Writing As A Second Rate Activity

My goodness!  That does seem to be an arrogant claim, particularly around the literature departments of the modern university.  But it is an accurate observation.  Much of our day revolves around oral communication.  In a way so much of that interaction is changing through the use of technology, or at least the use of gadgets that technology has introduced to society at large.  Still, if one ha small children one does not text them to eat their carrots while both parent and child are sitting at the dinner table.  Now there are a number of books that detail the various theories of why language evolved and I really do not wish to run through that discussion, it’s up to you to do your own research.  Language allows us to do a great many things that those animals who do not have language or as rich a process for communication as human language can do for themselves.  For one, we gossip, that is we inform on each other like there was no tomorrow.  That was a very useful survival technique and allowed us to identify the leeches in our midst.  I don’t groom you unless you groom me and it better be an even close to even in the exchange, as we did not have watches and other timekeeping devices.  An even exchange is a perception and not an exact measurement.  But then so is a rule of thumb.

Now none of us ever called out, “Hey John, there is a lion forty yards to your left, about north by north north west.”  We had yet to measure distance to any exact standard and certainly boxing the compass would come later, much later.  But if we yelled, “Lion!” Then everyone would look around and verify the presence of a predator and the proximity to his own position.  So outside of yelling “Lion” and “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  We needed more to talk about.  David is always eating his fill before revealing that choice bunch of bananas.  Joan is sneaking around with that sleazy William right behind the leaders back.  You can’t trust Linda, all she wants is her back scratched but she never returns the favor.  Gossip has great value as information in our dad to day lives.  But we exchange other information as well.  Hey Gus, what kind of mood is the leader in?  Pissy, ok, I’ll stay clear of him today.  And some information is not always transmitted by word of mouth.  “Well, hello, beautiful, look who’s in heat!”  Of course the point is that no one ever passed notes instead of utterances, so writers have not been with us long.  If the best you can type is sixty words a minute and I can hear and clearly perceive your meaning at two hundred words a minute then clearly typing takes too long.  On the other hand if I can read 400 words a minute (the standard for high school academics) then I can read at least twice as fast as I can hear providing what I read is not terribly time sensitive.  By the time I can write the note: hey George, lion to your left, George is already a fast food meal.

So how did writing come about?  Did the big boss say one day,”I want a written record of everything in the camp.”  What’s a written record, boss?  No, we sort of backed into it.  Being social animals we like to exchange pleasantries and information and occasionally some nostalgia.  Hey, remember George?  You know, that blond guy who was eaten by the lion last month.  I was just remembering something funny he once said about his fear of being eaten by lions.  Oh god, it’s cold this winter.  Last winter was much warmer than this.  What do you mean last winter was colder?  I tell you, it’s this winter.  Let’s go ask Sheafer, I bet he wrote it down with his new writing device.  Pretty soon we start talking about how great the wife looked before she had the twins and how grandpa could tree a bear with just a sharp stick.  A all those stories we tell because there is not radio or television to take our minds off reality.  Well, children do beg for bedtime stories, and lots of them.  You try getting a three year old to sleep with just one story.  And hey, you better tell it right.  We are story tellers, not kangaroos in the outback nibbling on grass and hiding our children in our pouches.  We play the digger-do and sing, too.  We like attention, that’s why we tell stories.  But what is better than attention is listening to a good story teller.  Our minds just drift off and conjure up all the required details as the story teller find in the actions and descriptions.  I mean, we’re lazy, too.  It takes time to remember all those stories everyone asks to hear, and you better tell them right.  Writing takes time and effort and we have to do so much more work delivering imagination to those too damn lazy to do it for themselves.  Right?  Of course we all must take turns telling our individual stories even when they all sound alike.

So we come up with this thing called writing, a new technology complete with its high priests.  Say, let’s make the word order direct object, except on Wednesday, subject but plural if there are five or more, and verb, if we have any energy left.  Oh, and it’s i before e except after c.  Well, how should I know, we haven’t written a dictionary yet.  So just like oral expressing, talking, that is, we write for all those very same reasons.  The difference is that when we give an oral presentation our feedback is immediate.  With writing, well, that is a black hole.  How many readers will tell you that your worksucks?  Writing is a retail experience.  That is, you never know if you are losing customers and why unless you ask them.  “Tell me, John, what would you give my book?”  “I’d give it away!”  Who will read this article?  I really don’t know.  If it does get read, or at least viewed, then I get a one stroked on the side.  But unless yiu comment I really won’t know what you think.  And that’s why writing is a second rate activity.


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