Write over the edge of a cliff

“So I have two opposing beliefs that exist side by side—one, that communication is possible; two, that communication is impossible—and I swing back and forth, writing or not writing.”   —Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order

I’m just going to dive into this post, because if I try to “catch up” with everything that has happened since October, I will never get the job done.

Stephen Dobyns sums up the way I often feel about blogging. The task of ordering my thoughts around the subject matter, and writing them down in the best way I possibly can, takes so much time and energy, it’s almost like having a second (third?) job. And yet, that is the only way to truly communicate something. The point of writing, after all, is to communicate: to take an experience, a thought, a feeling, and express it as succinctly as possible, so that you manage to move that experience or idea (nearly, though never entirely, because everyone interprets words differently) from your own head and into the head of a reader.

If I can’t afford the time and effort to craft a well-written post, then why write at all? Quick, lazy writing—pock-marked with clichés, superlatives, and the sort of fatuous declarations that are thrown around the internet so indiscriminately these days, they have lost all meaning—reaches no one. It does nobody any good and may as well not exist. Poor writing is self-centered and self-serving. It is also disrespectful. It insults the reader’s intelligence, often reveals the writer’s poor grasp of their tools, and it wastes both parties’ time.

Despite all the care taken to arrange words so that they convey something precise, communication still fails, sometimes. Writers are not the only people guilty of being lazy and careless with words. Readers can also fall short of their roles and speed their way heedlessly through words, misinterpreting them or failing to appreciate that someone has, to the best of their abilities, chosen these particular words, and has put them in this particular order, for a reason.

They say writing, as a profession, is dying, and I believe that.

“Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”
—from The novel is dead (this time its for real), by Will Self for  The Guardian

Forget the debate between ‘dead tree’ vs. ebooks, and how the ease with which anybody can now ‘publish’ a book (because there are no financial risks involved in backing and promoting a lousy writer, whose work is a mere digital file that can be replicated ad infinitum) will make the difficult profession and demanding craft of writing extinct. I believe that even ebooks will die out, eventually, as both writers and readers get lazier, do whatever comes easiest. Any attempts to actually teach critical reading or serious writing in schools will come to be seen as “bullying” the children into learning something that is neither ‘fun’ nor profitable.

The visual image is the real king, these days, because it demands less of its audience. It is instantly gratifying, it titillates with colors and shapes (and subject matter), it does not require an education, a vocabulary, memory (in order to make sense of succeeding paragraphs, one must be able to recall what was said in the preceding ones)…it does not even require knowing a language. It’s wonderful in that way. It will cross boundaries of language, geography, culture, education and class, in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful thing, the image—quick and easy to take in—though perhaps responding, relating, and consuming only images will be as detrimental to our mental health as consuming only packets of chips and bite-sized morsels of processed food would be to our bodies.

But nobody’s worried about that, because the great thing about this worldwide and systematic decline in critical reading OR quality writing is that if we are ALL uniformly dumber, then we really aren’t dumb anymore, are we? We may have taken a step backward, but we’ve all taken it together, and anything more demanding ceases to exist as something we have lost, or as something to be regained, because we simply won’t be aware that it ever was. The reference point blips out soundlessly, like the tree nobody was around to hear fall over in the forest.

I am on my way out of the devolving world, and the intellectual futures of people who made something like Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller—with its appallingly bad metaphors, its “sex will make bad writing palatable to dumb readers” strategy, and its author’s (and publisher’s) cavalier abandonment of any standards of quality—is not really my concern, anymore. If anything, I’m merely disappointed by how few of the new and trumpeted books emerging in bookstores and libraries have stolen my heart this year…

But I’ll keep on writing, here and elsewhere, even though the number of people willing to slow down and read a few hundred words with mindfulness has dwindled (and will continue to dwindle). Because I value the act of writing, in and of itself, whether it gets read or not. Because good writing brought me up and carried me through the wilderness of this world. Because I can’t not write.


12 thoughts on “Write over the edge of a cliff

  1. We know the ancient cultures had intellectual means to create things that we struggle to comprehend now… That knowledge is lost but we still wonder what it was like. In H. G. Wells book ‘The Time Machine’ the library housed books nobody could read, most people were content not knowing but the human spirit usually produces an inquisitive deviant who dares to look deeper…

    I have to confess I took this paragraph personally, it pretty much sums up all my attempts to share ideas in writing. I will now have to consider ceasing writing altogether. 😦
    I am glad though, that some remain who bother to strive for the best.

    “If I can’t afford the time and effort to craft a well-written post, then why write at all? Quick, lazy writing—pock-marked with clichés, superlatives, and the sort of fatuous declarations that are thrown around the internet so indiscriminately these days, they have lost all meaning—reaches no one. It does nobody any good and may as well not exist. Poor writing is self-centered and self-serving. It is also disrespectful. It insults the reader’s intelligence, often reveals the writer’s poor grasp of their tools, and it wastes both parties’ time.”


  2. Oh my dear, you write about a future like that movie Idiocracy. The dumbing down of people is tragic. Thank goodness for people such as you who care and take time to craft a perfect thought. I will continue to let out a little yelp of joy every time I see your header in my email. Thank you.

    Oh the lamp sounds wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very thought provoking Nat. One of my lads is in the middle of reading a 290 chapter chinese story that was recently translated into English. The other son rarely reaches for a book unless we are camping and there’s no reception! I don’t think he’s had that magic moment when a well written book trips your imagination and transports you to another place. Not only is today’s world is so full of distractions but I think we are feeling time poor and suffer from guilt if we stop to read a book. I wonder if this is why we are accepting poorly written, often superficial and inferior forms of communication?


  4. I am teacher. I teach cursive handwriting, writing and reading in addition to all of the other subjects. There are so many children and, often, their parents, who are avid readers. The world of reading is not ending, it is changing. I believe that most readers are using their time for that rather than all of the other things that go on in the world that lead one to believe that reading is dying.

    I’ve recently read a few good books.

    I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin
    The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
    Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

    Also the series that starts with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is very verbose and fun.


  5. I hope you do continue to write, even if only occasionally; I always find something thought provoking in what you publish, whether written word or image. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I was the kid in junior high, who, when given an assignment to read a classic novel, had to get special permission to read and report on Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” all 600 some pages! I will always read the longer article, the more dense story, although as I age and time seems more precious, I’ve learned to know when to give up. I have stopped writing my own blog for the same reasons you mentioned: don’t have something clear I want to spend time communicating; won’t post lazy writing. I think I mostly write for myself anyway, and lately I’d rather make art.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I do hear your fears, I feel them acutely, but if I can add even the smallest ray of hope to the pot….I offered a writing class for the upcoming year on a whim. It filled the first day. People still want to learn to write. The craft still matters to some.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. First of all, I’m glad to see a post from you again. I always find your writing to be engaging and interesting and often thought-provoking. This piece was no different.

    I’m inclined to agree with you about the trend of people turning their backs on reading – or certainly reading anything that presents any degree of challenge. The country I live in has a leader who thinks his lack of reading is a boast. That’s thoroughly depressing. Even on a domestic level, if I did not enforce it, my sons would not read for pleasure on a daily basis. I was a voracious reader at their age and my second home was the library so I find it mystifying that they don’t have a passion for reading.

    However, I try not to feel too despondent or bleak about this trend. My hope is that the pendulum will swing back. The self-publishing phenomenon will go off-trend and that will stop the market being saturated with poor quality sludge (though there is the occasional gem among them). As for paper versus digital books, I’ve reached the point where I don’t care as long as people are reading.

    I used to be able to read at least a book a week. These days, as a busy working mother of four, in lucky if I can read at a rate that gets me through one book a month. I’ve, therefore, become much pickier about what I read. I read reviews aplenty and analyze personal recommendations before I start a book. I don’t have time to waste on writing that doesn’t engage, challenge, thrill or move me. Maybe that’s a tack more readers will take in future which will lead to a natural selection type cull of sub-standard, pap writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Boy! You said it! I was so disgusted with the books I was reading. I am an incessant reader since I retired but I am not getting anything from current books. 3I am searching out past authors like Lawrence Durrell for example. The classics also are refreshing my memory of how language used to be spoken and written. Homer in verse is more of an adventure now than when I first read it fifty years ago. I was a paralegal and trascriptionist for the last fifteen years so I cringe at the poor grammar, punctuation, and misspelling as I read the poorly edited publishing of the day. I find I want to read with a red pencil to correct all the errors as I go along. The suggestion of educators to cease the teaching of cursive writing is another worry. As a volunteer transcriptionist for The Smithsonian, it is a concern as to who will be able to transcribe important writings and field notes in the future. By reading past writings, I find I do not miss the television I gave up five years ago along with its absence of true researched journalism. Good journalism can be found on the internet as can good writing in blogs. Let’s hope we don’t get dumber along with those who “aren’t getting it.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautifully written and consciously read. Thankyou for sharing these thoughts.
    Have just finished Helen Garner ‘Everywhere I Look’ and I commend this book to you sweet pea. I basically want to read it again right away! X

    Liked by 1 person

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