A couple of weeks ago I spent a busy weekend at Naropa University for their 40th Anniversary conference for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. A lot of what I heard was theoretical, but one practical tip stood out. In a session titled “Bending the Source: Research, Poiesis, and Document Fluidity,” (The discussion was much more reasonable than the title!) I heard this: Go to Wikipedia, select random article, click through three screens and use something from the final screen as a writing prompt. Crazy? No, it breaks open the thought process and challenges the writer to go new, to go experimental, to go, go, go where she may never have gone before.
My Wiki Wander led me first to a Korean figure skater and my three clicks took me to a list of vocabulary words relating to ballet. I know nothing about ballet, but I do know something about vocabularies. I have several of my own. My first was, of course, conversational standard American English, tinged–some would say tainted–by my grandmother’s Irish flavored English, so it was. Then came the elegant and esoteric language of nursing, which morphed into the specialized lingo of psychiatric nursing. This vocabulary, when written, resembles ancient runes or hieroglyphics to the uninitiated. Over the years I also learned the vocabularies of teaching, writing, harness racing, genealogy and book publishing. There are more that I probably don’t recognize as distinct, because they are all part of me, words, wonderful words, my raw material.
Each of these specialized languages marks me for membership in a special community. I’m in because I speak the native tongue, but no matter how large or strange my word hoard, I have to be precise and flexible at the same time. And as a writer I have to accept the responsibility to translate experience into shared language.