What is Writing

I love literature and history and ideas and letters and even blogs. I love the flow of information and narrative and personality that writing enables. Plus, I teach and practice writing.

Consequently, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes for good writing, and that leads me, in turn, to wonder about just what writing is. What is its nature?

How, after all, can I asses a student’s writing if I dont’ know what it is? How can I strive to perfect my own writing if I don’t understand what writing is?

I suppose there is a practical element that can be accomplished perfectly fine without knowing the nature of writing. For example, if I learn grammar I’ll be able to write better.

However, if I don’t have a higher reason for learning grammar than that it usually helps, then grammar itself loses its place. In time, it degenerates into a question of usage and loses its soul.

And that, in turn, undercuts the writing of the generation that doesn’t learn grammar after its own nature.

So I want to know, not only how to deal with immediate practical problems as they arise, not only techniques of writing. I want to know its nature. That way I’ll be able to sniff out techniques myself.

Even more, I’ll be less likely to miss crucial skills or elements related to writing. Maybe what follows will sufficiently illustrate this point.

This is true of any art or skill. If I get into its soul and essence, I get it. I know what needs to be done almost intuitively. But if I am governed by techniques and can’t see their relation to the nature of the art, I’ll always be bound to the techniques, unable to discern the propriety and fittingness of their use.

So let me propose a definition for writing, awkward sounding at first, but an attempt to be both precise and exhaustive:

Writing is the overflow of the soul into a pattern of words encoded in visual symbols (letters or hierogliphs) for the purpose of communication.

If you consider this definition closely, you’ll discover three general elements, each of which must be attended to for a writer to achieve true excellence.

First, the writer needs a soul that is overflowing. Second, he needs to be able to use words well to contain that overflow of the soul. Third, he needs to use those words to communicate with others.

Most writing programs, maybe all of them, necessarily focus on the second, technical, side of writing. They assume the prerequisites of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, as well they ought. They add to these necessary foundations the structure of an essay, a novel, a story, etc. and provide advice on how to fill out the parts of the text.

Then they teach style, usually providing somewhat random tips that the writer or even most writers find helpful when looking for the apt expression.

You can usually find communication, the third element, included under the technical, when a program teaches the writer to attend to his audience. For that reason, I simplify by combining the second and third elements into one, which I call the craft of writing.

However, if I believe a person can learn to write merely by focusing on the technical craft of writing, I am mistaken. And I’m probably mistaken because I was so focused on the practical side of teaching or learning writing that I didn’t attend to the nature of writing itself.

I failed to recognize that writing is the “overlow of the soul.”

And that means the soul needs to be filled to overflowing. Perhaps it seems ironic, but this part of teaching writing really isn’t very difficult. It’s time-consuming, but it’s not what I would call difficult.

The root of great writing, it seems to me, is the same as the root of the sciences and every other art. How to name it?

Wonder, perhaps? Reverence? Awe? Respect?

In any case, I refer to the quality of soul that underlies attentive perception, the sine qua non of all human excellence.

So how do we fill the soul to overflowing? By establishing and building on this wonder, reverence, awe, and respect that is woven into human nature.

First, through experience. People need to breathe the air, watch the sun go down, watch the stars move, hear the horse whinny, stare at the cow’s eyes, fall in love, laugh at bad jokes, feel embarrassment over their family (parents and children!), step on a worm, flip over their bicycle handlebars when they’re hot-dogging it, worry about losing someone or something they love, feel grass and sand and the tar that melts on the road on a hot summer day while they run to the swimming hole, work endless hours at tedious unrewarding labor, get mugged on the El Train in Chicago, grieve over lost loves, and all the other things that make up the wonder of life.

But we all have experience. The writer needs to be trained to pay attention to it.

He also needs to see what others have said about it and how they’ve said it, especially those who are particularly perceptive. Here we encounter the need for reading, but not just any reading.

As a rule, writer’s need to avoid jejune, puerile, pedantic, or incompetent writing. They need to read good and great literature, which is literature that expresses a great idea well, a skill that arises from close attention to experience and to the technical skills of writing.

Children who will grow up to right need their souls filled with fairy tales and fables, folk tales and legends, myths and stories, so that their imaginations are filled and refined and overflowing with stories that become part of their mental furniture, objects of comparison, the blood that flows through their soul’s arteries. Above all they need Bible stories.

They also need to worship God and revere his creation. They need to learn to love form through dance, gymnastics, music, and all the other arts that so vividly and undeniably rely on their forms.

And they need to translate, for translation merges the technical and the – what did we call this other side? It’s certainly not the theoretical. Theory/practice is not a sufficient binary to grasph this. Something tanscends both, something transformative and formative, something the theory can’t grasp and enables the practice, something essential.

Perhaps that first word is our clue. Perhaps it’s the transcendent and the practical that we need to attend to.

I however, cannot transcend the clock, so I must stop. I hope to write more on the technical side and on translation. Over time, I hope to develop this whole entry.

Let me add one more word. Andrew Pudewa provoked this entry. We met about two weeks ago to plan a writing workshop, and the discussion led to reflections on all these matters. The outcome of that discussion was an event.

On July 22, Andrew Pudewa and I are co-presenting a writing workshop in Concord, NC. If you are attending the CiRCE conference, you can come a day early to participate. If not, you are more than welcome to the writing workshop itself!

For details, please request a flyer at naubitz at circeinstitute.org (removed @ for security reasons) visit our web site (www.circeinstitute.org), which will post information shortly, call us at 704 786-9684, or visit the web site for the Institute for Excellence in Writing.

This is a new development, so you might want to wait a few days (say, until June 8) before you become impatient with our web sites!

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3 Responses

  1. Love your quote (Writing is the overflow of the soul…) it states for me the essence of what the written word is. But to excite the minds of students we must begin with the joy of putting pen to paper first and foremost.

  2. […] Comments Chris on What is WritingAndrew Kern on Who Should Learn Science?Buck Holler on Who Should Learn Science?Chuck on […]

  3. Excellent thoughts about writing, Andrew. Again you have given me much food for thought. One of the things I am thinking is how easy it is to teach the practical, craft side of things. Can we teach the “soul” part, the transcendent part, or only model it?

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