precise and so vehement as to be less an expression of opinion and more a banging my hand on the table for emphasis.

Do not ever write anything where your character answers a question.

Not.

Ever.

Let me give you the example that keeps popping into my head. Here’s Burt asking Susan a question. (I have no idea who Burt and Susan are.)

BURT: What were you doing in aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Buying bacon.

Susan answers the question and in just two words I’m bored with her, that dialogue is dead air and it achieves nothing beyond the obvious. Now, if you had to have Burt ask this question, it would be because you needed your audience to know this fact that Susan had been at Asda in aisle 9 this morning. But you never need them to know that same fact twice.

The sole thing that “buying bacon” does is tell us that yes, she was in Asda’s aisle 9 this morning and presumably that’s where the bacon is stored. Unless we deeply care about bacon, this is worthless dialogue. Whereas this isn’t:

BURT: What were you doing in Aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Were you following me?

Look what that just did. In both examples, Susan is actually saying yes, she was there. So that’s your plot exposition done. She isn’t wasting air with a pointless detail about bacon and pointless is always boring. If that were all, I’d at least be happier than when she just said “buying bacon”.

But it isn’t all. Without the rest of the scene we can’t tell what attitude she’s got – is she afraid? is she annoyed? is she flirting? is she a vegetarian who’s just been caught out? – but we do know that she has got some attitude. She’s on her feet, she’s pushing back, this may be very mild conflict but it is conflict. She’s pushing back and Burt is now on the defensive; she may have just changed the power in this conversation.

That’s drama. And I’l tell you this: you now want to know what Burt is going to say next. When it was about bacon, I doubt you were excited waiting to see if he’d enquire about smoked or unsmoked, back or streaky. Maybe you and I would both gasp if we learned she’d bought turkey bacon – there’s such a thing as turkey bacon? – but neither of us would be giving a very great deal of a damn.

You can think of situations where actually “buying bacon” is the right response, it’s the response that would bring up the end-of-episode drums of EastEnders. So when I say never do it, you know that I mean never do it but okay, if you must.

It’s as I’ve said to you before: there are no rules in writing, but if you break them…

The one writing tip I learned from Alan Plater

I won’t stretch out the suspense: I learned from him that it’s your characters that matter more than anything and especially more than plot.

I’d like to just pause for a moment and explain that I may be being a bit previous saying that he taught it to me or even that I’ve actually learned it. I think I learned it, I certainly deeply believe in characters over plot, I know that it’s what I aim for and I hope that it’s what I do.

Also, it’s not like the man formally lectured. Nor is saying that I learned one writing tip terribly accurate as I don’t think a writer can watch any of Alan’s novels or 300-odd television, radio, film and stage tales without learning somewhat more than one thing.

But I have a striking visual memory of a moment sitting at the dinner table with Alan opposite and his wife, my friend, Shirley Rubinstein to my right. I remember being a bit young and I remember enthusing about some fantastically complicated plot I was writing. What I can’t remember is a single damn thing about that plot, not one syllable of it or even the title. Unfortunately I also can’t remember everything Alan said.

I just see him saying “No”.

He didn’t just say that, though I don’t imagine he said a great deal more, but I remember that moment and my clearest recall of the entire time was that I didn’t agree. It wasn’t that we argued, it wasn’t that I thought I’d show him, it was a tiny and passing moment more like the comment not registering with me.

It registered later. I don’t know when, I wish I could imagine how, but at some point it deeply registered. I can now neither imagine not believing in characters first nor conceive how I ever thought anything else. One of my absolute favourite things is to have my mind changed by someone: I have one opinion then they say something, they persuade me of something and from then on I hold completely the opposite opinion. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s great when it does, except there is usually very specifically one moment when it happens. Thought one thing, bam, think the other.

This one took years. I wish it had been a light switch kind of moment, primarily of course because I’d have written better, sooner, if it had. But also maybe I’d have been able to ask him to elaborate and I’d be able to tell you his position.

Alan died in 2010 and I was writing this way long before then but not stopping to examine it. I’ve stopped to examine it now because I was recently asked about a piece of his in an interview. He wrote a famous Z Cars episode called A Quiet Night and right from when he pitched the idea, it was set: this would be the episode in which nothing happens. He said that, he called it A Quiet Night, and to this day even people who saw it will tell you that nothing happens.

Part of it is that you do just enjoy spending time with these characters and that was something Alan always pulled off so well that you don’t realise how hard it is.

I can’t give you his opinion but I can give you mine. Characters matter more than plot because if you don’t care about the characters, who gives a damn what happens in the plot? Myself, I take one more step: I think dialogue is supreme. If I don’t believe that a character is saying these words, that instead it sounds like the writer conveying some plot, then I don’t believe in the characters and therefore I don’t care about them and therefore who gives a damn what happens in the plot?

The surprising thing to me is that my plots do still tend to be a bit, well, thorough, but they’re never plotted per se, they’re never planned. I get these characters and I see what happens to them. It’s as if by looking after the characters, the plot looks after itself.

The delicious thing to me is that I believe it’s the same with Alan. I detest claiming to know what someone would say if they were still here but I think he’d deny this because I think he used to claim that he didn’t do plots. With the greatest of respect and fondness, he lied.

I think I say this in my book about his show The Beiderbecke Affair but the man was trained as an architect and underneath all the business of nothing happening, gigantic things are happening and his scripts are structured superbly. A Quiet Night officially has nothing happening and despite Z Cars being a police series there is no crime in this episode, nobody is arrested, there will be no trial. Yet a man dies and it is someone’s fault. It is an enormous punch and stays with me years after I read the script. (The episode itself has been lost but the Z Cars script was published.)

That man who dies is a guest character and while the impact hits one of the regulars, it is because Alan made us care about this man we’ve not seen before and, well, clearly won’t see again. A Quiet Night was in 1963 and Alan was doing exactly the same thing with characters in the 2000s. I remember him asking me to read a Lewis script of his called And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea. Actually he wondered what I thought of the plot and whether it worked. I am half proud and half not that I did see a plot problem and that a suggested fix of mine became something great in the final draft. I didn’t think of the great bit but I could see its root in what I’d said and that was a pretty good feeling.

Except there was this draft script and even there, on the page, with no idea who would be cast in a guest role, I told Alan that I fancied his leading character. That’s making you care. Lewis is a crime series and in this as in every episode ever made, there is a death and, admit it, you’re not that fussed about murder victims in these shows. But you were about this one.

I don’t remember the plot now, though I’m sure it was involving and interesting, but I vividly remember how I saw that character on the page and then how she was portrayed on screen. Because in retrospect it is only character that matters – because in whatever the opposite of retrospect is, when you’re writing right at the start, it is only character that matters.