Isabel Carter: Scribbling To Communicate

Isabel Carter shares her earliest memory of communication.

My mom has always told me this story of me from my childhood. I’m maybe two years old, right, so I don’t do much yet, just eat and sleep and toddle around, get my diapers changed when it comes to that. But for whatever reason, one day she decided to give me a composition notebook and some pens. And she left me alone with it for a little bit–I guess she had to do some work in the other room. And she says while she was doing that she kept hearing me turn the page. There would be little periods of silence, and then eventually that crisp shushing sound of paper on paper. The sound of turning pages. And eventually she got curious, and she came back in, and she found me–you know, pretty much still pre-verbal I probably knew a handful of words–just filling the journal up, line by line, page by page, entirely with scribbles. That must have been my first experience with writing.

Actually, when I showed her this story, she wanted to make a couple additions. Uh, She mentioned that I actually had begged for the composition notebook and pens. And she also wanted to add that finding me there with this journal, each line filled up with these unintelligible scribbles was uh, kind of scary. She wondered if I would grow up to be this manic, obsessive child. But she also mentioned that it was kind of beautiful. That there was something in me yearning for words and for language, and that even as a tiny baby I recognized the power in them.

I have always been interested in communication. And not just communication but also translation. And really in the relationship between these two things. I think oftentimes people conceive of translation as a language to a language sort of mechanism–input Arabic, output Spanish, that sort of thing. But really in a sense all communication works like that. Input a thought, output a word. Or in a more concrete sense, we could think of communication snafus, right? Where do they come from? When a parent asks if you’re gonna “hook up” with your friend later, and you have to explain that that doesn’t mean what it used to mean anymore.

My brother said recently that he thinks that all communication is manipulation. And that interests me. As a poet I think about the connotation of that word, and how manipulation has a bite to it, a shadow, some sinister quality, you know, but as a thinker and a person I understand that what he means is that words and speech are just these tools. These tools that we can use to influence the things and people that are around us.

My mother who is Ecuadorian–she immigrated here with her mother when she was eight–I guess they were seeking opportunity, economic opportunity–she taught herself English by reading children’s books in her local library. She speaks perfect English now, and she has an enormous vocabulary and actually for much of my life I thought of her as white, and of myself as white. I only recently started to hear that she has a slight accent when she speaks, or to understand that sometimes when she mispronounces a word it’s because she’s never heard it before, only read it in a book. “Awry.” that was one of them. She used to say, “aw-ree.”

As a writer my intention has often been to communicate myself, to make my internality legible and public. It’s a powerful thing to be able to name yourself and to be able to claim that authorship, that literal authority over your own identities and narratives. And I think also, naming things–I mean, people seem to think that that makes them in some way immutable, but I think assertions can and maybe should be fleeting. Jumping off points, if that makes sense. Say something, try it out, revise.

In contrast, I have increasingly been turning also to research and to witness as a source for material and a purpose for communication, the attraction of which I think is that it allows me to open myself to the reality of other texts, which is to say people or things or stories. My hope is that shifting my focus in that way will heighten the manipulative power of my words, that they will be more engaged, more dynamic, and, perhaps most importantly, more pointed.

And if that doesn’t work out, well I can always revise.

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