Losing Our Ability To Write

Originally this blog was going to be about a fun exploration of what my friend Tom once called, “your oddly perfect penmanship.”

Thanks for the compliment Tom! I am more than a little OCD–you may notice that my lists tend to be structured to work out as Fives, and if they don’t that means I’m either in a really good place or a mental wreck–to the point where I have poured a lot of sweat equity into how I write. I’ve been known to tear up a letter and start again because I didn’t care for what my penmanship was on the page. That’s a true, and sad, story.

Beyond Penmanship

While I was originally going to speak only about the impact of Television, and beyond that SMS, Twitter and blogs (irony!) on the actual physical practice of writing, I decided instead to examine the quality of writing itself, and how the current climate has led to a general decline.

Put simply, we’ve lost the attention span for good, solid writing as the norm. “We” don’t look for it. We want something delivered to us quick. Fast food, fast entertainment.

I spend a lot of time in bookstores, as after Church on Sundays I take one or both girls to the local Borders, which ends with a tour of the store to buy them a book and accidentally survey the damage being done to the cultural intellect by those who get their works published by major labels and Oprah.

Political Books, Self-Help and Tech Manuals…and some Fraud!

Charlotte Staples Lewis
This is not the C.S. Lewis I'm talking about. This is Charlotte Staples (C.S.) Lewis from LOST. I did not want to put a picture up of the C.S. Lewis to whom I refer in the blog.
I’m not sure there’s much else published now. Sure, you also have your rotating franchise of the moment (Harry Potter, Twilight), and those can be fun to read, but they sure aren’t art. Don’t bother defending Harry Potter, either; I enjoyed the books, have seen the movies and still can’t be convinced it’s anything beyond a poor man’s J.R.R. Tolkien, or an irreligious C.S. Lewis. If you feel like defending Twilight, start with this blog, read through my assessments and give up.

The bookstore is chock full of people willing to take $27.00 from you for 200 pages of telling you how right you are that George W. Bush/Barack Obama is an ass hat. If you want that validation, that’s awesome. I don’t begrudge you of it, but that stuff’s out on the ‘net for free now, so why are you paying for it? Waste of money to pay for it. And it will only go away if we stop paying for it.

The Self-Help Manuals would be fine if they weren’t full of touchy-feely crap. I pick one up every so often and it rankles me that people want to know what Suzanne Summers thinks of their diet habits. Seriously, she has a Ph.D. in not having a steady job since the 1970s. I know it’s just so much chatter to tune out, but I’d like to grab some of the people buying these tomes and just slapping them in the face and telling them life sucks, requires work and is anything but easy. Be grateful for what you have, and bust your hump to improve upon it like the rest of us.

Then you get people like James Frey, who invented two memoirs wholesale, who still have a job. What the Hell, man? Why does this guy have a house, much less another book coming out?

Then the rest is Tech Manuals or Pulp stuff (both of which I read). But where is the good stuff? The stuff that will stick?

And Then I Realized…

The catch is that everything we think of now as art was not, at the time, written with the purpose of being art.

Antique pen and inkwell
My mom once bought me a set like this. Don't know if I still have it. But it was really sweet, her way of encouraging me to keep writing. Ah, as we look back and see what those that love us were trying to tell us.
But even approaching with that in mind, survey the landscape again. What are we going to offer future generations as an example of our finer enjoyment of writing skill? Literature has always been such a key indicator of a society’s line of thought and ours has become a squiggle. In crayon.

There are two things at play here.

Those that try to write enduring art are nearly guaranteed to fail. Shakespeare just wrote some plays to make some coin, and they were popular and survived. They were popular enough that little idiomatic cheats he used when he had written himself into a corner became standard turns of phrase in English. All from a guy who was just trying to keep the meter.Dickens wrote to get paid, and just did it so well that it stood the test of time. Same with Tolkien, Lewis and Rand. (Yes, Ayn Rand was more than a bulldog philosopher with a strange fixation on rough sex, she was a beautiful writer. You can’t take that away from her, no matter what you think of her societal theories overall or in specific.)

The “democratization” of writing through social media (again, the blogs irony) has watered the general expectation and product down enough that the cream can’t hope to rise to the top. And a lot of it is just jibber-jabber vying for your attention and validation by telling you that your political view of choice is awesome and never should be challenged. Writing has in a sense become another MSNBC circle jerk.

Instead, the closest thing to offer future generations about ourselves will be that we had bullet lists to help us with relationships and cookbooks by just about everyone on planet Earth (except you). They’ll also know that whomever we disagreed with was an asshole.

Have we really slid this far? I need someone to give me some hope, here. It can’t be this way. Because if it is, that totally sucks.

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2 thoughts on “Losing Our Ability To Write

  1. While somewhat off-topic, if I wrote an article on the decline of language, my introduction alone would be longer than this piece. What I really love is when people say, “But language is about communication!” I then say to them, “You smell bad,” and laugh at them when they’re insulted instead of thankful. I then state “All bosons are not mesons,” and see if they understand why I’m wrong.

    Social media is a similar excuse for poor writing. “I’m trying to save bytes!” No you’re not. You’re linguistically ignorant as a result of intellectual laziness. This is the disease, and our concerns are two symptoms of it.

  2. Indeed, intellectual laziness is a disease for which I’m not sure there’s a cure. I always say to people who complain that everyone is stupid, though, that people are as smart as you let them be. I wish there was some easy solution to rob them of that lowest common denominator of intellect. It’s not genetic, it’s cultural and cultural things can be corrected with enough will.

    Not going political, but to bring in that story where the teacher told the kid to refer to Easter Eggs as “Spring Spheres”, teachers obviously aren’t going to be the cure if they’re intellectually lazy and/or ignorant as well. This only touches on the fact that if you’re too under-educated to know that an egg is not a sphere, you shouldn’t be allowed within 500 yards of a teaching application.

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