Spoken Word, Written Word

 Photograph by Noel Harvey

Photograph by Noel Harvey

As a writer, I’ve often asked myself: how can I get the maximum aliveness into a product that sits flat on the page? It’s not an easy task. (Here’s a poem about my sometime frustration in this respect.)

Stories are alive. They are ever-evolving creatures. In my experience, they often resist being reduced to a ‘definitive version’.  At a certain point, we usually just have to make a deal with our subject matter that it’s time to part ways. Then we take courage in both hands, and let go of the re-writing.

I’d long suspected the value of looking at how words are used in language, and stage performance, and then find ways to transfer that power on to the page. So, I watched a range of spoken-word stage performances, as well as listening to conversations in the street, with that lens in mind.

Now I understand much more about how writers can learn from spoken word poets and oral storytellers, and vice versa. And how invaluable that learning can be.

The differences

Certainly, there are fundamental differences between language and writing. They are different creatures, rather than (as used to be assumed) one just being the descendent of the other.  When we speak to someone, there’s a limit to how much information they can process in any one instant. If they’re reading a text we’ve written, there isn’t the same problem. They can take time to unpack and digest. Language therefore, tends to come in bite-sized fragments, with the written word in general being more elaborate, embedded, and closely packed.

Who is better at what?

Spoken-word sometimes lacks durability, complexity, subtlety, and beauty of form. I’ve found that spoken-word artists on the Wild Words courses revel in taking the range of tools and techniques that writers have, and applying them to the creation of a spoken-word-baby-to-be. They enjoy mining the written words alone, to get maximum impact into them, before the extraordinary power of performance is added. They record, on paper, their spoken word gems for posterity.

Those who work only with the written word, can sometimes struggle to unleash spontaneity and aliveness on the page. Writers easily lose touch with their embodied experience, without which, in my opinion no story can flourish. The utilisation of body-awareness and physicality, is something that performance poets often excel at.

Writers learning from performers

Over time, writing has become increasingly distanced from its roots in oral storytelling.

Pauses

For example, when first introduced, the hierarchy of punctuation marks on the page seems to have been thought of as representing pauses of different lengths, that is, as reflecting purely phonetic facts.

It was recording what master storytellers did in front of their audiences, to raise tension, and set up patterns of tension and release. They paused their speech at key moments in a story, or use a drum roll of other musical instrument, clap their hands, stamp their feet, or changing position on stage.

Writing, gradually, over time, honed its invaluable ability to display the logical structure of a passage, independently of how it might be read aloud.

Remembering it’s roots, it seems to me an interesting experiment to do as a writer, to take a step back into the history of writing, and think about how we might rediscover how to create pauses, and therefore raise tension in a story, through punctuation.

And punctuation isn’t the only way to do it. When we use language on stage, or in everyday life, it is always accompanied by gestures, mannerisms, movement and changes in facial expression. So, when we write a piece of dialogue, and want to create a dramatic pause, describing physicality is often the best way to go.

Intonation

A major aspect of spoken language that there is no satisfactory way to put on to the page, is intonation, or pitch. The intonation in someone’s voice contains vital information about the mood, and intention of the speaker. The best we’ve managed to come up with on the page, is the of use punctuation to partially convey those things. When, in linguistics, the speaker’s voice rises,

a question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!) is the equivalent on the page. When a speaker’s voice falls, the equivalent in writing is quite often a full stop (.)

On Wild Words courses I have an ‘experiment’ I like to suggest to writers. Us writers can be a timid, body-static lot, but I’ve often suspected that inside most writers, is a frustrated performer trying to get out. So, with the upmost respect for your love of sitting quietly in your room and imaginative space, how about trying the following, just to see what happens?

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Connected to this fascinating subject (and I’m rubbing my hands in anticipation), is a discussion on the links between embodiment, music, the sung word, and the written word. But that’s for another blog…