Why do I write?

Why do I write?

I haven’t stopped to think about it lately, and I probably should. So I sat down for an afternoon and tried to come up with all the reasons why I write. Here, in no particular order, are presented the main reasons I write:

 

1. Because I’m reasonably good at it. I started blogging because I’d learnt I had the knack for turning words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs; paragraphs into chapters; chapters into theses. That’s the essence of what writing is. Turning words into something larger.

Words on their own mean something, but the relationship between words when they are placed in order is vastly more important. Much like binary code in which the significance of any individual ‘1’ or ‘0’ is simultaneously and paradoxically nil and ultimate (the significance coming from a relation to all the 1’s and 0’s that precede and follow) so too every word means simultaneously almost-nothing and almost-anything. Their individual significance is minor to the point of being generally interchangeable. Like any binary ‘1’ on a spinning magnetic disk, swap it for any other ‘1’ and the meaning remains the same. Just so, words together can cumulatively enlarge and grow and warp and twist and crackle across the page with such fire and power that it seems as though the very world was enveloped by words!

The world is not enveloped by words, but one can at least better understand the attraction to philosophy’s near-all-consuming ‘linguistic turn’.

2. Because the act and process of writing helps expose me to my own thinking, and develop my own ideas. When I’m writing a piece and connecting logical dots, when I come to one or more seemingly contradictory conclusions (or, more commonly, am overtaken by a growing realisation of contradiction or confusion) I have to re-examine my premises, or the terms that I am using, or some other aspect of my approach entirely. I have to wonder, what do I really mean here? I have to comprehend my own unarticulated intimations and somehow untangle the mess of connections as though a snarl of many twisted wires.

It’s kind of like The Socratic Method for solo cogito, where you have a lone dialogue with yourself by way of externalising thoughts through words.

3. Because I like the way a particular turn of phrase or a particular use of words can make me think in a completely new direction. Take, for example the following completely functional sentence:

Leaving food in my bedroom attracts rats and cockroaches.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that sentence whatsoever. It contains four nouns – ‘food’, ‘bedroom’, ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’ – as well as the transitive verb ‘leaving’ . It carries the meaning efficiently and effectively, warning readers not to leave food lying around in my bedroom unless they want to encourage rats and cockroaches. Now take the following modification of that sentence.

Leaving food in my bedroom attracts vermin.

All I have done is substituted ‘rats and cockroaches’ for the word ‘vermin’. The difference from the first sentence is both subtle and profound. For starters, it has at once simplified the sentence, reducing the number of words and nouns to three – ‘food’, ‘bedroom’ and ‘vermin’). It has also changed the scope of the statement, increasing the range of the implied admonishment to encompass the entire category of creatures that are considered pestilent. Even further, the word ‘vermin’ brings with it connotations of disease. Now, instead of our imaginary food attracting merely two species of pest, it attracts a whole lot more. On Wikipedia’s page for vermin it discusses the word’s scope:

Disease-carrying rodents and insects are the usual case, but the term is also applied to larger animals—especially small predators — on the basis that they exist out of balance with a human-defined (desired) environment…Pigeons, which have been widely introduced in urban environments, may be considered vermin

There is so much more possible meaning to be drawn from the second sentence than the first: now a reader’s mental image of the consequences of leaving food in my bedroom includes a virtual menagerie of all types of vermin; adding it’s presence along with the rat on the side-table and the cockroach on the plate is now the pigeon that flies in my window to nibble on leftover crumbs, the mouse nibbling on some mince, and any other ‘vermin’ the reader’s imagination might conjure up. All this from using one word instead of two (well, three if you count the conjunction ‘and’).

4. Because words are the things that grant me access to ‘things’. Using new words gives me access to new things; everything from thoughts and emotions to new words for composite activities and entire processes. As a process of discovery it’s exciting to be able to attach a word to something that was previously indescribable, held only in the mind as a vague miasma of thoughts, actions or emotions. Try and concieve something that has no word (or group of words) for it, or some that you don’t know the word for, and what results? A vague sense of wrongness, uneasiness, a sense of indeterminacy and a reliance on broad, childlike strokes at attempting to describe something in an inevitably not-quite-right way.

Take a word like ‘thanatosis’, a word which roughly means the act of feigning death in an animal, usually as a reflex action. Sure, you could always just describe that as “the act of feigning death in an animal, usually as a reflex action” but to have a word-tool available gives it the sense of coherence, or a unity. This is a phenomena, it exists, whereas before all we had was a compound series of words/sentences. It’s a relatively powerful aide to thought.

5. Because writing is non-literal (or doesn’t have to be literal). It can be allusive, as well as functional; persuasive as well as descriptive; figurative as well as useful. Computer code is functional in that it does things, and this results in the inseparability of understanding what a piece of code does from an understanding of what it is. The IF/THEN statement is exactly what it does, quite unlike languages and writing which hold a non-linear, indeterministic relationship between what a unit of writing is and does.

Supple.

6. Because writing can be its own reward! Thus, if my words change the world, so be it. If they do not, so be it.

7. Because the end result of writing (having a piece of writing, contrasted with not having a piece of writing) is something that I can point to and say ‘That is something; something that I have made and that reflects something about me, be it my character, my prejudices, my perspective, my limitations and boundaries, my insights, my vocabulary, my speech-thought patterns, my philosophical predisposition, my proclivities and peccadilloes, or my command over my very own thoughts.

8. Because writing is communication and I am hungry to communicate – to reach out and touch other people.

To understand and to be understood is a deeply powerful, even sacred, relationship. Comprehension is both skill and choice; as a skill it’s one that many people seem to lack but it can be developed.

If writing is practice comprehending myself, then reading back over your own writing can be practice at comprehending yourself as comprehended by someone else.

9. Because writing is technical in that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Words have correct spellings (leaving aside differences between regions) and grammar is essentially a semi-rigid system of rules. Oftentimes there are good and better ways of writing (particularly when writing with a purpose or audience in mind), but there are also right and wrong ways. That is a comfort.

10. Because writing can do amazing things, as well as be amazing. It can do art as well as be art. Out of the same ‘stuff’ is fashioned the most withering critique of the vapid artist and the utmost fantastic exploration into the character of 1920’s Parisian expatriates.

 

Further reading: Lyndon Warren’s ‘Wittgenstein, Games, and Language‘, and Philosophy Bro’s excellent ‘Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”: A Summary‘.