Words, Words, Words

Can a room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters really produce a work of Shakespeare?

Can a room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters really produce a work of Shakespeare?

What’s the difference between us and William Shakespeare? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or Sylvia Plath? Or any other great writer, either of fiction or nonfiction, in human history? Most literary critics consider these individuals to be giants among men. They are gods of the written word whose writing talents have entertained, enthralled, and enlightened readers from generations past and present. They are, for lack of a better word, immortal.

Immortal in the sense that their work will endure for years far beyond their time on earth. We will be reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey for ages to come. No matter how much society changes over time, the stories told by these literary giants will always be relevant and timeless to its audience.

That also applies, to a smaller degree, to great journalists. A journalist’s work is usually read that day and quickly forgotten the following week. Only a selected few journalists will endure in the memories of the general public. Thomas Friedman, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and George F. Will are writers who have changed and influenced American domestic and foreign policy just by the stroke of their keyboards. Whether you agree with their politics or not, you cannot deny that presidents ranging from Richard Nixon (who fell victim to Woodward and Bernstein’s now famous Watergate exposé for the Washington Post) to George W. Bush have had their presidencies directly affected by these journalists.

This brings us back to the first question I posed: what’s the difference between us and William Shakespeare? Why were their writing talents above and beyond the talents of Average Joes like you and me? Not too many people remember Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He did have them. Students today don’t read their works because, for some reason no one might be able to explain, their literary skills don’t match up with that of the Bard.

How hard can writing be? Studies have shown that people, both men and women, speak an average of 16,000 words per day. This might dispel the rumor that women talk more than men. Regardless, talking is no big task for the averagely intelligent human being. We think in words, we communicate in words, we process information in terms of words. Without words, it would be very difficult for people to function in society.

Yet, there are only a select few of us who are truly great writers. It is one thing to speak words. It is quite another thing to put them on paper. And it is definitely another thing to write something that people will want to read.

According to the WordPress.com home page, as of this writing, 57,525,799 new words have been written today by all bloggers. It would be prudent to assume that Blogger and other blog sites probably have similar statistics to boast. The world is not short on writers. There will always be people who want their words to be read by as many people as possible. But how about good writers?

Good writers are not as prevalent as one would think. The inspiration for this blog post comes from a few conversations I’ve had with a couple of people about how difficult the art of writing can be to some folks. There are some people who can speak eloquently and clearly but when you put a piece of paper in front of them and a pen in their hand, they could not write a simple five paragraph essay to save their lives. Or maybe a mere 500 word editorial on any subject of their choosing. Doesn’t sound that hard, but to some people, it’s equivalent of running a marathon. Why start when you don’t have a chance of finishing?

Writing does not come naturally. It is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and critiqued. Good writers need teachers who teach them basic skills like sentence structure, outlining ideas, grammar/punctuation, and making sure concepts flow seamlessly. All writers need an editor, regardless of level of experience, expertise, or age. There is no such thing as a great writer who can reach the level of greatness alone.

However, that does not mean learning how to write will guarantee that you become a good writer. Creative writing is not the only form of writing that requires creative talent. All writing, to a certain extent, requires you to generate content that is not there to begin with. A columnist writer like Leonard Pitts Jr. or Maureen Dowd starts with an idea, but they need content to fill it out. They make connections between ideas, come to conclusions based on those ideas, and explain those conclusions in a cohesive and logical manner in a way that a typical reader would understand. Sounds difficult, but they make it look easy.

Maybe writing is a task best left to “left brained” people. According to pseudo-scientific psychological research, people who primarily use the left hemisphere of the brain have a better grasp on linguistic skills like grammar and vocabulary. These same generalizations have concluded that people who are more adept at math and science are “right brained.” Have you ever met a good writer who could also do advanced calculus? If you have, they would be a very valuable asset to a science magazine or in the health section of a newspaper.

If creativity is needed for all forms of writing, then where does creativity come from? Creativity, it seems, comes from the ability to look at the world not just as it is, but what the world can be. Creativity comes from the imagination. Little children have the greatest imagination because there are a lot of activities that they cannot do yet. Kids cannot climb tall mountains, or fight against cowboys and Indians, or travel through space, or play with the dinosaurs. They cannot do these things in the real world, so they do it in the world that they can: the imaginary.

The imagination is a muscle that needs to be continuously toned. When kids get older and they transition into adulthood, they are faced with the need to think linearly and realistically. They need to think about the things of this world, not the things beyond their logistical reach. This is why most people lose their imagination as they get older.

It is also no fluke why famous science fiction/fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman (of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” and “His Dark Materials” fame, respectively) have their main characters be children. As children, they are more likely to fit into the world of fantasy. And perhaps even deeper, these writers hearken back to the days when they were young and played “pretend” with their friends. I’m sure Clive Staples Lewis pretended to live in a “Narnia” inspired world when he was a young lad. Other writers probably experienced similar childhoods.

Adults who maintain their sense of adventure and awe of the world make the best writers. They can incorporate their child-like fascination with the world with their adult understanding and mastery of language. Nonfiction writers like journalists and essayists are inherently teachers. They write to edify their audience. They write to push an idea across a broad spectrum and force people to think about their world. In some respects, nonfiction writers are probably most inspired by the teachers they had as children. In similar fashion, one’s childhood returns as a determining factor of one’s writing abilities.

Technique is something that can be learned. But real good writing is something that must be passionate. You must be passionate not only for the subject that you are writing about, but the desire for people to read and comprehend it. Good writers do not write just for themselves. They want to change the world. Journalists are politicians with a pen. They make change by the written word, not with votes or legislative bills.

A passion for writing would mean you would want good form and technique. You will be open to criticism and hearing other people’s opinion of your ideas, style, and purpose. Good writers have definite purpose. They write for a reason motivated by the love of something deep. F. Scott Fitzgerald loved life prior to his service in World War I and was passionate for people to know about the “Lost Generation.” The disillusionment writers of the 1920s and 30s – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and John Steinbeck included – had something important to say. And they said it with gusto and passion. That is why they are considered great.

Ernest Hemingway: Dont let his short sentence structure fool you.

Ernest Hemingway: Don't let his short sentence structure fool you.

Bad writers often lack direction or a real sense of need. They write because they are forced to (a school assignment, perhaps) or because they have to (a necessity for one’s job). Or maybe they lack formal training. I believe a bad writer with passion can be transformed into a good writer with just a little schooling.

But, at the end of the day, creativity and an open, child-like imagination are the key ingredients for making a great, memorable, and successful writer. They need to be able to formulate concepts in their head, put it into language, and translate them onto paper. Good writers don’t have to think too hard about their craft. It almost comes naturally to them. It has been said that famed songwriter and composer George Gershwin had so many different tunes in his head, it would have taken him one hundred years to write them all down. Gershwin was such a gifted musician that he didn’t have to think about his music; it came naturally to him.

Writing can be a gift. There are writers with a natural knack for language. But that is not a prerequisite for greatness. Great writers get it. They understand what makes human beings tick. They know what drives deep emotional responses out of people. Charles Dickens knew it. So did playwright Arthur Miller. They understood humanity and the human condition. I guess good writing also takes perceptiveness and good observational skills.

But I think what will make you a better writer overnight is to read good writing. Read stories on The New York Times. Read Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Emily Dickinson. They will inspire you to do what is not even humanely possible. They will show you what simple ink on a page can do to entire nations and people groups. They can show you what real change means.

Making change means looking at the world as more than it is. It means knowing your words can move mountains, bring kings to their knees, and inspire legions of people to take action. It means not only holding up a mirror to society, but challenging society to look at itself and see the endless possibilities. “Romeo and Juliet” is a timeless classic because it tells a simple story of how mankind’s selfish and unforgiving nature can get in the way of true love. Love, the beautiful fabric of life, can be destroyed if society puts enough pressure on it to end. What that play did was challenge humanity to look beyond itself and imagine a world that can be better, more compassionate, and free of hate.

See? There’s that word again. Imagine. Imagination is a powerful tool in good writing. That might answer my question. What’s the difference between us and Shakespeare? I think the connection he makes between his words and our deeply held values can give us some insight.

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2 Comments on “Words, Words, Words”

  1. you'll never guess Says:

    I think you might have the left and right brain associations confused-the right brain tends to be ‘creativity’ the left ‘analytical’…http://www.funderstanding.com/content/right-brain-vs-left-brain. math folks tend to be left brained from my understanding, the writers ad artists left brained.

  2. timtakechi Says:

    Thanks. But I’ve heard it the other way around as well. You’re probably right. Either way, there’s no real confirmation that such a thing exists.

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