“Heteroglossia” was a term I had never heard until I reached grad school. I had never heard of Mikhail Bakhtin either. But I wasn’t a stranger to some of the concepts the term engenders. Multiple discourses creating a “complex unity” (see Fig. 1). Things of that nature…
Figure 1. Heteroglossia in motion.
I tell you this because, sometimes, I don’t work well with others when it comes to words. I remember one incident in particular when my friend and I were playing guitar together a lot (NOTE: if you’re legit, you call it “jamming”). We had started to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a few songs, but it was clear we were very different lyricists. I strove for concrete imagery, storytelling and wordplay, and he strove for obscurity, free association and stream of consciousness. Needless to say, the “band” broke up before it even began. But that’s neither here nor there. During that brief period of collaboration, my friend and I spent a few weeks in Costa Rica together. We had brought our guitars, and I had brought a small notebook full of various snippets of songs and poems. At one point, I had left the hotel room to explore on my own for a bit. When I came back, I found my friend paging through the notebook, pen in hand. He decided it would be perfectly acceptable to read/edit/revise my writing without asking. He was under the impression that I would be cool with it….
It was not perfectly acceptable.
He had the wrong impression.
I was not cool with it.
Basically, this was not my idea of collaboration.
In a more recent incident, a friend forwarded me a few pictures of some writing we had done in junior high and shortly after high school (NOTE: This was totally unrelated to any #TBT reference). The first picture was of a set of symbols I had developed for writing notes in code. (Yes, it was awesome. No, you can’t see it. It’s a secret code!)
How to break codes that can’t be broken.
But the second set of pictures was of lyrics that we apparently co-wrote. I found myself struggling to remember ever writing the words or if there was any music attached to them. As I read more carefully, I struggled to imagine myself being okay with the collaboration. I noticed that I had written the original lyrics, and my friend (different from the friend previously mentioned) had basically crossed out some words or phrases to insert her own. In my humble opinion, neither of us were very good, but I also just felt there was a disjointedness to the whole thing. As if (surprise, surprise) two people with diverging aesthetics tried to write a song together. These two incidents were not my only conscious encounters with heteroglossia.
As a Creative Writing major in undergrad, I was privy to all sorts of strange writing prompts that my instructors used to begin workshops. The one that comes to mind now is an exercise where you essentially write the first line of a poem and then pass it to your left. Each writer adds a line to the poem in front of them, then passes it again. This continues until the poem you started returns to you. It’s essentially an amped up version of telephone. But I admit it was pretty exciting to see the results of other writers riffing on your lines.
“My love is like a red, red rose.” Pass it on. “My glove is like a Dead Head rose.” Pass it on. “My dove is like a well fed toad.” Pass it on.
When I look back on these various experiences of collaborating on texts, I start to come to terms with heteroglossia as a fundamental part of language use. Really, as a fundamental part of human life. Even if some of my collaborations were utter failures in my own opinion, changing the format and setting had vastly different results for me. Somewhere along the way, I recognized that I could generate my own more private writing as well as contribute to a collaborative linguistic experience. This is what we do when we have conversations, discussions, arguments, dialogues. When we read or write texts, when we engage ourselves with the work or words of another. We use language to co-construct meaning. The words we use are so rarely of our own invention. We are using an inherited script of words and meanings upon which we cross out certain lines and insert our own verses. And the overwriting comes from a multitude of voices, speaking all the time. We are always already collaborating. And that collaboration allows us, and requires us, to represent a community of voices even if we only hear our own when we write something down or speak up.