Category Archives: Short Essays

In Full Defense of Subvocalization

In case you haven’t noticed, my publishing course has been giving me a lot to think about lately.

Surprisingly, subvocalization was one of them.

Before today, I had never heard of the term subvocalization. Not even within the class that brought it up, which makes me wonder how common of a term it is.

I hadn’t even thought about the subject before, until my professor happened to mention, “Some people hear the words they read in their heads. And if they don’t know how to pronounce a word, they stumble over it, even when they’re reading silently!”

She said this as if it were a funny factoid, as if no one in the class would have ever heard of something as silly as that before.

Except, I had. Because I do it myself, every time I read.

Today out of curiosity, I looked up people’s reading habits and came across the term. As Merriam-Webster, my favorite online dictionary, puts it: “Subvocalization –  the act or process of inaudibly articulating speech with the speech organs.”

Essentially, it means that you say words with your tongue and larynx as you read or think them, even though technically you don’t need to in order to comprehend the information.

And by many, in fact by almost all of the top hits on Google, it’s considered a bad habit.

They call it a step backwards, an infantile process that we all should have outgrown after we stopped reading phonetically in elementary school.

They say that it slows your reading to only as fast as you can talk, and that we would all be much more efficient readers if we only let the eyes and brain do their things and leave the mouth out of the equation.

That may be true – If I consciously stop pronouncing words as I read them, I can absolutely fly through text, and still get the meaning.

But I’m going to advocate very strongly for subvocalization (on the sole basis of my own experiences and absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever, because this is my blog and it isn’t exactly science-y), because I have gotten dozens of compliments on both my ability to write and to read aloud over the years, all of which I now suspect I can attribute, at least in part, to my ridiculous level of subvocalization.

First of all, when I write, as when I read, I say the words quite strongly in my head. It’s not so much a whisper as a full-out voice, my voice, saying the things I then proceed to type.

Which makes it much easier for me to create flowing sentences.

Half my professors have urged their students to read their pieces aloud, to feel on their tongues how awkwardly phrased a sentence is, how much in need of a comma a long one can be.

I never understood that, or needed it, because for me, my mind already does that. I’m making my sentences as fluid as can be read already, because I feel the awkwardness of an awkward phrase before I type. I lace poems with rhymes without even thinking about them, because my tongue is already on a kick of a certain vowel and instantly brings to mind words that use the same.

Second of all, I read aloud with as much ease as I read silently.

While over half the class struggles over words, skips sentences, pronounces things wrong, adds the wrong inflection, says the wrong word, or simply limps through the long paragraphs as their mouths struggle to keep up with the pace of their reading minds, mine flows along the same way it always has – because I already am used to physically forming the words on the page, every time I read them.

As an English major who has had to read aloud sections of novels in numerous classes, who has had to stand in front of several audiences and read her work, I can’t tell you how valuable that skill is.

So, as far as I can tell, subvocalization has helped me immensely in my chosen area of study. It likely won’t help a science major, with her thick textbooks, or a law student with the dense legal print of contracts. At least, not in the same way. But for those of us of the writerly and readerly bent, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the process of reading aloud in your head.

It might do you some good.

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A Small Defense of Fantasy Fiction

My favorite books are The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.

They always have been, from the time that I would announce it proudly whenever teachers and Girl Scout leaders asked everyone in the circle to answer the question. They still are today, when I mumble them, or lie, because I know my professors and friends expect me to choose something more classic, more literary.

I do have classic favorites. I have always liked Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I love Jane Eyre. It’s not entirely false, when I answer one of those instead.

But they never gripped me the way Bartimaeus did.

They never met me when I was young, obsessed with subjects the way only middle school kids can be. They never spoke to me in words my twelve-year-old brain could fully realize, though I always thought I could, because I technically understood most of what the big words meant. They never reached into what I most dreamed about, which, having been read Harry Potter by my fourth-grade teacher, was always magic.

And they never needed me.

Jane, Dantes, Nemo, none of them needed me to believe them to be real. They never needed to be imagined, the way the smart-talking djinni who could change form every second to look like anything did.

They all seemed real already, little lives being lived between pages whether or not I read them, whether or not I took them into my mind and cared for what they said or did.

Their rules were my rules, the rules I lived with every day, the rules of reality. Even if the submarine wasn’t exactly technology the way I knew it, even if Mr. Rochester’s life was much more tragic than I could fear mine to become, even if Dantes’ vengeance was tenfold more successful than any petty grievance I could possibly consider taking justice for, they didn’t beg me to make their troubles and their wonders real. They only asked me to listen, to a moral, a lesson, a concept that was already there, that had always been there.

But Jonathan Stroud’s silly little fantasy story for kids, about summoning demons and thwarting evil magicians, in a London that had never been and clearly would never be, that needed all my mind and heart to believe it if were to ever be true anywhere.

Last night, in my course on Publishing, we discussed the differences between literary and commercial fiction. People said that literary fiction was the kind of fiction that could make a difference in your life, that could touch you in some deep emotional way, that could connect you to the author and the rest of humankind with what it said.

I believe that commercial fiction can do that too. I believe that even fantasy stories, written and read just for fun, just for the sake of imagination, can in that call for imagination create just as strong of a connection between readers and characters. That just because it’s a silly story for kids, doesn’t mean you can’t love it all your life as if it were your own personal classic.

Even after reading all the classics, all the literary masterpieces that are required of an English major, I still in my heart of hearts know that my absolute favorite books are written by Jonathan Stroud.

That has to count for something.

 

On Waking Up Next to My Girlfriend

In movies and books, people wake up next to their significant others and instantly feel a burst of love. It’s like the clouds part in heaven and bright, angelic rays beautify their lovers’ faces into unimaginable grace. Nothing in the world is as perfect as that person sharing the bed, and nothing in the world could make you more lucky.

That’s sort of how it is when I wake up in the morning.

Waking up in the middle of the night, it’s an entirely different story.

My first thought, on seeing my girlfriend’s face smooshed into a pillow beside me in the dark, is, Who the crap is that person?

My mind, hazy with half-sleep, recognizes that her face is familiar, and should be in the bed with me, and therefore I shouldn’t panic.

But that’s it.

No background information, no giant warm fuzzy sense of love.

So when it comes time to play tug-of-war with the blankets, it isn’t so much a fight as it is an all-out, violent battle. What right does that random familiar stranger have to steal my blankets? *rips blankets back onto me and cocoons myself like a spider victim*

In the morning, when my girlfriend complains that I stole the blankets again, I say sorry.

But I can’t fully regret it.

I was only defending my territory.

The Hardest Thing About Your First Apartment

Food.

Bear with me here, I am serious. Food is hands-down the hardest thing I’ve had to work with these past few months of living in NYC, and I still haven’t figured it out all the way.

Specifically, filling the apartment with it.

At a home that’s been yours for a goodly amount of time, food has naturally accumulated:

  • Cans of soup you picked up bunches of when they went on sale
  • Every cereal imaginable because you weren’t satisfied with just Chex a while back, and then you weren’t satisfied with just Chex and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Life either
  • A veritable hoard of spices from those times when recipes called for only a single pinch of something that you will never use again in your life but can’t bear to throw out because it cost $8
  • Cake mixes 2 for $5!
  • Cream cheese, sour cream, various cheeses, salad dressings, mayonnaise, ketchup, butter, pickles, eggs, milk, orange juice…essentially all the stuff that is so often just there in fridges that you forget it even physically needs to be picked up from a store
  • Brown sugar, powdered sugar, regular sugar, flour, salt, vegetable oil, baking soda, baking powder, and every other staple of baking that is rarely ever used outside of baking but that is absolutely essential to baking
  • Various frozen meats, veggies, possibly fruits if you go that way with them, and desserts so that your freezer is an arsenal of preparedness

These things then become things that you just have. They are just there, a pool from which you may select the materials to suit your eating needs. When something runs out, it’s actually surprising to you. What do you mean we’re out of butter? How could we be out of butter, it is like literally always there, doesn’t the fridge spontaneously produce it?

When you get a new apartment, none of these things even exist in your cabinets, let alone in vast quantities. They must be picked up from stores.

Which is to say, they must be purchased.

Read that list again and just imagine for a second how much all of that costs.

It’s impossible to get it all at once, unless you’re really really rich, which means that you have to go through the process of accumulation. And it is slow. So slow.

Particularly when you’re working a job that doesn’t pay much, and it isn’t exactly prudent to go around stocking up on things that you don’t need immediately, when there are things you need immediately that you already are going a little over budget on.

This may be just me, and I’m sure that the change from dorm where you get fed all the time to apartment where you have to scavenge is a large part of it. But I have to say I honestly did not expect food accumulation to take as long as it has.

So be warned: When you get your first apartment, if you haven’t already, make sure there is a store nearby. You never know what the fridge will decide not to spontaneously produce.

 

“He Doesn’t Write Her Right!!”: A Female Graduate Student’s Perspective

Everyone in media geekdom has heard this line a dozen times: “I love his series, but he just doesn’t write women well.” Whether it’s too much focus on breasts, cookie-cutter body types, or a penchant for tropes, our favorite male writers just can’t seem to get into our feminine heads.

Speaking as a female, I don’t see what the problem is. Sure, I have a cluster of shows that offend me just from the previews (such as anything involving bikinis). But what I hear people going after most are the shows and books that aren’t blatantly sexist: Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, just about anything well-loved by the public featuring a strong female protagonist.

I’m not saying that if it’s got a female lead it can’t be sexist. I’m not even saying that these series don’t have their pick-apart moments in that area. But I think all of us need to step back and stop degrading the male writers who really attempt that leap from Mars to Venus.

Because it is a leap. We can say we’re all equal, all human, as much as we want but the truth is in the current social environment we are not. Especially when it comes to the male understanding of women.

As women, we have a fairly decent grounding in male psychology. We aren’t socially stigmatized for watching all-action testosterone fests like Terminator or Rocky. We’ve been taught dozens of male authors in school. In fact, since men dominate most media fields, the majority of the content we see every day has been filtered through a male screen.

Men, on the other hand, get largely a fetishized version of women. If they try to read a popular female novel, they’re ridiculed for it (check out the laugh track as Raj mentions he’s read Eat, Pray, Love on Big Bang Theory).

Of course this needs to change. But that’s exactly what writers like Steven Moffat and G. R. R. Martin are trying to do. If we’re going to blame them for writing women who exhibit a few stereotypes, we ought to blame just as much the society that made them believe such stereotypes could exist in real life. These women have personalities, ones that aren’t made solely of sex or shyness. They are capable of making powerful decisions, and often do. For people raised with an overwhelming background of false women, the female characters in these series ring admirably true.

Yes, women need to be represented more equally in media. I’m all for meeting that goal. But in the meantime, stop criticizing male writers for every slip-up. They’re stepping stones on the path, and if we want to reach the next ones, we ought to bring more encouragement than complaints. How about pointing out what we like about their female protagonists, instead of always bringing up the negatives. Complain only if they do something really stupid, and maybe they’ll focus in on the bigger issues and actually fix them.

You never know until you try.