Arcane, Counterintuitive and Nonsensical Rules May Be The Point

Sometimes I think that writing is the most mysterious and inchoate activity a person could choose to do with their time.

A couple of years ago, I was at the corner shop near my house and about to leave with my purchases when the proprietor asked me a strange question. My Romanian is mediocre on a good day and so I asked her to repeat herself, unsure that I had heard her correctly. Her question, once again, was, “Sculptezi?”

I have no idea why she was asking if I am a sculptor. I’ve never once sculpted anything and I don’t know why anyone would think that I have. My hands were not dusty and my clothes had no white powder on them. Perhaps the proprietor was drunk again, but it was a startling question nonetheless.

I do, however, know some sculptors. They take a solid raw material and use their tools and artistry to create amazing works. And when they are done, they place the finished object somewhere and other people come and gaze upon it. Whether they like it or not, or even if they are largely apathetic and indifferent to it, all that’s required is ordinary vision – you cast your eyes upon it, the light is refracted back into your cornea and rods and cones, and your brain interprets these signals. A child of three months old or an elderly person of 103 years can equally look at a sculpture and perceive it.

Writing, on the other hand, is virtually an act of wizardry or paranormal activity. A person of any age with a healthy and intelligent brain could gaze upon writing and, if it were in an unknown or unfamiliar alphabet, understand nothing of it. I could phonetically transpose this very post into the Cyrillic alphabet and render it meaningless to most of you even though if it were spoken aloud you could understand it.

Furthermore, even if you can translate the symbols (alphabet), there is a second barrier to overcome, which is that of style, grammar and usage. If we were to engage in an oral conversation face-to-face, I could gauge by your expressions and posture whether you understood me. You could interrupt me if you did not understand a particular word or sentence. I could add emphasis with my facial expressions or hand gestures or by altering the tone of my voice. I could also stutter, back track, switch directions and correct myself “on the fly” if I felt I were not being understood or if I felt a better tact was more worthwhile to pursue.

Writing, however, is a one-way track, a virtual time machine in which I, the writer (in this case), have a series of ideas in my mind that I wish to express. I convert these not just into intelligible symbols (the letters of the alphabet) but also express them in the flow and structure of the words themselves. The very foundation of my art is to take that mental idea and chisel it into stone, form it into a fixed, permanent way so that as much of the clarity of that original idea can be translated to you, the reader, somewhere further down the time line, perhaps minutes after I finish my writing, perhaps days, perhaps even months and years later.

Imagine if you were to take a walk in the countryside one morning and come across a beautiful view of the sun rising over a pristine glen. In an instant your eyes take in the colors, the subtle interplay of light and shadows. You see the various objects in your view from the grass of the field to the flowers to the sun. Your nose picks up the gentle scents of the morning dew, the subtle fragrance of the flowers. Your skin and hair feel the stirring of the breeze. And your eyes hear the soft sigh of the wind and the rustling of the grass. And all of these sensations are perceeived in a single instant.

The art of writing is to take those sensations and cut them up into pieces and place them in a bottle and then send them across the sea to someone upon a distant shore, a person whose name you do not know, and pack that bottle with extreme care so that the unknown recipient can take the contents and re-arrange them in some fashion so that as much of those original encompassing sensations can be re-created.

It would be akin to a sculptor making a copy of someone they knew in real life, an exact duplicate of their height, their measurements, their coloring, their hair and the expression on their face. And that sculpture would have to be so realistic that a person who had viewed the copy and then later met the original person (upon which it was based) not only recognized them instantly but also knew them by their smell, by their laugh and by the timbre of their voice. Clearly not even Michelangelo could accomplish that.

And yet, in a strange way, that is what (good) writing can do, even though it is limited to 26 letters, 10 digits and a handful of logograms. Writing can transform these symbols into a living, breathing person whose laugh we can hear, whose smile we recognize and whose voice we can hear.

But to do this there must be an agreement in place. The writer must follow a complicated and often contradictory set of rules referred to as spelling, style, vocabulary, syntax and grammar to “zip” the world of the primary sensation into a compact, transportable form. I spend a lot of time reading and researching this part of the agreement, the rules and the grammar and the sometimes endless arguments and disagreements about their implementation. Indeed it is from such a discussion that I chose the title of this post, a lengthy thread about a quiz written by one of my writing heroes, David Foster Wallace.

But the other half of the agreement is performed by the reader, the unknown person on the distant shore who must unpack the symbols and constructions in order to render them intelligibly in their mind.

About a week ago, I closed all comments on new posts on this blog. I did not explain why I did this on the main page but instead left it up to the reader to find it from the title bar under the appropriate heading (Comments). You are certainly free to click on the link and read what it says there.

Whether I, as a writer, succeed in converting the ideas in my mind into an intelligible stream of symbols according to the rules and conventions of language, grammar and syntax is a matter of subjective interpretation. But work must be done regardless. I cannot shout at the computer screen and have my vocalized sounds converted into writing. Even with some kind of advanced technology, at most all that would result would be a transcription – it would not be, in the truest sense, writing. Therefore to say that writing (and hopefully good writing) requires significant effort and skill is axiomatic. It’s a given. At the very least, I had to push the keys on the keyboard in order to make the words appear on the screen.

But what has frustrated me, and led me to close comments, is that it is not equally understood that reading requires effort and skill. I am not in the sculpting business. You cannot flit your gaze upon the work I have wrought and take away a primary sensation of what it is I intended to convey. You have to “unpack the bottle” as it were, using deliberate care, and use your brain to re-assemble it.

I have already written about easter eggs and multiple, layered meanings to the posts I write. It is perfectly acceptable to me if not all of these layers are immediately espied and understood by every reader. I include them primarily as an expression of my art and my skill, and to amuse myself.

But even on the most superficial level, even if English is your “first” or native language, reading does require work. This is not sculpture or television or a video on MTV. A mentally catatonic person cannot derive any meaning from writing other than as some kind of apophenia, like seeing images in the swirls of the fabric on the sofa. To get anything more out of it, one must work, and expend effort.

Several members of my family “don’t like to read” and that’s fine. My own mother said I write “too long” and that she rarely reads what I write all the way through. Again, all of that is fine. This blog costs you nothing (financially) to read and the enjoyment you get out of it is entirely up to you.

But what I cannot abide, and what utterly destroys the enjoyment of what I write, is when a “reader” comes to the site, expends almost no mental energy in unpacking the carefully arranged “bottle” of my work, and then takes the trouble of leaving a comment to advertise their laxity. Why? I have no idea why people do this. I have no idea why people would “read” a blog that they don’t understand, I truly don’t. This website is not assigned, required reading in a class. It’s here truly for your own amusement and intellectual stimulation and nothing else.

Many years ago, a good friend of mine began using his free time to read the many books that he found in his parents’ house. Some of those books were quite old and used a lot of archaic language and vocabulary. Due to his own (relative) lack of formal education and not previously having done a lot of reading, he regularly encountered words and expressions he did not understand. His response to this was not only exemplary but also inspirational – he kept a dictionary by his bed, and whenever he found himself in unfamiliar waters, he would look up the words.

This is but one method by which a reader must expend effort and mental energy as part of the “agreement” between the sender (writer) of the material and the recipient (the reader). No one is ever going to know every single vocabulary word, or be familiar with every idiomatic expression, or be instantly cognizant of the subtleties of synonyms. Sometimes a dictionary or thesaurus must be consulted. Sometimes a “Google search” or other internet query must be performed. And sometimes one must just mull over the material and engage their mind long enough to see if a satisfactory answer can be found somewhere, perhaps even at the top of the screen in the title bar.

Not everything I write is perfect, of course, but I do my absolute best to write in a clear, concise and meaningful way. In other words, I do everything in my power to hold up my end of the agreement, to carefully “pack” the images and sensations in my mind in such a way that they can be “unpacked” on your end, the reader’s end, in a rewarding and meaningful way. But there is absolutely nothing I can do to impel you, the reader, to expend the same amount of effort. Nothing.

I cannot compete with the television, with movies, with photographs, with songs or even with sculptures. Writing cannot be flattened into a single element of sensation that can be passively received by the ears or eyes with little to no effort on the recipient’s part. If you are to get any enjoyment or satisfaction out of this website I’m afraid you are required to do some work, unless you are extraordinarily patient in exclusively waiting for further photographs of my cats :)

The felicitous object of good writing (and subsequent “good” reading) is that it can be tremendously entertaining, enriching, stimulating and illuminating. Hopefully that is the happy result of your (active) reading of the articles and posts on this blog. It is my fondest hope that you become better acquainted with English, with its grammar, syntax, style and composition, and learn to “hear” its rich inner meter and rhythm all while becoming informed and entertained by the discussion at hand. If, however, you prefer to watch movies and television and find reading to be a bothersome chore then I strongly urge you not visit this blog.

In summation, I work very hard to write to the best of my ability and talent. I turned off the comments because it was clear that at least some people were not expending a fraction of the same energy to read what I had worked so hard to write. And receiving feedback in this vein was damaging my concentration and my ability to do my art. I simply have to write as though I am perfectly and beautifully understood at all times even though that’s (virtually) never going to be the case.

For those of you who do enjoy my writing, and furthermore enjoy the effort required in order to read it, I thank you for your patronage and I ask that you indulge me in a little mental “quiet” as I go forward into the future. Certainly it remains possible to communicate with me by other means such as email and Facebook et al, and I look forward to your correspondence.

But now at least some of you know why I have disabled comments on my blog.