« on reading | Main | on books »

on writing

"The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him."

After re-reading and reflecting on my last journal entry, I've realized that it is simply too difficult to compose a short essay "on reading" and not compose another essay "on writing." The two activities are connected to such a degree that they simply wouldn't exist without one another. Yet, in a very basic way, I think these two activities do have their distinctions.

Reading, which is akin to listening to someone talk, is a receptive intellectual process that primarily requires the reader to be open, or attentive, to the writer's message. Although good reading and good listening can be considered active processes, I would maintain that writing is active, or constructive, to a much greater degree. When a person writes, if gifted, he is essentially speaking in the most powerful way he can.

As Thoreau points out in the quotation above, writing has a lasting quality, and it tends to impact people in a more significant way than a speech or a conversation. A person who is giving a speech must consider the audience. If the audience is falling asleep, the orator must say something to wake them up, and if the audience is too agitated, the orator must say something to calm them down. Often orators are charasmatic and outgoing, and at times their personality and cadence can be even more important than the meaning of their words.

The art of writing, on the other hand, has a different focus. Perhaps it is more of a one-on-one exchange between the writer and the reader. Instead of speaking to a group of people who are all influenced by each other, the writer speaks directly to the individual when he is alone, at a time when he is not easily swayed by his peers. The very best writing may sound like it has actually been written for the specific person reading it. And, as Thoreau also suggests, writing of truly historic proportions will appeal primarily to a select few, since not everyone will be able to grasp the depth of the writer's message or appreciate the nuance of the writing itself.

I find the very best writing to be lyrical and rythmic, filled with hidden meanings and subtext. Varying sentence structures and syntax set the tone. The way the sentences follow each other, often flowing back and forth, like a gentle rocking chair, influence our receptivity. While a young or immature reader might focus almost entirely on the specific definitions of each word, a more mature reader might gravitate toward the subtext. And, a particularly astute reader might feel themselves reading faster or slower at different intervals, being led through a book almost as if it were a river. Some passages may be so wise or vivid that the reader feels like they need to pause and reflect on the power of a certain metaphor.

A gifted writer will have considered all of this. And, a gifted reader, no matter what generation, will be one of the select few capable of appreciating it.

All of this brings to mind the aphorism... "We have two ears and one mouth for a reason."

Shouldn't we listen twice as much as we speak? And when we listen, shouldn't we listen for everything? When we read, have we read the words and felt the tone? Can we comprehend the subtext? And, with regard to writing... can we exclaim something without using an exclamation point? Is it possible to more affectively assert ourselves by asking a question? Or by sounding hesitant or uncertain?

About seven years ago, I read Walden for the first time. I was in my early 30's and was at the beginning of my own personal and unstructured education. Since then, I've read Waldon twice more. I've read two different biographies of Thoreau (twice each), and I've recently finished reading "Letters to a Spiritual Seeker," which is a re-published group of letters that Thoreau wrote to his friend, and desciple, Harrison Blake.

In short, I've been reading a lot of Thoreau lately. And, I think I've been reading his work so much because he practiced what he preached. He walked the talk. He wrote with the hope that at least a few people would take the time to read his work carefully. Although many of his contemporaries didn't grasp the depth of his work, I think he knew, deep down, after being published, that other generations would.

It's obvious to me that Thoreau put his heart and soul into his writing. He carefully considered each of his phrases and sentences; and, this is why his words have stood the test of time. The words of Walden come alive and awaken the convictions in those who are ready to listen and understand them.

Writers like Thoreau often make me wonder.... is being prolific really that impressive? Should we measure the gift of the writer by the number of pages written? Or should we measure the writer by the number of inspired pages written?

"A written word is the choicest of relics," wrote Thoreau.

And, to that, I would like to add,

"The choicest relics are the most rare."

So, by the example of Mr. Thoreau, I will continue to write as carefully as I am able. I will read well and often, and like a plant that only blooms for a short time each year, I will hope that my writing, though infrequent, aspires to the greatest depths.