Caveat: This one is brought to you by insomnia, after Gödel, Escher, Bach (cheaper than sleeping pills) failed to knock me out. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Title image: from Empathy by Sarah Schulman.
Is this common among introvert-type, bookworm children (now nominally adults): a mockingbird tendency to steal the song of others, rather than using our own voices?
I know I’m guilty, and I know that probably needs some explanation. When I feel like I’m on stable ground or in familiar/safe territory, I’m more free with my own speech. When pressured to speak about something that makes me uncomfortable or upset, I’ll back into the pages of a book. It’s how I retreat.
There’s a certain amount of learning everything and learning nothing involving in reading, which is where this defense mechanism becomes complicated. You can quote pages of relevant material, but those pages are not lived experience. If you’re like me, you sometimes use fiction as a stand-in for discussing lived experience, because talking about what is or was is too acutely painful and difficult.
It’s not quite the same as looking for a 1:1 parallel to your own situation in a novel (though I’d love to see the search algorithm online booksellers would have to devise for that one). I certainly did that more as a child: see my requisite Harriet the Spy stage (I also wanted to be Sport; it was very complex).
As characters, often through internal monologue, reveal (only to the reader) what is unsaid, it does feel powerful that someone did not so much find the words (though that’s a feat– but a book review, not for this post) as put them on paper, in the public eye. When I’m on the spot, I may sputter a bit before commencing my ongoing Jane Goodall-level study of carpet fibers. It’s not the same creative process, and it’s not nearly as articulate.
In case I’ve painted myself as a quoting automaton, that’s not quite the case. This is what happens when I’m acutely, unusually uncomfortable. If I can’t (or don’t want to) use my own words, I’ll use someone else’s.
To be clear, it’s not the same thing as posting a mystery, you figure-it-out song lyric on Facebook; I am trying to make myself understood. It’s a literary defense mechanism.
Of course, a bon mot, well-placed, can be a lot of fun. Having “a way with words” often involves coopting other people’s. If I can’t quote Dorothy Parker, I’m taking my toys and going home.
And I just assume that everyone ELSE also sings “Choppin’ Broccoli” (hey, that’s a classic!) while chopping broccoli . . . .
APPENDIX, AND QUITE UNNECESSARY
I didn’t let myself quote anything while writing this one. That was hard. This is getting into vaguebooking territory, but I can’t resist tacking on a reading list of books that, at various times, I’ve torn chunks out of for personal use. Consider them reading recommendations. Or reasons to avoid me.
- Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
- The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai
- How to Grow Up, Michelle Tea
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (oh, shut up. It’s true.)
- Night Watch, Sarah Waters
My only real (facetious) attempt at vaguebooking to date has been to declare that my mood was “whatever Peter Wolf says at the beginning of ‘Whammer Jammer.'” I’m working on it.
DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU