- This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
No matter how uninteresting the topic, if it catches my fancy for a fleeting instance I shall write about it for the reading pleasure of the 0–5 readers this site may one day accumulate.
Just over four and a half years ago, young Ben had finally finished his first website—Oh What? Oh Jeez!. Presumably feeling defensive, he chose to christen it with a justification for why he had taught himself web development and created such a site. Just under a half-decade later, current-age Ben feels the need to revisit his old justifications and provide some new ones. This piece shall be a broader meditation on writing and why I will still write, even if nobody’s reading.
Separating writing from reading
I don’t bother looking at the viewing stats for my website. As far as I know, everything I write may be reaching a huge audience, or no-one at all. Odds are, it’s the latter. This begs the question: why bother writing?
This is, I think, down to a common misconception regarding writing. Writing and reading are easy to consider as related activities, considering the latter is dependent on someone doing the former, but this is incorrect. Reading requires writing, but writing is independent of reading—a message in a bottle that is immediately swallowed by a shark remains no less written for its having not been read. Reading is thus only incidentally relevant to writing.
In reading, one scans over written text and experiences responses to it. Perhaps the response of a reader with a mind to editing the text is
this sentence could be better written like so, whilst the plot-reader’s is
this character’s death has made me feel sad. In reading, the written text itself is but one small aspect of the experience—the words alone provide little more than a prompt for the reader, whose intellect provides its own supplementary elements—such as personal tastes, acquired knowledge and historical experiences—which sum up to create the total reading experience. As a result of this, each experience of reading is an intensely personal, not to mention unalterably unique, experience.
What is writing?
Enough of a digression about the nature of reading. What, then, is the nature and purpose of writing? To begin with, we must look at where the things that find themselves written on the page come from. What is a written text a representation of? In Anonymity: an inquiry, E.M. Forster describes
look[ing] back with longing to the earlier modes of criticism where a poem was not an expression but a discovery, and was sometimes supposed to have been shown to the poet by God. It is this phrase,
not an expression but a discovery, which is vitally important.
In set theory, a set is any collection of things. For example, one can talk about the
set of all animals or the
set of all numbers greater than 2. Within set theory, there exists the set of
all the ideas that it is possible to express—think something along the lines of Borges’ The Library of Babel. Every homo sapiens, over the past tens of thousands of years, has possessed the exact same tools for the production of new ideas. This can be production from other ideas, such as through deduction (
because , therefore ), or production ex nihilo, through invention (
hey, I’ve just had this crazy idea ). These tools may be more or less developed within each individual, but each surely possesses them. Thus, we can say that this set of
all possibly-expressible ideas is the common property of humanity. When one
has an idea, they have simply plucked it from the set. Someone else can do the same quite independently, such as when Liebniz and Newton simultaneously came up with calculus. As C.P. Snow wrote in The Two Cultures,
the ideas were in the air. Anyone, anywhere, had only to choose a form of words. Then—click, the trigger was pressed.
What does all this metaphysical talk have to do with writing? In whatever form an idea
exists, it is not one that we are able to express. However, what if we discover, from the set, a particular idea that we feel is worth sharing with others? How can we provide them with the instructions and the tools by which to extract the same idea (or one as close as possible to it) from the set? Enter language. As I’ve said before,
language is a means by which one attempts to conjure, in another person’s mind, as accurate an approximation of possible of what is in one’s own. I may, thus, claim responsibility for the specific words into which I translate an ephemeral idea, but not the idea itself. Consider the experience, that I’m sure is not unique to me, of playing around with an idea in your head for weeks but lacking the precise words with which to best express it. Then, stumbling across an article or a book on the same topic, you find that someone else has done just that, regardless of any chronological, cultural or geographic distance.
The reason to write
Thus, how do we determine the superior of two attempts at transcribing the same idea? It depends, as Forster goes on to discuss, on the context. If the goal is informative, then the best text is the one that contains the most information the most succinctly. If the goal is broad dissemination, then the best text is the one most comprehensible to the most people. If the goal is aesthetic, then other metrics apply. There is, presumably, an optimum way of phrasing a given idea for a particular context (and, perhaps, an optimum way of phrasing a given idea for all contexts, although of this I am less convinced). Every attempt at transcribing an idea into language is an attempt at getting closer to this Platonic form.
Consider, here, what editing is. Editing begins as reading. The author has provided the editor with their attempt as transcribing a given idea. The editor examines it and thinks
there should be a comma here, and adds one. Now, there are two texts: the original, with its author; and the edited, with its. It does not matter that the editor has added only a comma. Both describe the same idea, but one text is superior to the other in some pertinent way.
Which (finally) leads me to why I write. All intellectual activity is based around the representation of ideas through imperfect media. My personally-preferred medium is writing and one’s writing, as with all other skills, improves with repetition. Bouncing ideas around in one’s head is all well and good, but it can get tiring. Taking the time to express those thoughts in a medium of choice allows one to exorcise them from the mind. Exposing them, as I do here, to a potential audience (and the attendant risk of criticism) ensures that any such idea will have been thoroughly analysed, and any potential illogicalities headed off in advance. By consolidating disparate thoughts through writing, I improve my understanding of them and my ability to discuss them in person. Other benefits, like being able to point people towards certain pieces for my thoughts on certain topics, are only bonuses—ultimately, writing is my deadlifting.