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Off the Shelf: Adventures in language, in the land beyond 'literal'

" 'I must not,' said Jane, 'think of rats.' And proceeded to think of them as hard as she could." Bland, boring sentence, right? When I tell class after class of writing students that this one sentence -- plucked many decades ago from a children's book whose author's name I can no longer remember -- set me on my way to becoming a writer, they look at me as if I've lost my mind.

I first read that line when I was 7, not long after my family arrived in England from Israel. Both my parents are British, but such was the ideological climate in the fledgling Jewish state, which was busily forging a new language out of an ancient one, that even at home they spoke only Hebrew.

This meant that when our ship docked in London, I understood almost no English. It quickly became apparent that if my brother and I weren't to remain pariahs at our very white, very Church of England elementary school, we'd have to learn the language pronto. Ravenous for acceptance, I read my way through anything I could lay hands on -- whether books, the toilet paper that in those days implored bathroom users to "Now Wash Your Hands Please" or the exotically worded billboards I discovered on the street.

Who's Bill Stickers? I demanded after spotting an alluring sign in the London Underground warning that bill stickers will be prosecuted. Why should I refuse to be put in this basket? Would we have to buy a pet in order to travel by train, given that dogs must be carried on the escalators?

My family's poorly disguised mirth at my literal readings taught me the hard way that words were not innocent, that they could have different meanings, especially when variably arranged in a sentence. I also tucked away for future reference the discovery that, wittingly or not, using language for laughs got you a lot of attention. And that sentences had rhythm: "'I must not,' said Jane, 'think of rats.' And proceeded to think of them as hard as she could" sang to me. Two short clauses, one long; when I said it aloud it sounded like a tune, deda, deda, dedadadada. Better yet, it neatly caught intense childhood terrors I'd experienced (though my phobia of choice was snakes, not rats) without a single show-offy "literary" word.

Is the ability hear the music in language genetically imprinted? If so, it got a lot of help around our house, where the cadences I heard were different from those I absorbed outside. In public or at the dinner table, my dad was prone to pomp and circumstance delivered from a great height. Off duty, though, he played mischievously with words, sang opera in the shower, and I'm willing to bet that few other kids I knew were greeted at the front door with "Hitler should have my headache!" when their fathers came home exhausted from delays on the Underground.

I never kept a journal, never wrote for a high school or college magazine. But I read like a fiend, high literature as well as middlebrow and low, without discrimination. The first book I ever bought with my own money, at age 15, was D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers." I also gobbled up bodice-rippers by the discreetly trashy romance novelist Georgette Heyer, as well as a bland tween-girl comic that arrived weekly through the mail. (My favorite strip was Lettice Leefe, the Greenest Girl in School, about a bespectacled ingenue.) Reading Saul Bellow simultaneously with the young adult writer Beverly Cleary, I developed an absurdly skewed but enticing vision of America that, in retrospect, helped bring me to this country.

Slowly, unevenly, I developed taste. An insatiable passion for the interior novel compensated for the aversion to emotional expressiveness that prevailed in my prosaic family. With the encouragement of high school teachers, I began to harbor vague ambitions to write.

Many years later in Boston, when I was struggling to write a PhD thesis in the impenetrable academic language I loathed but lacked the courage to ditch, luck walked in. A journalist friend gave my name to the arts editor of the Boston Phoenix, a local alternative paper famous for launching the careers of many an arts writer. This editor took a chance, and I wrote a piece on spec about Richard Simmons' television diet-and-exercise show.

I thought it was hilarious; he winced and told me I wrote like an Episcopalian. Then, he pointed out the many places where my writing was needlessly prim, arch, snide or wordy. He excised stacks of adjectives and pruned mountains of adverbs. But he also highlighted three or four sentences that were vivid, concrete and showed organic sparks of nascent wit.

Within weeks, I was writing regular television criticism and book reviews, and a few months later, he sent me to a press screening of a small independent film, an adaptation of several short stories by the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, whom I admired. Alone and enchanted by the emotional intensity on that big screen in the Coolidge Corner Theater, with the house dog thumping its tail in the seat next to me, I felt like a writer at last.

Taylor is a freelance film critic and writer living in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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