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Haruki Murakami on Writing

Haruki Murakami had an essay in the Times this weekend, in which he writes about writing and compares writing to jazz:

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music—and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody—which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony—the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work—upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

The comparison’s right for Murakami; its brushing over of character and abstraction of plot has a flavor of what it’s like to read his work—disorientation in the realm of the familiar, nausea like a Tilt-a-Whirl. Murakami picks up a beat, toys with it, buries it, and resurrects it with skill. And when he’s on, he finds the right words:

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

Murakami lives in the Library of Babel. Who knew?



the cat reminds me of something my daughter does… she will periodically, and we don’t know where she got this from, grab our face and say, i gon lick you face.

when we are in the privacy of our own home it’s not bad… when i happen to walking down crowded downtown sidewalks at rush hour with her, it can be a little embarrassing, it only because a 2 1/2 year old girl is sucking my face off and will not take no for an answer

how are you e? i two… i two a half

Thus e demonstrates that sweet spot where slobber is both gross and adorable at the same time!

2 1/2 is the beginning of prime syntax development time! Her grammar should be growing in leaps and bounds for the next year.

Well, I guess everything about kids is growing leaps and bounds at that age, but most kids max out their syntax around 3 1/2 – 4 years. Most maturation beyond that point is just prescriptive rules.

3: So you’re saying that if E doesn’t begin speaking in complex, layered sentences within the year, she’s doomed to simplistic syntax? If so, BG, you better get cracking! She may be verbally precocious now, but if you’re not vigilant, she could fall irreversibly behind her peers!

at this point, were she at home, she would, as she did a few weeks ago when her mother and i were quietly (yes, despite the topic it was quiet) discussing from which side of the family she got her obstinacy (it was quiet because we don’t doubt there is a healthy dose from both sides), leave off coloring in her hello kitty coloring book, come running into the room, swat her arm in our general direction, and exclaim no, you no talking bout me!

Ah, it’s the theoretically innate part. It will come to full maturity no matter what BG and T do. Only depriving her of all linguistic input could stop her.

Is that a a Skinner box I hear you suggesting?

You’re associating antipodes Chomsky and Skinner? Blasphemer.

I suggesting testing Chomsky with Skinner—well, okay, that’s not quite right. I’m actually suggesting testing Chomsky’s theory with a box. Total deprivation and all.

I’m pretty sure Skinner tried that with his daughter. Not with language in particular, but he did keep her in a box for a while. She’s a sane, functioning person today, but it’s amazing how he didn’t end up in jail for that. I mean, it was the 1950s, not the 1650s.

Apparently, it was just a better crib he built, and everybody thought it was for the teaching of operant conditioning.

Oh wow. I did get that information from Opening Skinner’s Box. I didn’t know it was so shoddily researched.

Another lesson learned.

Now you’ll just have to resort to illustrating arguments about innate linguistic ability with horribly abused and/or feral children.

You dickweed, there’s so much more to it than that!!

What is dickweed, anyway?

(Other than calamus, that is.)

It doesn’t matter.

Sure it does! And for the record, I much prefer the association with calamus than these boring definition at urbandictionary.com.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I studied Chomsky’s grammar, and then it was more transformational than universal. But I know there’s precious few ways to actually test the brain’s ability to develop and process language—you can’t actually ethically deprive children of it to see what happens, so you take the ones who’ve been deprived by others.

And I also know that universal grammar’s recently been challenged:

Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, calls Everett’s paper “a bomb thrown into the party.” For months, it was the subject of passionate debate on social-science blogs and Listservs. Everett, once a devotee of Chomskyan linguistics, insists not only that Pirahã is a “severe counterexample” to the theory of universal grammar but also that it is not an isolated case. “I think one of the reasons that we haven’t found other groups like this,” Everett said, “is because we’ve been told, basically, that it’s not possible.” Some scholars were taken aback by Everett’s depiction of the Pirahã as a people of seemingly unparalleled linguistic and cultural primitivism. “I have to wonder whether he’s some Borgesian fantasist, or some Margaret Mead being stitched up by the locals,” one reader wrote in an e-mail to the editors of a popular linguistics blog.

I assume there’s probably some difference between a theory of innate grammar and of the fundamental necessity of recursion; still, mightn’t a challenge to one also be a challenge to the other? And don’t feral children matter (have mattered in the past; still matter in the future) for helping to set the limits of when linguistic development is possible?

I didn’t much study recursion this year. The area of universal grammar I concentrated on was the child’s acquisition of grammar, particularly verb conjugations. It would be hard for me to comment on this recursion brouhaha without knowing something more about Piraha.

Having said that, I’m becoming deeply skeptical of attempts to describe UG. The general idea seems to have a lot of merit, and may very well be true. In fact, it very likely is true. But when you get deep into the (enormous) literature on the subject, it starts to sound a bit like sophistry.

Universal grammar or not, there are some pretty clearly identifiable stages of progress in children’s grammar, many of which seem to hold across languages, some which even hold in all languages. This is the main avenue by which language acquisition is studied now: with gigantic corpori of children’s speech, painstakingly marked for age, location, etc. The study of feral children is important, or rather, was important; there’s only so much you can learn from abnormal cases.

I think there’s also only so many feral children to study…

So anyway, you’re saying that linguists studying kids go around collecting loads of empirical data? Did you have to do any of that collecting?

Yep, they do. Nope, I perused it, but never collected it. B did it once as an undergraduate with some Turkish children. It was for developmental psychology (her major) though, not linguistics. The method and result are exactly the same though. She said soliciting the data can be really fun sometimes, but transcribing is a huge pain in the ass.

I must pass this all on to my mother, who has told me that at some young age I once came up to my parents and said, “I climb on the chair, and I climb on the table, and I can reach things.”

My mother says that she and my father stood there in awe for a few minutes. “Our child is speaking in compound sentences!”

“Then,” she said, “we moved the chair and the table.”

It must be exclaimed, Laura, never stated: Your parents were nerds!