Of all those arts in which the wise excel,
Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.
The quote used to appear in a Time magazine ad long ago. Hardly anyone remembers the author, John Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham (1648-1721), for his poetry, but maybe that is why I love the quote all the more. I am no word maven but am seduced by words.
Words and phrases can not only paint pictures and make music:
Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O sea! (Lord Tennyson, Break, Break, Break)
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn . (John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale)
They can also be deathless, pass down the ages.
Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!
No one knows who wrote that early 16th century lyric, but it is still remembered, quoted in books on English poetry.
And it’s not just literature and music that are passed down the generations.
The New York Times some time ago published an article on tourism in ancient Rome. It mentioned that a disgruntled hotel guest in Pompeii scribbled this complaint on the wall: “Innkeeper, I urinated in the bed. Yes, I admit it. Want to know why? You forgot the chamber pot.”
Just think. An ancient Roman’s scribbling on a wall is quoted centuries later in the New York Times.
That’s something unique about words.
There are also surviving ancient monuments and works of art. But to see them in the original, you have to visit a particular place.
Words you can read anywhere. They are not circumscribed by place or available only in a particular medium. A sculpture is set in stone or metal, a painting drawn in watercolours or oils. Words written on paper have the same effect whether read in a book or an ebook. They are not prisoners of time, place and form.
Not that anyone knows whose or which words will prove immortal. The ancient Roman traveller surely did not know his words would be quoted centuries later. Bestsellers today may be forgotten tomorrow. It is such an uncertain business – writing.
No wonder writers develop such strong convictions about their art. You have to be passionate to devote your life to something so uncertain as writing.
Here is what Anne Lamott has to say in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted…
Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past…
If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.
Lamott concludes her book with these words:
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.