Writing as a Way of Life: A Forgotten Aspect of the Information Age?

Writing is rewarding, but it is also hard and difficult work. It is a craft that is learned through experience, experimentation, and exercise. Some say it cannot be taught. Writer and editor Joseph Epstein states, “After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advance prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject . . . is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned. . . .” [Joseph Epstein, A Literary Education (Edinburg, VA: Axios Press, 2014), p. 367]. Margaret Atwood comments, in a similar vein, that “talking is very old, writing is not. Most people learn to talk when they are infants, but many people never learn to read. Reading is decoding, and in order to do it you have to learn a purely arbitrary set of markings, an abstract formula” [Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 46]. Fortunately, we have many useful resources that prospective and experienced writers can turn to for assistance. In the coming months in this blog I will comment on various aspects of writing in our society and in the academy.

We write because we want to be remembered or to have an impact. William Zinsser, in his memoir, mentions that the “great writers” at Yale when he was there were the historians “who understood that their knowledge could only be handed down if they imposed on the past an act of storytelling, one that had a strong narrative pull and a robust cast of characters” [William Zinsser, Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and a Teacher (New York: Harper, 2009), p. 84]. Zinsser also reassures us that even as the Web and other technologies continue to develop that writers should not feel that they are becoming “obsolete”: “Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon”[Zinsser, Writing Places, p. 191]. It is not uncommon for writers of all stripes to think of the long-term impact of their work, as H. J. Jackson has considered in a recent investigation. It is easy these days for academic writers to focus on short-term goals (tenure and promotion) rather than the kinds of literary fame Jackson considers [H. J. Jackson, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015)]. Telling stories and finding audiences are not elements we should dismiss, even as more of our writing space occurs on the Internet.

Learning to write is daunting, difficult, and takes discipline. It is also challenging to know where to get help. Stephen King reminds us that “most books about writing are filled with bullshit” [Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 11. Despite this warning, King’s book is a very useful guide ]. I might add that so are most books about technology. It is amazing that we hear so much about the necessity of students and others being digital literate, when it is obvious that they also need to become more literate in other ways (including the ability to read critically and to write clearly).

Whatever the challenges of writing and publishing might be, books (whether print or digital) are essential in our modern civilization. Fernando Báez reminds us that “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory, that is, as one of the axes of identity of a person or a community” [Fernando Báez, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, trans. Alfred MacAdam (New York: Atlas and Co., 2008), p. 12]. He continues, “books are burned and libraries bombed because they are symbols” [Báez, A Universal History, p. 1]. In a similar vein, Rebecca Knuth states, “Because books and libraries preserve memory, provide witness, store evidence of the validity of a multitude of perspectives, facilitate intellectual freedom, and support group identity, they are carefully controlled, sanitized, and even extensively purged. When texts are too closely associated with an enemy, a group that stands in the way of transformation or cannot or will not further ideological goals, they are attacked along with the renegade group. When human voice is extinguished, texts as the disembodied material expression of that voice are also destroyed. And that, in short, is the dynamics of libricide” [Rebecca Knuth, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003), p.71].

Such sentiments ought to give those who seek to write and publish an extra incentive about accepting the significance of their work; it is a symbolic gesture, especially in an age awash in information. We are also reminded about how the often superficial promises of the digital era can ring hollow: “The Internet has most certainly been the first step toward the globalization of knowledge and will make the task of book destruction harder, but it will not stop censorship or the desire to eradicate stored data. In other words, the destruction of books is far from over” [Báez, A Universal History, p. 266]. And, moreover, writing books is also far from over. It is why librarianship and archival studies will remain important fields in the digital age even if their skill sets and knowledge domains are radically transformed. It is why working as an information professional today is both daunting and exhilarating.