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March 5th, 2020
This is either an impossible topic to tackle or it’s as simple as it gets. We’ll find out.
And that’s a main function of writing: to find out.
Before we put down a word, just as we do before we speak, we experience this strange tickle of consciousness, not quite an emotion, not quite a concrete sentence, sometimes a sort of image, definitely a kind of music. For instance, take a moment to reflect on where you are right now, and what you are doing. Your eyes might be busy with the graphical marks that compose these words, or your sense of hearing is flooded with the shape of my voice reading these words. There’s also other things going on. The room has a temperature, a pressure, a darkness or color and then there’s an entire body of sensation that you are hooked into. They are modulating the shape of your conscious experience, similar to the way different sized pebbles dropped onto a smooth surface of water creates ripples that alter the entire body of water. You can close your eyes and the world disappears to some extent, and yet that space of consciousness still exists, but again in a new way. The tickle of consciousness that turns into spoken word or written language arises from this texture of experience.
We often valorize writers and artists and ask where their inspiration comes from. As though within them exists this secret portal, a mythical spring from which spews forth all manner of excellent things. But this is wholly inaccurate. We need only look at the word inspiration. It means quite literally to ‘breathe in’. The artist or writer is not so much channeling some ethereal source as they are taking in the world and reflecting it back in a novel way through some chosen medium. The artist is an intersection, one that filters, and one that can change and thereby refract the world back in novel ways.
Writing is simply the process of recording the unique interaction of the whole universe as it collides on the very point where your conscious experience exists.
This is not exactly something that can be predicted. A piece of writing is as much of a surprise for the writer as it is for the reader. Any claim to the contrary must be forgiven. We certainly feel the sentence before we say it or write it, and while specific details might make it appear as though it was previously fully formed, this is akin to watching a movie trailer and claiming you’d seen the film. It’s impossible to disentangle the truth once you’ve actually watched the movie.
To be sure, I had no idea I was going to write about this today. It was only because I was inspired to wander in this direction at the prompting of someone reaching out and asking about the art of writing. Keep in mind the definition of inspire as ‘breathing in’. We might wonder what would have been written had this request not skipped across the surface of my conscious experience. Surely a quieter collision of ideas that are still having an impact as these words lay themselves down on the page right now.
Art, as was discussed in the previous episode entitled Soul of the Monster, is the act of ‘putting things together’. Obviously words, in the case of writing.
Or perhaps concepts?
Then again, what is a word?
It’s interesting to meditate on the fact that we build meaning out of thin air. Words on their own don’t have any intrinsic meaning, just like their letters. The letter ‘j’ doesn’t mean anything unless it has a meaningful context, as within the word ‘enjoy’. But notice again the letters that surround the ‘j’ in the word ‘enjoy’ cease to mean anything if divorced from their contextual compatriots. The word ‘enjoy’ would also cease to mean anything if it didn’t have the context of the entire English language and culture in which it exists.
Language is an everything-machine. Because of this magical capacity to form a ‘something’ from a combination of ‘nothings’, it can modulate in the same way consciousness does. Words can begin to weigh whimsical with a lyricism nearly magical, as each raps the snare, to tap the drum trap and trip the wire, lifting the mind a little higher. To an image of opulent color, painting a landscape fit only for one. The movie is never satisfying because it’s never the same as first imagined in the mind’s eye.
Writing can takes us to those fictional lands, manifesting them in the mind just as meaning manifests from seemingly nothing. Or it can form itself into a scalpel with which it takes apart our sense of reality, revealing frameworks and realizations we never knew existed, but upon now reading seem to shift -so slightly- every facet of our entire past until they all click, like pins in the tumbler of a lock finally aligned, now effortlessly turning and we open on to a new realm of what it means to exist.
Writing can make us see unreal worlds, and it can make us see this world in a way that feels even more real than before.
And yet, once the words have landed on the page, the image is concrete and trapped, embedded in the fabric of reality. Our thoughts, our actions, our words, often have the quality of writing in water, fading as fast as they occur. But the written word endures a little longer, as though the water hears the plea of the idea - the lyrical image, the notion jotted down - and concedes to freeze it and honor that moment, sending it like a love letter of the past into tomorrow where someone unsuspecting might welcome it with a willing eye.
From here it’s easy to rise into the truly crepuscular language often allocated to mystical experiences. After enough writing and reading, the simple technology really seems to contain an alchemy that borders on a kind transubstantiation, where something as ethereal and otherworldly as thought becomes a part of the physical world.
However, such ramblings are merely gratuitous in the face of the utility writing has to offer.
Yes, it sure looks like a person can create something out of nothing. When you consider it that way, it seems almost eerie that J.K. Rowling conjured a billion dollars out of thin air by writing about a magical world of spells where characters likewise conjure things out of thin air. What came first? The magical spell or the writing of it? Hard to tell when writing starts to sound like magic too.
But billion dollar possibilities aside, the varied utility of writing has much to offer anyone. It’s a way of clarifying thoughts, distilling them, exploring them. Writing forms a kind of mirror, allowing you to see yourself and your thoughts more clearly. And all of this is before we even hand it over to someone else to read.
Writing offers us the opportunity to hone an apology down into a wording that will almost never happen in person and off the cuff.
Through our writing we can entertain and delight, not just during a single instance like an actor on a stage but through time.
We can capture world changing ideas with our writing. Ideas that start movements, revolutions, and likewise ideas that might lead many into disastrous territory. In this way, writing can be dangerous, as we have the ability to engineer a one-way conversation with the future. This is perhaps one of the most important reasons to begin writing in the first place. Anyone has the opportunity to have a say in the future if they simply write down their thoughts. The more people who do this, the more chance the future has of being well informed with a true diversity of thought, the greater likelihood we save the future from being a monoculture of thought. The more people who meditate with a pen to paper or the clack of a keyboard, the fuel we pour into the richness of conversation that will happen tomorrow.
As to how one might get better at writing, say, the “art” of writing there’s plenty to discuss, but only two certainties.
One must start.
And one must keep writing.
All other advice is useless without these two. There is certainly much advice that is valuable, advice that might help, but the act of understanding such advice by reading it or hearing -as pleasurable as that might be- is meaningless compared to the experience of acting upon it, and this requires starting, and continuing the conversation.