| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write Reimagining Language and Our Own Stories
How can we write about language in a way that feels meaningful? Try out this prompt from instructor Jenna Tang to use language as a lens through which to tell stories.
Stories about our languages matter. The shapes of the words, the languages that brought us to different places in the world, and how they bond us with our close ones shape the way we are on a deep, emotional level. I like to think about all the languages I have relationships with as my “home languages” instead of my “native language,” “second language,” or “acquired language,” because they are part of my journey of pursuing a sense of belonging.
What is your relationship like with your language(s)? What does language mean to you? What can we write about our language(s) in a way that feels meaningful to us? For some, it is to write about cultural heritage, family legacies, immigration; for others, it is about being able to travel around the world, or writing a story about someone that plays a significant role in one’s personal journey. No matter what they are, languages can be a way to ground these stories, as languages themselves represent different perspectives, emotions, and shared connections.
In my upcoming writing workshop for writers of color, “ Writing about Languages ,” I would like to help writers who work in any genre to work on their stories, essays, passages, and poems about their journeys with language. Languages are not only spoken or written: there are also body language, gestures, tongues, sentiments—even a person that matters to you can be your language.
Here is a summarized version of a writing exercise we will do in our writing workshop:
As a start, find yourself a notebook or some paper. Give yourself a page where you’re able to create a map of your own. This is not a geographical map, but it can look like one if you wish. It is a map of ideas that helps bond you with your personal experiences and emotions, so it can be in any form or shape you feel comfortable with. (Mine looks like a giant tree with shelters; some branches are still growing.) The map doesn’t have to be big, but there should be enough space to allow you to spread your ideas and thoughts (the idea is to make it portable too).
The first question to ask ourselves is: What does the idea of “language” mean to me? What other themes and ideas do you think about when you see the word “language?” Here are some other forms and concepts you can consider while drawing your map:
If the language(s) you speak together form a shape, what would that shape be like? Can this shape be as physical as a familiar object around you? Or can it be slightly abstract—perhaps it shares the emotional shape of a song? What does that shape mean to you?
Find an object nearby and think about the concept of “overflowing”: overflowing of emotions, overflowing of things to say, overflowing of words with the languages you understand or do not understand. Try to write a paragraph about languages that overflow from the shape of an object you selected.
Think back on your experiences and relationship with your language(s), has there ever been a conflict? What are the contradictions you feel as you’ve grown and your relationship shifts and transitions?
What keeps your language(s) close to you? And what keeps them away? Has there ever been someone or any life events that made keeping your language(s) become significant to you?
What are other ways you could potentially embody emotions to your language? What are the moments or stories that may have played inside your head more than once?
Are there any memorable journeys you’ve done that are important for you to write about? Where have your languages taken you so far? Are there any new journeys that you aspire to take to form certain connections or create certain meanings?
How does motion relate to your language? What kind of motions? Is it the act of moving from one place to another? Or is it bodily motions?
Think about what traveling means to you. What brings you to decide to stay in a city, a culture, for a certain period of time? What were/are you looking for in that world, and from within yourself?
What is your secret language? How is it expressed or unexpressed? Can it be an unspoken language that is only understood by you or by people who have experienced similar emotional journeys?
If your language is a person, what is their personality and how do they perceive the world around them?
What does “belonging” mean to you? And what does the sense of belonging—or the process of searching for it—look like for you?
There are a lot of questions we could ask ourselves and we can always expand this map over time. You don’t have to finish this series of exercises all at once. Try taking 10-15 minutes for each theme and its following questions. Take your time, immersing yourself in the stories you’d like to tell or the emotions you’d like to flesh out on the page. If you need more time for certain sections, that is totally fine. The purpose is to bond with different memories and emotional experiences in the most comfortable way possible.
In the end, what we’re trying to do is to reimagine our language and our own stories. It is about writing them down and understanding them as “ my language. ” The more you learn about your relationship to your language(s), the more stories you will have to tell and share with others.
If you enjoyed this prompt, don ’t miss the opportunity to sign up for Jenna ’s upcoming workshop! Class begins in February.