The Things We Know, but Don’t, Not Quite

In which the seemingly defined becomes blurry…

Nora’s been listening to a lunatic spinning guru, sort of a Yoda of yarn, named Abby Franquemont, who goes on these long conversational journeys about what is fiber? and what is spinning? And as part of one talk, she defined yarn as fiber that has taken on yarn-ness.

How do I know when it’s yarn? At our most basic…I know it’s yarn when it does the job of being yarnish, when it does what yarn should do, when it holds together, when it’s structurally sound.

We spend endless time worrying about what something is, but maybe the better question is what something does. When it does the job of being yarnish.

My friend Aimee says that the paper-arts community is occasionally riven by the definition of paper. Good scholarship is often difficult to place disciplinarily; the boundary between sociology and social psychology and anthropology determines faculty hiring and course catalogs far more than it influences ideas. When I was teaching academic writing at Duke, we had long conversations about the definition of a paragraph, which ultimately fell to simply being a typographic device that does the job of being paragraphish.

Every genre of the arts falls into this question. What is a movement? In the peak of prog rock, side 2 of a record was occasionally a single song, 25 or 30 minutes long. But it had subdivisions within it, sometimes marked as movements but sometimes just understood to be there wherever the pace or the instrumentation or the basic theme changed. The shift from one movement to another was the moment of rest and reconsideration between major thematic ideas.

What is a paragraph? What is a chapter? I think they’re the length of time the writer wants to hold your attention on a particular idea or action, concluding with carefully choreographed moments of reflection and internalization. When we end a paragraph, it’s because we think you’ll need a second to take in what just happened before you embark again. When we end a chapter, it’s because some larger theme has played itself out, and you can safely set the book down and think about what you’ve just seen for a few minutes.

All of the rules of typography, rigid though they may have seemed when learned from Sister Toni Marie in 9th grade, are just tools that the writer uses to guide your experience. A period at the end of a sentence seems like a straightforward, rigid moment of conclusion. But that period could be replaced by an exclamation mark! Or maybe a question mark? Or could trail away into ellipses, as though there might have been more to say…

Does a parenthetical remark (like this one) always get parentheses? I don’t know. It might feel different—in some undefinable but real way—if we separated it by em-dashes.

There are serious writers who say that any typographic emphasis within a line of dialogue is a marker of a miswritten dialogue. That if a word is bolded or italicized or CAPPED, to reflect how the speaker might have sounded, we haven’t cast the sentence right; those emphases should just fall from the reader’s lips as though inevitable. To which I say bullshit. Look at a musical score sometime. It doesn’t just tell you the right notes at the right times, it gives you thousands of other instructions about each note’s connections with its neighbors, about volume, about little Italian states of mind that we should inhabit while we play. And that’s what we do as writers, right? We offer instructions for reading. We slow you down and speed you up, we hit a note hard or let it almost slide past, its effects unnoticed until later.

A blog post is a chapter. It’s a typographic structure that demands a certain length of engagement, and fills that length with a coherent sequence of ideas. It’s designed to be set aside at its conclusion; sure, we can binge-watch twenty episodes in a row, keep hitting “previous post” on the blog, but in the writer’s head, each one is an idea that is designed to be set aside from other ideas by a mouse click. A chapter is an idea that is designed to be set aside from other ideas by the reader going to sleep… or by putting the book down and doing some chores. A chapter holds you for its time, and then gives you permission to leave.

Another chapter will come tomorrow.