Unnatural Writing

I had a useful, or rather interesting, conversation with a doctor (the medical kind) a couple weeks ago that led me to thinking a bit about things I had already discussed to a certain degree with my students in the past. To set the stage, this doctor is a non-native English speaker whose spoken English is just shy of fluent.

Basically, he identified one of the most important sub-surface things to remember about writing: it is not natural.

Yes. Writing is an unnatural act. It is a technology.

Speaking is natural. We don’t really have to be taught how to speak. We have to be taught how to speak intelligibly in a given language, but from very early on (perhaps, arguably, even within seconds of birth), we communicate orally. It is an instinct.

On the other hand, writing is something we spend years figuring out at even the most basic level. For the most part, a child doesn’t understand letters or words until somewhere between 12 to 36 months, even then building a written vocabulary takes years (or never ends).

I think part of the unnaturalness of writing is that it uses the mental and physical capacities of the body in a very complex and non-intuitive fashion. Letters need to be remembered, the position of letters to make words needs to be recalled, the speaking element of vocabulary and syntax needs to be employed, and the hand needs to form the letters through fine muscle control. At the very least.

At the same time, the writer has to be conscious of the words in a different way. When we speak, the audience is typically present, giving us visual cues through body language or blatant questions and comments. When we write, we must be both writer and reader simultaneously. We must be aware not only of what we’re trying to convey, but also of how the reader will receive the information, what extra information (s)he might need, what explanation must be present, and what might be dull or exciting to a given audience. This requires a certain level of both imagination and role-playing that, I think, many people find difficult. I suppose a certain level of empathy is implied as well, in order to put oneself in the reader’s position.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story [. . .] When you rewrite your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” -Stephen King, On Writing
(In short: the first draft is for you, the second and further drafts are for the reader. I’m not a fan of King, or most of his writing methods, but this point is, I think, a useful one buried in the “slurry”.)

One thing that I find helps students, at least, is thinking of the first draft as a conversation. Because speaking is instinctive, I think it helps to imagine oneself in a conversation telling the story (or discussing the subject of an essay). That can get words down on paper (or on screen) for the first draft, even if they are complete junk. The junk can always be revised and fixed, a blank page is just a blank page.


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