Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The nature of writing

At The Charis Connection, author Tom Morrisey opines that writing is not recorded thought, but recorded sound:


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.

I'm not buying it. First of all, while I did answer "correctly" that the first sample sentence was "happy" and the second "gloomy," I was guided by some pretty strong clues. Let's take another look at that first example:

Hee dee ti tweedle twiet; eek ta da!

"Hee" is often used to express laughter, as in "tee-hee." And "ta-da!" is often used at the conclusion of magic tricks to highlight a delightful surprise. "Twiet" looks and perhaps even sounds like "tweet," the happy sound a bird makes. And "dee ti tweedle" made me think of "fiddle dee dee," which is pure silliness. Clearly, we were meant to see this as the "happy" bit of writing.

Now let's consider the second example:

Froom toogh, blah toog rah goom….

Are you thinking "gloom" and "doom"? I sure was. And what about "blah"? We all know what that means, and it has nothing to do with happiness. The "rah" seems out of place because it sounds like a cheer, but all that gloom and doom makes it clear that this is not a happy bit of writing.

Even if better evidence had been offered, I still wouldn't agree that writing is recorded sound. But the idea that writing is recorded thought seems equally ridiculous. Writing is thoughts and feelings combined and then translated into a language that can be deciphered and understood by others. The whole process is as marvelously complex as the human mind, itself.

I like it that we can't fully explain what writing is. That mystery ignites my imagination and challenges me in the most delightful way. And it magnifies my joy when I happen to write something I believe is worth reading.

4 comments:

Heather said...

So I got it right only cuz I knew that was the answer he was looking for, but in all honestly, if I had only heard the "gloom" sounds aside from anything else, i would have associated it with a sweeping dance, maybe Irish. Ooh, or maybe Russian.

Neal said...

I'm totally with you on this one. His test is just absurd. But more to the point: what does it matter? Do I think in feelings? Sometimes. Words? Sometimes (hey, I'm thinking in words now as I write this!). Smells too. But why does he assume that this has anything to do with writing? Writing is writing. The processes that go on in your head to convert those words into some sort of meaning are different for everyone.

And here's another thought: if writing is just recorded sound, why is there a difference between reading a play and seeing it acted (or hearing it, on the radio)?

Kristin said...

Have you ever seen those sentences where only the first and last letters of a word are given, and the rest in the middle is a jumble? You can still read it because the connection between your brain and the written word is so quick, that you don't have to take the time to translate anything anymore. Your brain can figure out what the words are without you really even trying.

I also agree that his little 'test' is absurd. The meaning of words and how they are spelled have been embedded in our brains since childhood. If certain 'happy' words just happen to have the 'ee' sound in them, like glee and happy, of course you will choose the earlier sentence as the 'happy' one.

But that is just because we are speaking English. Try this same test on a Chinese-speaking person, a Spanish-speaking person, a Swahili-speaking person, and you might get a different result.

Kelly said...

Writing is sound. When I read, I hear my mind speak the words of the writer. I can read, “Hi, this is Sally.” In my mind, she can be happy or sad, but I’m looking for the cue, before or after, from the writer on whether she was in a good mood or not. If necessary, I’ll replay the scene in my mind with the proper emotion.

When I write or speak, I first voice the thought in my mind and after my critical ear chops it to pieces, my mind’s voice restates it and perhaps verbalizes a complete thought.