Blog Archives

Melbourne Literary: Word and Way

Melbourne’s City Council has been promoting laneway art projects for many years. In 2002, artist Evangelos Sakaris created Word and Way in Heffernan Lane, a small street linking the ‘Little Greece’ of Lonsdale Street to Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown.

Word and Way features quotes from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and Greek philosopher Heraclitus depicted as street signs.

The signs, affixed to bricks or jutting out from the walls, have become battered over the years but remain a fascinating excuse to pause and consider their meaning. Sayings like “I have searched myself” sit at the same height as shop signs and an advertisement for beer, while others sit side by side with real road signs.

Every time I walk past this little lane, I see the signs there. Some of them have weathered, and some have been spray-painted over, and therefore become part of the wider and more populist approach to street art and self-expression.

The koans and phrases still resonate for me though. It’s still a good excuse to stop in the middle of the busy city to ponder and contemplate aspects of life and how we approach it.

Sakaris has also created another text-based piece of art at the Speakers Corner in Birrarung Marr, the park beside the Yarra River.

A few years ago, I created the Melbourne Literary and Melbourne Peculiar apps in celebration of Melbourne’s standing as a UNESCO City of Literature, as well as some of the daggy, weird and downright peculiar things I love about my city. I thought I’d share the occasional entry from the apps. They are still available on both iTunes and Android, though they are no longer updated.

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” – a happy ending

babyshoesThere’s a story that does the rounds that Ernest Hemingway once wrote the shortest, saddest story every told, for a $10 bet.

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

I first heard that six word story when Mary Borsellino told of how she had found it so terribly sad that her friend, artist Audrey Fox, decided to subvert the gloominess of it. Since they both enjoyed monster stories, Audrey used that as an inspiration to illustrate the story in a way that gave it a happy ending (a version of which you can see here – Audrey redrew the picture for my blog!).

Of the picture, Audrey says, “I was really just using my imagination and thinking about what else the story could mean that wasn’t ‘sad baby tragedy’.”

That story, and the story of Audrey’s illustration, made it into one of Mary Borsellino‘s Wolf House books, from memory, but I’ve always loved that whole story-in-a-story

Now, the saddest part of this whole thing is that the Hemingway part of it isn’t true. Ernest Hemingway’s writing of the tragic six-word novel is an urban legend.

A very similar story actually dates at least to Hemingway’s own childhood, when a newspaper classifieds section titled Terse Tales of the Town published the item, “For sale, baby carriage, never been used” in 1906. Similarly worded stories popped up again every few years in newspapers.

Whether the bet with Hemingway ever happened (and if it did, whether Hemingway quoted this story deliberately) is unclear – but that version of the story is ascribed to literary agent, Peter Miller, who first told it in 1974 – after Hemingway’s death – and then published it in a 1991 book. It was just the latest in a long line of stories about that story, but it’s the one that stuck.

The idea of writing something so perfectly pithy over lunch is an appealing legend, but the perfection and pithiness of the six word ‘novel’ remains, whatever its origin.

I don’t think it spoils the tale to note that Hemingway didn’t create it. I love the fact that this little notion first popped up in 1906 (if not earlier) and proceeded to grow, little by little, acquiring embellishments as it rolled down the years, until it grew to the story of a dinner party and a bet and a writer of terse words.

Or until it grew to the story of terse words, a sad friend, and an artist who decided to turn the whole thing on its head.

It’s a great reminder that many stories never stop being told, and never stop growing in the telling. It’s a reminder that stories can mean different things to different generations and that sometimes, if you look at an old story in a new way, it can grow into a whole new meaning.

Sometimes with tentacles.

You can find some of Audrey’s art, and other art that she likes, on her Tumblr.

 

Adulting like a pro

Blog adultingI know I go on a bit about the correct use of language, but I’m not a complete stick-in-the-mud. Language evolves, I know. New words come in, archaic ones get shown the door and you only need to know them when you’re reading Austen or Conan Doyle or Shakespeare.

For all that, I’m very fond of the dynamic way language is thrown about and sometimes stretched into weird shapes in contemporary language – particularly in online communities. As long as the use (or misuse) communicates the intended message, turning an adjective into a noun or vice versa can add a robust energy to an observation or exchange. I like language to be fun and full of energy. I like it to surprise and delight me.

Not every new word is a delight, of course. I was recently introduced to ‘upweighting’ – which essentially means to put more investment into the promotion of a particular product or service to improve the item’s public profile or success. I don’t like the term because it’s vague. It didn’t communicate its meaning clearly to me. I had to have it explained because I had no idea what it meant, even contextually.

Actually, when I first heard it, I thought the term was ‘upwaiting’ and assumed it meant to handball a task to someone else up the chain to procrastinate on doing anything with it. I liked *that* version of the word. It was playful and descriptive, I thought. But alas, no, the truth was dull in comparison.

But I have adopted a new word: a delightful language twist I keep seeing on Tumblr.

I first found it in a post that said something like:

“I’m surrounded by all these teens doing stupid things and
I thought there should be an adult here to keep them in line.
Then I realised. OMG. That’s me. I’m the adult here.
BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ADULT!”

I think it’s a perfectly glorious thing, to have turned ‘adult’ from a noun into a verb. In the context in which I see it, ‘adulting’ has a new and particular meaning that infers that behaving like an adult is a strange and difficult thing, an arcane skill to be learned. It implies that most so-called adults you see are still children inside, and that they have either magically grown into the skills of being a grown-up or else are faking it like mad. They are adulting like pros, even though they are still basically 12 and constantly scared of botching all their responsibilities.

Some people take to adulting like a duck to water. Some seem to be steeped in the behaviour from the time they’re seven years old. Some people get to grand old age, not only never knowing how to adult, but never knowing that they should learn. They are still, essentially, bawling, selfish five year olds refusing to share their toys and having tantrums any time they don’t get their way.

But most of us I think learn how to adult to lesser and greater degrees. Some days it comes easier than others, and our success depends on the circumstances and experience.

Mostly, I adult like a pro. I earn a living and pay the bills and take responsibility for my life and my choices.

But frankly, I still feel many days as though I’m faking it. Inside, I’m still just a kid looking for adventure and running through the world like it’s a playground. I talk too loud and too fast, I eat sometimes foods like it’s going out of style and I take a giddy delight in the things I’m passionate about, incautious in my enthusiasm. I often don’t really know what I’m doing, except that I’m doing it optimistically.

Never mind. When occasion demands, I can adult with the best of ’em, and no-one can tell that there’s the occasional panicked voice in my head wailing “BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ADULT!’

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.

Words are Shapely

While watching a show about design a few months ago, I learned that the use of mixed upper and lower cases on road signs was a deliberate choice. Research showed that people could read the signs from a distance more easily because people could recognise the shape of the word before they could really even read the word.

(For the font nerds, the signs and Transport Medium font were designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. You can download the font here or here )

Certainly, I find sentence case easier to read than ALLCAPS, though the word, sentence or whole paragraph in that format has its place.

The realisation reminded me that there is more to appreciating the English language than simply vocabulary, punctuation and grammar. Sometimes there’s a real pleasure in just the look of a whole word, as though it has artistic resonance and visual meaning beyond the collection of letters and the meaning of the word.

I love how the word awkward looks… well, awkward. I love how the word ‘Melbourne’ jumps out at me from a map even when I’m not wearing my glasses. That word has the shape of home in it. I love how the word ‘parallel’ has its own mnemonic in it, the double ‘l’ which is also a set of parallel lines.

Some languages have alphabets that naturally give of themselves to artistic forms. Arabic’s beautiful flowing script is often used artistically. I have an applique street scene I bought in Cairo in the 1990s, in which the buildings spell out ‘in the name of the compassionate and the merciful’ and the moon is a beautiful crescent-shaped Allah.

I only ever learned a little Arabic during my time in Egypt, though I learned to speak and hear more than I could read or write. Still, I can recognise the words for Allah and halal on sight still. Their distsinctive shapes are reminders of a fascinating period of my life, and a fascinting culture.

Recognising words by their shape and appreciating the art of the shape of language are all lines on the spectrum. It’s all part of loving the written word.

(And then there are the glories of the spoken word and onomatopoeia, but that’s the subject for another post.)

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.