Tuesday, April 10, 2007

TM: The Three Big Lies of Writing, part 1


Jesus said, “If you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples. Then you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:31-32)

Jesus was speaking , of course, of Truth—capital T. But the same principle applies to the other truths of life, and the enemy of truth is lies. So to emancipate us as readers and as writers, I’d like to spend the next few days exploring writing’s three big lies: mistruths that keep our works from being what they could be. And today I’d like to start with a very elementary one—one that shapes the very nature of how we work and how we read:

Writing is recorded thought.

I was first told that in junior high. At least that’s the first time I remember hearing it. It was a preamble to a grammar course; a sentence represents a complete thought, and a sentence is the smallest complete unit of writing, so writing must be recorded thought,

Eminently logical.

Absolutely wrong.

Let’s think about this for a moment. When I pray, my end of the process is thought shared with God. Now, prayer can take several forms, and corporate prayer (when I pray in the company of others) and petition (when I take my needs to God are both, indeed, word-based and could be written out on a page.

But what about when my prayer goes to a higher level? What about when it becomes a pure exchange of love between my Creator and me? I often pray in this manner; in fact, when I stay in prayer for an hour or more, it is usually just this sort of prayer. Yet no words are exchanged, and if asked to write down verbatim what just transpired, I would absolutely and utterly fail. Such thought is pure emotion and resonance.

And prayer is by no means alone in this regard. When I think of my wife and my family, when I think of my friends, I am thinking in feelings, rather than words, and while feelings can be described on paper, they cannot actually be recorded. I would hazard a guess that thoughts such as this make of the vast majority of what passes through the typical person’s mind during a day, so defining writing as recorded thought doesn’t seem to work.

What then, is writing?

Take a look at the following two sentences:

Hee dee ti tweedle twiet; eek ta da!

… and …

Froom toogh, blah toog rah goom….

Now, let me ask you: which one is the happy sentence, and which one is the gloomy one?

If you answered the first and the second, respectively, then you are in accord with every single workshop participant I’ve posed this question to. Yet there are no real words in either sentence. No intelligible thought is being conveyed. Still, the reader “gets” it; I can write the first sentence on a piece of paper, leave it on the ground, and the person who comes along and picks it up will probably picture a happy creature, skipping along.

Yet these sentences are not collections of thoughts. They are collections of sound.

And that’s important, because that’s what writing really is.

Writing is recorded sound.

Understanding this is, in my estimation, the first and most basic principle writers must master to take their art to the next level. And by “writers” I mean everyone who puts words on paper. How words sound and work together is a concern that is not solely the province of poets and lyricists. It applies to fiction, to essay, to the report on the bake sale that you write for the church newsletter. It applies to everything that we write.

Here’s why. When we read—really and truly read, rather than skim—we have a little person who speaks to us in our heads. When the writing is good, the voice of that little person is pleasant. And when the writing is great, that little person sings.

Thinking of writing as sculpting with sound is a principle that should be in every writer’s repertoire. This is the reason that smart writers read their writing aloud and listen to it. This is the reason that even smarter writers have someone else read their writing aloud to them, and listen for where that person stumbles.

Or if you like tech, you can have your PC do it: save your writing as a Microsoft E-Book and use the Microsoft B-Book Reader Text-to-Speech (TTTS) Engine (available free at Microsoft.com) read it to you in a Stephen-Hawking-like voice. Since the computer will not try to “help” the sentences with its voice, you’ll hear the clinkers immediately.

So writing is not recorded thought; it is recorded sound, and we should write and read accordingly.

If that liberates you—that was our intention here. And tomorrow we’ll move on to writing’s next Big Lie.

Tom Morrisey writes from sunny Florida. You can check out his work at
http://www.tommorrisey.com .


At 12:49 PM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

I can't believe I'm the first to comment.

Deep. Very...deep.

How did that sound? Can't wait to "hear" parts 2 and 3.

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Cheryl said...

This is an angle I haven't heard before, but makes sense. Can't wait to read the rest.


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