Friday, March 28, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: What is Writing?

   If you've taken one of my workshops, you've probably seen me start a session by writing this on the board.
   And if you haven't workshopped with me, I'd like you to take a moment, right now, and think about how you would fill in that blank.

   If the experience in my workshops is any indication, the first inclination of most people is to fill the blank in with "information" or "thought." Then they decide that isn't artistic enough, so they move on to something more writerly.
   I've seen "emotion."
   I've seen "passion."
   I've seen "yearnings."
   Answers such as this tell me a lot about the psychological state of my workshop participants. And they also tell me that those folks are overthinking the answer, because writing is not recorded information (at least, not the type of information most people are thinking of). Nor is it recorded thought, or emotion, or passion or even yearnings.
   At least in English (or any language written in an alphabet), writing first and foremost is recorded sound
   The letters on the page are a code that combines to form phonemes and syllables. The phonemes and syllables combine to represent a distinctive pattern of sound, and that sound correlates to a word. But even then we aren't there yet.
   Consider this statement: "Slowly, deliberately, Mortimer began to manducate the carpeting."
   Now, look at that word, "manducate." You can sound it out (it's pronounced just the way it looks), but unless your hobby is reading dictionaries, there's a good chance you don't know that "manducate" is a fifty-cent word for "chew" (in my example, "Mortimer" happens to be an extremely unruly dog).
   So let's review the process. First you have to understand the code—the alphabet—in which a thing is written (ever try reading Cyrillic?). Next, you have to translate that code into phonemes, then the phonemes into syllables, and then the syllables into a distinct unit of sound that represents a word. At that point, you have to understand what that word means for the sound to make sense. And only then does what you've read equate to anything even close to a thought.
   That's five steps. 
   You're not conscious of those steps because you perform them constantly and automatically.  Yet, unless you are skimming like a soul possessed because it's midterms week, subconsciously you are acutely aware that what you are reading is recorded sound.
   I know this because most people can distinguish, almost instantaneously, the caliber of what they are reading. They might read a page of one book and decide, "this is not very good," while a page from another book will sound beautiful to them. And at its most basic level, the difference between bad writing and good writing is the way it sounds.
   Bad writing is assembled like Legos. The writer looks for a subject, an object, and a verb that represent the sense of what's intended, and joins them together, not caring whether the resulting sentence sounds awkward or lumpy or silly.
   But in good writing, the writer is making certain that the sound of the words reflects the texture and emotional quality of what's being conveyed.
   Let's say, for instance, that you are thinking about going on an ocean voyage, and one cruise-ship line advertises "luxurious stateroom accommodations, superbly appointed," while a second line offers, "swanky rooms with fancy fixtures." In both instances, the sense is virtually identical, yet the sound of the first description is more in keeping with an elegant experience.
   Put this to work in your writing, then. Don't settle for getting the information down on paper. Think like a musician, pay attention to the sound you are conveying, and once you have written it, read it aloud to make certain that what you've produced captures the ambience of what you have imagined.
   Do that, and do it well, and you'll produce good writing.
   And the upside of this is that good writing gets read.

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