What’s So Bad about Writing?

Two days ago I asked you to listen to two songs (“More than Words” and “Gentle on My Mind”) to see if you could find a common theme between them. (I could have added one more – “Show Me” from My Fair Lady – but it didn’t fit another reason I wanted you to listen to the songs: to make you melt.)

Here’s my main point: All three songs convey an anti-language message. Hartford sums it up in “Gentle on My Mind” when he sings that he’s “not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line.” Love is real; words are empty. Eliza Doolittle makes the same point in “Show Me” (“Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you’re on fire, show me!”). And the Extreme musicians plead for something “More than Words” to show that “your love for me is real.”

Jacques Derrida has written at length about our cultural bias against language – a tradition that goes back at least as far as Plato. I’ve already mentioned one reason for that bias: Words lack the vitality of lived experience. There’s a good example in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:


“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, never forget!”
“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

As time goes by, passions fade and memories grow dim. A written account of an extraordinary experience is just a shadow of what we were feeling at the time.

But you and I are writers. Are we wasting our time in pursuit of a lifeless art? I don’t think so – and I have a quotation from one of the masters to back me up. It’s from the Preface to a collection of letters between Bernard Shaw and actress Ellen Terry. They had a love affair on paper, rarely meeting face-to-face even though they both lived in London. Here’s what Shaw said about their unconventional love story:

Let those who complain that it was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.

Now I want you to recall the feelings you had when you listened to “More than Words” and “Gentle on My Mind” (or any song or poem that strikes you right in the heart). Where would we be without words to open our souls and teach us about love, beauty, and goodness?

I think Derrida is right when he talks about actions-speak-louder-than-words bias in our culture. But he’s also right when he insists on the enduring value of written words. We writers have untold opportunities to create adventures for our readers. What could be more exciting?

What are you writing about right now?


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