“Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived,” states Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist and world famous writer on language in his new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st century.
I love it when my language worlds collide. In the always erudite, always entertaining hands of my favorite cognitive scientist, I am free to indulge in a long-standing fascination with the linguistic and theoretical bases of human language. Now he has brought the science and theory to the analysis of the craft of writing, my current full-time occupation.
Here’s where I admit that I gladly spent hundreds of hours doing my own translations of German letters from and to Kläre, the main character in Even in Darkness and Werner, the main character in “A Spy’s Legacy” and “A Wolf with Patience,” rather than rely on the expert skills of my interpreter mother. Not only did I absorb the authentic voices of my characters, but I immersed myself in the investigation of their personal language: word choices, syntax, style, usage, and levels of formality. I chose to slog through the spidery handwriting on fragile onion-skin paper to more directly get to know these long ago writers of my family history. (I did gratefully ask my mother, a native German speaker, to help me with slang and figurative language unfamiliar to me, as well as a final checker for complicated passages.)
Studying the language of my characters through their letters went a long way toward helping me turn the revealed elements of their lives into good writing. I found I’d made assumptions about their reactions to their circumstances that were unfounded. I discovered unexpected eloquence and incisive intellect where I expected cavalier indifference. I bore witness to youthful bravado in jaunty language giving way to steadier maturity and more direct communication. I grieved as brave reporting became desperate yearning, with an attendant disintegration of formal writing mechanics and vocabulary. (At left is a portion of the series of letters my great-grandmother, Johanna, wrote to her children on a bread wrapper from the concentration camp Theresienstadt)
My effort to do justice to my original source material in a work of well written fiction did flip the way I perceived the world of these German Jews, WWI and WWII soldiers, Theresienstadt internees, and kibbutz pioneers. If I’ve brought their insights, their joys, their agonies, and in some cases their words to the page well, my readers’ perceptions will be transformed as well.