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?

Only time can tell

Late one night this week, stewing with a cold and unable to sleep for coughing, I started to watch Somewhere in Time on Netflix. Don’t look for it: the film has gone. Even though I am new to Netflix, I did know that this happens, I just didn’t know that it could happen before I finished watching something I’d started.

There’s something fitting about it disappearing like this. I have to be in exactly the right mood to watch it and that mood is a bubble that never lasts long. Maybe Netflix is the Brigadoon of online streaming video services and in another hundred years the film will reappear. For a few moments or preferably the film’s 1 hour 48 minute running time, it will be as if the movie had always been there.

It does feel a bit like that now: it was made in 1980, and you can tell, but originally it was partly a present-day film, mostly a period piece and so now it feels like two period pieces. If you don’t know the film, it’s written by Richard Matheson and stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I think summarising the film diminishes it and that maybe that’s one reason it was a flop on release: it’s a time-travel romance. The film only succeeded, only became a huge hit, after it was seen knocking around cable TV channels in the States. So really it only became a hit after people saw it.

If you do know the film, that’s not what’s on my mind. The book is. I like the movie but for the most part it is a nicer version of the story, it has an innocent sweetness that is sometimes good but often just too much. In comparison, I feel like the original novel tore at me. By chance, this week I’ve been interviewed for a TV show about my life – I was chosen because of my brilliant and apparently unique availability – and thinking about myself, seeing that film, being caught in this cold, it somehow showed me that this novel is deeply important to me.

somewhere-in-timeThe novel is also by Matheson and it’s called Bid Time Return after Shakespeare’s line in Richard II: O, call back yesterday, bid time return. Or it was called that: most editions after 1980 rename it Somewhere in Time. It’s obviously about time and for whatever reason that has become a profound obsession for me in drama and fiction. I also know that it is the first romance novel I read and while I haven’t read that many more since, I’ve noticed that everything I write is imbued with this. It used to scare me a bit: you might not spot it but I can see time and romance – and, full disclosure, thrillers – in every single thing I write.

I just don’t see romance as slushy, I see it as dangerous. That unpredictable, unreasonable, impossible lurch in your life. I’m fascinated by the power of romance, the compulsion, the roaring way it changes who you are and exposes who you can be. I’m riveted by what in the hell makes us admit to someone that we fancy them – and by what it’s like when they feel the same. That’s not slush, that’s primacord explosive.

Picture me forming this opinion when I was around 15. I suspect hormones played a part but I also think it would’ve been around then that I found the novel. I wish I could remember the details but I think I read it and at first didn’t realise how it got into me. I do vividly remember wanting to re-read it and not having a copy. At the time, there was a science fiction bookshop in Birmingham called Andromeda and they didn’t have it in stock. Nowhere did.

I remember standing at the Andromeda counter, mentioning to the owner Rog Peyton that I was so disappointed to not be able to find a copy anywhere. And I remember him saying something like “Wait there”. This was an independent bookshop where you felt much of the stock was there because it was beloved by the staff and when I say they had a special place in their hearts for Bid Time Return, they actually had a special place in the back. Rog had kept perhaps three or four copies of the book to sell only to people who were specifically searching for it.

At this point the book must’ve been quite rare and out of print, though the edition he sold me had the film’s rather beautiful period illustration on the cover so the movie was out. Maybe it’s a sign of how poorly the film fared at first, certainly it was a sign that Rog didn’t want people to casually pick up the last copies and chuck them on a shelf to never read.

I say all this to you and I can see me in that shop, I can feel that paperback in my hands. The novel is the same story about a man who falls for a photograph of a woman –– so far, not so very unusual –– but discovers that the photo was taken sixty years ago. It’s a funny thing: you know they are going to meet and you don’t care how the time travel is done, yet it has to be done in a way that carries you along. Or at least in a way that doesn’t drop you out of the story. It’s a remarkably fine line and the film is fairly good at it but the novel kills you. You are in that story and you are feverish as Richard Collier of 1971 burns to reach Elise McKenna of 1912.

Then you also have to have their first meeting and even at 15 I thought bloody hell, Richard Matheson is a smart writer. I’m willing to spoil a lot of this for you as it’s over forty years since the novel came out and about thirty-six since the movie, but I won’t spoil that scene which works well in the film and perfectly in the novel. I also won’t go to the filming location and re-enact the moment but people do. A lot.

I want to spoil or maybe just a tiny bit heighten two other moments, though, and especially as I think they’re appropriate to writing. One is very much about books and the other is very much about visuals.

The first ties to this business of getting us to agree about time travel: we know it’s coming, you don’t have to really sell us but you must somehow make it fly. Matheson does all manner of things to set us up for this in the book and his film screenplay does many of the same things but quicker. Yet arguably it all turns on one moment of deeply believable despair as Richard Collier no longer believes or can even hope that he’ll ever do it.

Matheson brings us to a moment where we did not see this coming but we should’ve done: Richard is in a hotel and trying to get back in time to that same hotel sixty years ago. He goes hunting for the hotel’s guest books and in one of these dust-caked, mouldy old ledgers, there he is. His name, signed in as a guest in 1912. Matheson plays this as clinching proof for Richard, the thing that makes him believe and so makes him succeed but I keep thinking about that signature waiting there. Throughout Richard’s life, that line was in that ledger waiting for that moment of discovery. That line would not be in that ledger if he didn’t find it.

Then visually the entire plot turns on the photograph that Richard sees of Elise. The way it’s described in the novel and the feeling that is conveyed in the movie is that it seems as if in this photograph she looking at Richard. Even at 15 and certainly now at somewhat older, I’m thinking right, sure, he just fancies her, don’t try to make it slushy. But the punch, for me, comes much later when we find out that actually, yes, she is looking at him.

There’s a brief scene where Richard walks in on the photograph being taken and the moment of the lens click is the moment Elise has seen him. She is looking at him in that photo and if he hadn’t been there, the photo would’ve been different and maybe he would never have looked at it.

I’m biased because I love the novel, I like the movie and I think about all this far too much. But these are resonant moments that – I’m right, aren’t I? – only time can tell.

Read the film’s screenplay online
Buy Somewhere in Time the movie in the UK or in the US
Buy Bid Time Return/Somewhere in Time the novel in the UK or in the US

Star Wars is not a (Han) Solo effort

It’s not like you should rush to find writing advice in the scripts to Star Wars movies, but bear with me. I’ve written before about how drama is a collaboration – and that this is one of its joys – but I’ve never before thought of how it can change over time. Literally change over time: the drama you and everybody makes can be physically changed a little ways down the road.

I don’t know what to think about it. But I’m thinking about it a lot now because actor Harrison Ford responded to a famous example of it this week.

Follow. You hide your inner geek very well so I’m not certain you know this, but there’s a thing about Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. It’s the tiniest very big thing there is. George Lucas went back to Star Wars and changed a scene by about a pixel and it enrages some people, it makes others shrug. It’s to do with a scene where Han Solo is confronted by a baddie and in the original version, Solo shoots this guy. In the revised version, the guy shoots Han Solo. It’s not as big a difference as that sounds, we don’t suddenly lose Harrison Ford’s character, erased from the rest of the film, because this guy misses.

Yet that’s the thing for me. I think we do lose Harrison Ford’s character for the rest of the film.

The guy is named Greedo and when Ford began a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, he was asked: who shot first, Han or Greedo? Harrison Ford’s reply:

I don’t know and I don’t care.

It’s a funny line and you can imagine the weariness in his voice. It’s almost enough to make me read the whole interview. (Have you tried, though? Reddit’s AMAs are impenetrable after the fact: the transcripts of these live interviews are stupidly hard to unpick. But go on, have a try with Ford’s here.)

The trouble is… it matters.

George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars film and George made these changes, Ford acted the scenes and had no part in the alterations. I’m not arguing that Lucas should leave his own films alone, I’m not arguing that Ford should get in a tizzy over changes to a thirty-year-old movie.

I am saying that this one small change is actually gigantic and that it was done after the collaborative heat of production. I tried watching Star Wars the other day while I was thinking about all this and I got a bit bored so perhaps I’m simply wrong. But I believe that had I got into the story, this scene would have taken me out of it again. It bothers me enormously that someone can make such a fundamental change and it makes my eyes go wide that anyone would want to. It actually makes me think that George Lucas genuinely does not understand storytelling.

Hmm.

Here’s the thing. When Han Solo shoots this alien fella dead, it tells us a lot. We’ve already seen a picture-perfect toothy farm boy hero in Luke Skywalker, this is telling us that Han Solo is very nearly an anti-hero. Let’s not get carried away. But he is out for himself and this is really his one character note throughout the first film. Fine.

When he doesn’t shoot first, when he waits for the baddie to shoot him, Han Solo is a hero. I’d say he’s as empty and unbelievable a figure as 1970s US TV hero, but he’s squarely a square-jawed hero type. We’ve already got one of those in Luke and the rest of Solo’s selfish actions and dialogue don’t square with the squarely square-jawed hero. With this one moment, he no longer fits.

More, this is meant to be a dangerous moment. Han Solo is cornered, we learn his enemies aren’t exactly legion but they are pretty big. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is correctly thought of as the superior film – it’s all relative – but one of its clunkiest lines refers to how Solo is hunted. “A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with,” says a man just trying to get through the script.)

Everyone’s hunting Han Solo and this Greedo guy is the one who gets there first. He’s beaten all the rest. And shooting a laser pistol at a distance of three feet from his target, he misses.

That is a crap baddie.

That is a cardboard baddie.

So now Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero and his enemies are worthless.

Harrison Ford made certain decisions about his performance in 1976 or whenever this was filmed. George Lucas the director made certain decisions then. Lucas the script writer had made all the decisions earlier. Together they created the scene we see but Lucas alone could step back into it decades later and make a gigantic change.

The positive thing I take away from this is that moments matter. It’s scary to think that a tiny touch on the tiller of one scene can so radically change a character but it’s also exciting. Makes me press harder on scenes and moments as I write them.

But the bad thing I take away from this is that unless Lucas simply could not see the impact of his change, he elected to do it regardless. I think he decided Han Solo had to be a good guy. I think he chickened out.

Only, this is Star Wars. It’s just Star Wars. If you’re going to lose your nerve over a character, it should surely be over a better one.