I’m trying to put life into words, or am I fooling myself?

Life and words, can they ever meet? Or are they really one, only I can’t see it? When I hear what others say I’m confused. What do people mean when they say such things as ‘I’m interested in what can be done with words’(1), ‘…trying to capture or clarify something in words’(2), or ‘…efforts to put life into language’(3)? How do I put life into language? Like air into a balloon?

Words are more than enough for me. But how can I capture and clarify something with words? And how can I put life into what I capture? By using ‘quiet techniques’, ‘subtle observations’, ‘linguistic felicity and surprise’?(4) Are words perhaps posing as life? Doing their tricks with poetry, where words always seem to have the final say?

‘Life works by a process of connotations, an evolving multisensory apprehension of a shifting world. We get impressions of things. They don’t have sharp edges: they have atmospheres.’(5) Who is saying this? I’m left wondering if it’s not words playing a wild game with ‘life’ in the land of our imagination. What are they capturing?

As for putting life into words, I’ve been trying to do it for a long time. Fact is I’ve been putting so much life into words I don’t know what ‘is’ without them. It’s become so bad, while watching the Boat Race I didn’t know they were boats without the commentator mentioning it. Fancy me thinking the commentator had any say in the matter.

I’ve stopped wondering if words have a life of their own and we get sucked in. It’s got to be that, for not a moment passes without words putting their ‘life’ into ‘it’, making the moment their own.

Does this mean if we have no words for something we cannot understand it and only words give us a sense of what’s real, what we enjoy, fear or don’t want to know? Could it be that words are actually telling us what to feel, how to feel? And that to understand something it has to have happened?

Words seem to imply that the future flows straight into the past with nothing in between. Is there no present? The wise say: ‘Every moment brings knowledge that we can’t label, store, add to or use again. If we try, the meaning is lost.’ But isn’t it lost, anyway? In the annals of words, the story-board called history?

Here I am, absent in my paragraphs, crammed full of remembered reality, but at the same time feeling pity, regret, a sense of loss, self-doubt, anxiety, fear of going mad, but also flickers of joy and happiness. Is that how I put life into words? Or am I creating an artificial ‘thing’ in my mind animated by ‘impressions’ and ‘atmospheres’?

‘I’m interested in what can be done with words, but I like to jazz things up a bit.’(6) Is that really possible? I don’t know. What I do know is words cannot step out of themselves. And if I get too close to them, they swallow me up, thoughts, feelings, the lot. Yet I carry on writing – talking their talk, walking their walk.

Could it be that be trying to put life into words, I am trying to jump over my shadow?


(1) ‘I’m interested in what can be done with words, but I like to jazz them up a bit’, Paul Muldoon, Interview by Nicholas Roe, Saturday Guardian Review, p.15 (30.03.13)

(2) In: ‘It is necessary to spell correctly’, Nick Laird, Saturday Guardian Review, p.16 (30.03.13)

(3) In: ‘It hurts exactly as much as it’s worth’, Julian Barnes, Interview by Emma Brockes about J.B.’s novel Levels of Life, Saturday Guardian Review, p.3 (30.03.13)

(4) Ibid. (2); (5) Ibid. (2); (6) Ibid. (1)


Further reading:

1. Cassirer, E. (1955) The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol.1, Language, Yale University Press, New Haven & London.

2. Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct, W. Morrow and Co., University of California.