Monday, 7 April 2008

The Flexible Hand: Writing as Thought and Art

One of the hardest concepts to get across to my students, virtually all of whom have been educated in the mind-numbing Five Paragraph Essay format, is that writing does not exist merely as a means of placing three arguments, each neatly wrapped in its own paragraph, into an insipid predigested format devoid of spark, imagination, wit or even the slightest interest on the part of either the writer or the reader.

Writing is supposed to be the exact opposite to this.

Fact is, writing and thinking go hand in hand – which isn’t to say that people who don’t write can’t think, but their thinking skills are certainly at a disadvantage. It’s kind of like body-building. Although it may be possible to build muscle by lifting telephone books, the process is a lot more efficient, and the results a lot more dramatic, if you use the right equipment. This also works the other way around. The better you think, the better you can write. Just as lifting weights increases muscle strength which in turn allows for lifting heavier weights, so too writing improves thought processes which in turn leads to better writing.

Writing allows us to articulate our thoughts. The word “articulate” means connecting things by joints. In the physical world, things are articulated either to make them more flexible or to allow them to grasp objects more precisely. Consider a train 100 yards long. If it were one solid piece of metal on wheels it could only travel along a perfectly straight track. But because it consists of jointed smaller units it can bend to go around curves. In this case the articulation improves flexibility. Now consider the human hand with its opposable thumb and multi-jointed fingers. Because our hands are more articulated than our feet we can use them for drawing, threading needles, and typing on keyboards. In this case the articulation improves grasp. In the world of thought, however, the two aspects become one. When we articulate a thought it becomes both flexible and able to grasp intricate concepts. Poorly articulated thought is stiff and incapable of picking up complex subtleties. Just think of the average political platform which generally consists of sound-bites that sound good on the six o’clock news, but fail to adequately address the intricacies of the issues under discussion.

As long as our thoughts are unarticulated, that is, as long as they remain crude and undefined, they are vulnerable to over-simplification and error. Poor articulation allows internal inconsistencies to go unnoticed. “Think globally: Act locally,” “No blood for oil,” “Honesty is the best policy.” All such slogans are unsophisticated answers to difficult and multi-faceted concerns. We are attracted to them because of their simplistic and dramatic appeal. Furthermore, they appear to be so self-evidently true that we find it difficult to argue them. The oft heard cry, “If even a single life is saved…,” is almost impossible to resist, despite the fact that it generally precedes untenable propositions such as warning labels for every possible hazard and guarantees of safety for every situation. It is this very simplistic and incontestable aspect of slogans that makes them so easy to adopt as our own. When asked about important and wide-ranging issues, most people blithely respond with catch-phrases from TV, radio or newspapers which they fully believe are their own thoughts.

Writing – at least good writing – serves to correct over-simplification and inconsistencies. There is a reason most hate literature is poorly written with infantile spelling and grammar mistakes: if it were written any better the flaws and fallacies would become apparent – even to the writer. When examined more closely, the message reveals itself to be a structure built from crude and over-extended struts ready to crumble under the weight of their inherent weaknesses.

Most people, fortunately, are good-hearted, and so the slogans and platitudes they mistake for their thoughts are at least benevolent. But this very benevolence can easily be crushed when confronted with reality. Many young activists ascribe noble and high-minded attributes to the groups on whose behalf they fight. As a result, it is quite common for them to become disillusioned and even antagonistic upon discovering that not all the individuals for whom they are fighting live up to these unrealistic standards.

But all this makes it sound like writing’s only function is to sharpen our minds for arguments and social causes. The clarity that it can give to our emotional world is equally valuable. Why do lovers scribble protestations of their undying love in letters and poems? Why are most of our popular songs about affairs of the heart? It is because we are constantly striving to articulate matters that are perhaps ultimately beyond articulation. We seek to understand by writing about them, by taking something that appears to be one huge, overwhelming thing and breaking it down into more manageable and understandable parts. Unfortunately, most people are so unskilled in writing that the subtleties of their feelings are never fully grasped.

Writing allows us to better understand complex issues and emotions, to communicate with others and transcend our limited personalities, to leave a record of what we have learned for the benefit of those who come after. It can entertain, amuse, and even expose both ourselves and our readers to new worlds. When the industrial age threatened to permanently crush the working poor, writers like Charles Dickens portrayed their plight in such vivid and empathic terms that a new era of charity and social reforms was born.

Those who hold simple, fundamentalist perspectives, as do many religious and political fanatics, are right to fear the written word and demand the banning or burning of certain books. Well-articulated ideas are a danger to their fragile belief systems. Oppressive leaders relentlessly seek out and imprison or execute those who write books and tracts contrary to the party line, knowing that such people pose more danger to their dominance than guns and armies.

Writing is dangerous. Writing is soothing. Writing reveals the complex in the simple and the simple in the complex. It is a vehicle carrying the thoughts of one generation to generations whose great-great-grandparents have yet to be born. It is a magic crystal through which we can peer into the hearts and minds of our fellow humans, and it is a magic wand with which we can change these same hearts and minds. It is a sharp-edged tool which can be used as a warrior’s sword to kill, or as a surgeon’s scalpel to heal. With writing we understand more clearly what we truly believe and with writing we can convey these beliefs to others.

But there is one thing that writing is not – five paragraphs of bloodless prose with no purpose other than scoring a good grade on a standardized test.