What is writing? Abandon the feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy answers for a moment, the ones that say things like “it is how you express yourself” or “it is a way you show your creativity”. Abandon also the cut and dry responses, the ones that say, “it is simply a mode of communication”. I would implore you to expand your horizon beyond the mundane but restrain your emotion that we do not lose focus. I ask again, what is writing?
Stephen King has the best answer I have found. It comes in the form of this exact question as the head of a chapter in his memoir On Writing. “What is writing,” King asks. “Telepathy of course.” (King, 2000)This matter-of-fact tone King adopts is striking and drives home his point. Though it may not be the first place our minds go to when we are asked a question such as “what is writing” it is the most accurate answer on a practical and emotional level. Practically because we can logic our way to this conclusion. Emotionally because the image of telepathy takes us into a fanciful place that many writers dream of taking their audience.
The essence of this truth is captured deeper still. Eternal truths are captured through the metanarrative of our lives, yet by the time we discover them it is typically too late for application. So, we leave them behind in hopes that we may speak into the life of someone younger who has time we have already spent. This is the core of the Autobiography and though biases inevitably permeate the pages of these accounts they nevertheless produce magnificent wisdom that is otherwise forever lost.
I can think of no better example than the Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. At first glance you may not expect the American-Steel-Tycoon to have much practical wisdom for one living in the twenty-first century, nor would first glance afford him the credit due for his mastery of English prose. However, within the first few lines I can assure you it will not be your voice you hear in your mind as read on, rather the thick accent of a Scotsman smelling of expensive cigars with an infectious laugh; one who built himself from honest poverty on the backbone of teachings from, “The mother, nurse, cook, governess, teacher, saint, all in one; the father, exemplar, guide, counselor, and friend!” (Carnegie, 2006)It is a struggle Carnegie presents as a blessing and advantage instead of the oppressive despair we are so prone to believe in today. One that would not strike us the same if it were not his voice conquering both time and space to reach us.
What of poetry? Can we draw the same conclusion from verse as we can paragraph? Of course. Methinks it easier by far. Let the words of The Wasteland by T.S. Elliot crush your hopes and dreams, transporting you to the place of dark illusion in which he existed in his life at its writing. Journey through the fall of man with Paradise Lost by John Milton or experience the abominations of Hell with Dante’s Inferno. Best of all, let the words of Homer wash over you as you step into the music of Greek Dactylic Hexameter. Written as song we can only glimpse at majesty that was as we embrace the flow:
“Rage- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many study souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds…” (Homer, 1990)
Across thousands of years, and translations aplenty, we still get chills from power in those first few words. We weep as Hectors’ heart breaks on the walls of Troy as he bids farewell to his beloved Andromache, stepping off to face his doom by the hands of Achilles. Images, not just words, come like crashing waves through the ether into our minds, telepathy.
What of history? Those stale tomes, forgotten on so many a shelf in the dusty basements of those far better read than I, the ones who’s attempted rewriting spurns debate and upheaval throughout modernity. Aye, even the dry paper that crackles in protest at the binding when opened counts. Though not as consuming as the musical poetry, nor as enlightening as a conversation with one long past, our histories give us windows through which to see the narrative of the past laid bare. Ignored by the arrogant and ignorant alike, the rhythmic pattern of history from which we consistently fail to learn could only ever be captured and conveyed through proper telepathy; that is writing, and even then it is a poor excuse for an attempt for the nuances of history are vast and her details laden with significance.
Infinitely more relatable to the visage I wish to convey is fiction, and all her many offspring. From the magic of High Fantasy captured in works like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to master works of Science Fiction that take us to the stars like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the ability for an author to take an image from their imagination and conjure that same image in your own mind can only be described as magic.
Each of these are important because the values of our society, the events of our lives, the monumental occasions that bloom once in a millennia, are not only transcribed for the learned ear but made eternally relivable through the magic that is written prose. In other words, telepathy. More impressive still is the ability of some to predict the future, and for the future to witness such a thing through writing, such the works Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and 1984 by George Orwell. At times predictions like these can be quite scary.
Scarier still is the ability of some to use this ancient power to manipulate the minds of the masses. As easily as writing can be used to illuminate, capture, and preserve, it can also be used to obscure, maim, and obliterate. This principle goes for more than just history, but for dreams and aspirations. From the moment you learned to write your first letter you were gifted a power supernatural. Throughout your life you have honed that power, and hone it still, day by day, letter by letter. What legacy do you choose to leave? To what end will you harness this defiance of time and space? Fear not the vastness through which your words will carry, and fear not the multitude of voices in chorus or dissonance with your own. Fear only that you may pass into the next life without having used the gift of telepathy to better the world for eternity to come.
Carnegie, A. (2006). The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie.New York: Signet Classics.
Homer. (1990). The Iliad.(R. Fagles, Ed.) New York, New York: Penguin Group.
King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Want more? Check out Chad’s podcast as he dives deeper into the question “what is writing?” to explore the nuisance and super power of writing.
Chad W. Garrett is the Executive Producer of Forerunner Productions and its subsidiary Forerunner Productions Publications. He is the host of the podcasts The Chad Garrett Show and Co-host of the podcast The West Meadow Show. Chad has dedicated his life to the mission of using his gifts of speaking, writing, and leadership to inspire people to use their own gifts to make the world a better place. When not reading, writing, or speaking, Chad can be found hiking, rock climbing, or dancing, and always striving to accomplish his personal mission statement, “Give unto others, that others may give.”