The Scientific Method of Storytelling: Thalia Field's Bird Lovers, Backyard
Thalia Field Bird Lovers, Backyard New Directions, 2010 Paperback, $16.95 144 pages
“Given all the paper in the world to write on, what would we really have to say?” Thalia Field asks in the last few pages of Bird Lovers, Backyard. As I read her collection of essays, I often had to ask myself this question. As in, what is Field trying to say? There is the theme of time apparent in some of her essays (“Apparatus for the Inscription of a Falling Body” and “This Crime Has a Name”), as well as how we figure out language and meaning (“This Crime Has a Name,” “Exposition: He Told Animal Stories” and “Development: Another Case for Television”). Aside from these two themes, however, I found myself constantly trying to figure what, with all of this paper she has given herself to write on, she really has to say. And even though there were moments in which I could not figure out exactly what Field was trying to say, this eventually became unimportant because I was so immersed in how she said these things, drifted along with the poetic language that the real meaning of the text became more about creating a poetic reading experience rather than one full of a clear-cut meaning.
Perhaps the best approach to this text, therefore, is to dive into Field’s examples and wonderings about language and meaning. Beginning with “I don’t want to write this at all, not in English, not in any language, and anyway, it’s already been written” (31), Field enters into a space in which language might be insufficient for trying to convey not just our thoughts, but the emotions behind them. She continues, “Nobody can understand what I’m saying...if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him. I don’t understand this, but it feels right” (31).
What Field is getting at here is that while we may understand the actual words—the surface layer, one could say—of a thought, the actual personal meaning and emotions that exist underneath the surface layer of letters and words and sentences cannot be understood by anyone other than the person experiencing the sentiment behind those sentences. And even as I state this, I, too, am unsure whether I understand this. But it feels right.
As she ventures into an essay about science and analogy—an essay I am deeply interested in, as I was advised in college to drop my Pre-Med major and stay in English classes due to the fact that all of my lab reports were filled with “unnecessary metaphors”—Field shows that while metaphors in science acknowledge “an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars,” an analogy is more correct as it “implies equality in function....Where metaphors overreach, analogy occurs frequently” (62).
Here, Field illuminates how we understand each other and the world around us, because we are only able to relate one experience or concept to another one that we have also experienced. That we can have a scientific method in which we try to relate to the world—the rules and functions and meanings we implement in order to bring an order to everything around us—but that in the end, “storytelling [is our] scientific method” (64). Without bringing analogy and storytelling into our conceptions of the world, we experience the world without meaning—the sentiments behind our sentences become deflated and the meaning held within a concept becomes, well, meaningless.
In order to show the importance of meaning and language, in the essay that directly follows her look at science and analogy, “Development: Another Case for Television,” Field loosely describes a video of a young girl who has been cut off from society during her developmental years and how she begins to experience and understand the world, which is to say how she starts to discover language.
At one point in the essay, Field conveys a breakthrough between what the viewer sees as a connection of meaning and the girl’s development of language. The girl is able to “answer” a question by pointing at an object that perhaps holds meaning as a type of answer. Field asks if this is a breakthrough, because the girl finally used “Language to describe things that happened before words were part of her world” (97).
Here, again, the reader is presented with a question about how we add meaning to symbols and words, and how it is that language exists between not just humans, but within the larger world of what language can be. Field concludes, “There is no language at all, it seems, between some creatures, and an excess among others. Or, rather, sometimes an excess of one or another language results in profound silence” (100).
This then segues to the most beautiful sentence on silence, ever: “A cacophony of silence cover actions, and regrets which can’t be buried rise like ghosts, as inside and outside cannot be protected from each other and people start to use words like ‘haunted’” (72). It feels right especially in relation to the style of writing Field employs in Bird Lovers, Backyard. In particular, there is a sound to each of her essays, which is to say there is a lack of sound. A silence. While there is a lyric quality to her writing, there is no music, no soundtrack that could be played to this collection. The essays do not bring in any swell of music, an overture of emotions, but rather the essays sit still within themselves, in the white space that Field creates. Therefore, the meaning that is made in the spaces between the sentences creates a sense of silence. This allows the reader to make her own meaning, to discover the language she needs in order to understand these essays, and to make analogies of her own in order to understand how she can connect with them.
As Field points out, “in teaching someone to love language with us, we must allow they will say things we don’t teach them to say” (110). This perspective relates to how the reader approaches Field’s collection. While I may not come away from the collection with a full thesis statement as to what, exactly, this book is about, I do come away from it with a new type of language that now lives within me. I have learned a new language from Field, one that coaxes me into testing out the meaning of language, to consider what words I put down on all the paper in the world that is given to me in order to encourage someone else to learn a love for language, to allow them to say things that I don’t teach them to say. Yes, I am repeating much of what Field says in her own collection. But a main driving force of the book is to look at how we learn language and meaning. We test it out, see what fits, go forward with the language we may not fully understand, but feels right on our skin. Because, yes, “Many of the words here are not mine, and I too cannot do them justice except through my attempt to try them out myself” (105).
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women's Studies from Loyola University Chicago, and is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown, among many others. She has won many awards, most recently the Owl of Minerva Award 2014 from the women’s literary journal Minerva Rising. Clammer is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Fall 2014. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.