The title of today’s post comes from an interview with the literary phenom Franklin Safran Foer in today’s New York Times Magazine. The interviewer asked Foer why he writes, and he answers:
Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think that I’m smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness. Books make people less alone. That, before and after everything else, is what books do. They show us that conversations are possible across distances.
If books do that, we need more books. If blogs do that, we need more blogs. If e-mails do that, we need more e-mails. We need to understand everything we can about how to achieve conversations across distances, which surely is the quintessential act of human connection.
As a way to justify economic globalization, I used to say "people who do business with each other don’t bomb each other." Perhaps it’s true to a degree. But perhaps more so is it true that people who talk with each other don’t bomb each other.
If conversation with a person give us information we need to live and thrive, what’s the chance we will try to fight or kill that person?
Spoken language achieves conversation across the distance between one person’s mouth and another person’s ears, between one mind and another. Which is itself a daunting abyss across which messages often degrade completely. One might reasonably wonder then, if history’s greatest poets, playwrights and orators have not yet mastered even that short distance, what chance is there that humankind will ever master conversation across distances like those that separate Washington and Baghdad, age and youth, Christianity and Islam?
Journalists could stand to think about this question. What we write gets slammed onto newsprint that then is physically hurled up onto door stoops and flown in the bellies of airplanes to the globe’s four corners.
Once those ink marks are deciphered in the minds of readers, what happens? Does a real conversation start? Or do we spend our skills as writers manufacturing for readers not the opening to a real conversation but something that’s more akin possibly to a box of candies, a metaphor for a newspaper suggested to me once by Arthur Sulzberger Jr.?
Is a newspaper — or a blog, or a TV news show, or choose your mass media vehicle — merely an assortment of sensually gratifying but nutritionally useless sugar highs?
Using written language to communicate is far too important an activity to deploy globally with low ambitions, much less low skills. We are sending our words around the world. They are by far our biggest export. What messages do they bear? Not only the surface messages but their meta-messages? By meta-message I mean what we in journalism today are calling "frames," i.e., the all-powerful yet usually inexplicit narrative that determines which details go into a story and which ones don’t. These meta-messages go down with stories like drugs dissolved in soup. So what do these all-powerful meta-messages say about how the world itself should be organized? What do the meta-messages say about notions of fairness, equality, hospitality, decency? How do the meta-messages encourage people to act?
I am talking about the technology of written communication and how journalists can use it more responsibly, more effectively, and more humanely across distances.
I don’t buy that journalists have no business dabbling in these matters supposedly best left to literary theorists or mystics. When we write and publish words we encode the full powers of history and literature, of which journalism is a branch, into chicken-scratches of ink and pixels. We then presume to send those deadweight tons of encoded chicken-scratches onward to readers who decipher them, and in whose minds and souls explode the full powers of those symbols.
To deny that this is essentially what we do as journalists is to wilfully refuse to shoulder our greatest responsibility as writers, which is to ensure that when we do connect with our readers (if we ever are so lucky), that we do so in a way that is gentle and useful to that reader and therefore to humanity.
How come this skill isn’t taught in schools? Why didn’t our writing teachers and journalism teachers ever get to this level? It’s got to be the most exciting possibility that writing offers, to make meaningful contact with other beings, to stir in them a piece of the joy and insight and discovery we glean from life ourselves.
Certainly we as reporters are not mere stenographers. We don’t just show up with a tape recorder, our pens and notebooks. We show up with our hearts and minds. That’s why we’re in this dodge. We got into the ink-stained trade because we knew it would give us a front row seat to history, geography, politics, to important and fascinating and thoughtful people, to the world.
Actors and actresses often say their whole body and being is their expressive instrument. We think that applies to us as writers, too. We approach the world openly and forthrightly; we take in the world with our mind and heart and soul, our eyes and ears and fingertips; and we encode that enchanted encounter in ways that, when the symbols are uncoded, faithfully reproduce the original encounter.
We journalists, who are first and foremost writers, need to remember the excitement we felt when we first realized that such a thing was possible, this magical craft of encoding life into potent symbols that later could explode back to life in the minds of our readers, like lotus flowers opening on a still pond. We need to hold tight to that original joyful motivation for reporting and writing that got us into this business, and we need to keep faith with it, in order to be grow as responsible journalists.
I’m making a call to go deeper into the technology of written communication. As writers we sit at our instrument and watch our own minds. When a good sentence floats by, we catch it and type it out. Going deeper means understanding this process better. As we sit, many sentences float by. Why do we choose to grab some of them, and let others float into oblivion? Deeper than that, we have our rituals for starting that flow of floating sentences. What are those rituals? Can we change our rituals so that a different type of sentence starts to arise and float by — sentences that are gentler, wiser, more powerful, and more useful to humanity?
The wordless state before writing is a place all its own. We as writers need to know more about this state, what it is like and how it operates, because our writing comes from this place, as our life does too.
As a small example, the writer Sunanda Patwardhan, who was assistant to the religious teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, recalls once asking Krishnamurti to explain his idea of "responsibility without attachment." He seemed to be saying one needed to cultivate a feeling of home that was not limited to one’s birthplace, one’s house, one’s home state or home country, but rather included the whole world.
"Be responsible," Krishnamurti told Patwardhan. She shot back at him, "What could I do for other places, living here in Madras?" And he replied, "It is the feeling of responsibility per se, not merely the responsibility for some thing. This feeling is precious."
What I am suggesting is that such a feeling of responsibility may characterize what I just called "the wordless state before writing" from which all of our words flow.
We might find that cultivation of such a feeling would be precious to us as writers, insofar as by tapping this single feeling-state we might hit a gusher of right words, useful words, gentle words, powerful positive words for humanity.