Writing is Talking Like Mime is Opera
- 2008 Jan 22
A couple of readers were kind enough to ask me to elaborate on a point I made in My Last, Best 10 Tips On How To Make It As A Writer, about how talking and writing are "exact opposite uses of the language." So here's my case for why writing is no more like talking than mime is like opera:
Spoken language is very much about maintaining societal mores; it's basically about not offending people. Speaking to others is (duh) how we get along with them, so it's deeply grounded in ancient, at-this-point-instinctive ambiguity. The core, formative idea when you're talking to people -- especially in any kind of group setting -- is to keep things friendly, to accommodate the thoughts and feelings of the others in your group, to be ... well, social. Talking is about cooperative give-and-take, sharing, keeping things open-ended in such a way that no one involved in the conversation feels too threatened or challenged.
Talking is about mostly about equivocation, inconclusiveness, changeableness; it's about an ongoing, manifest, subtly communicated sense of demurral. Talking is grounded in serving and supporting the idea that everyone's point of view and experience is as valid as everyone else's. That's what being social means -- and talking, of course, is our primary socializing tool.
Talking is about keeping things subjective. It's about relativism.
Well, writing is exactly the opposite of that. Writing is about keeping things objective. It's about absolutism. It's about keeping everything absolutely un ambiguous. It's about explicitness, certitude, precision, clarity, transparency. Writing is about very purposeful precision, utter decipherability.
The kind of maniacal, measured exactitude that defines good writing doesn't go with socializing. It goes with no one ever inviting you anywhere because you always come off like such a conversational Nazi.
Anyway, that's why thinking that being a good talker makes you a good writer is like thinking that being a good swimmer makes you a good cruise ship pilot. They're completely different -- and even opposing -- uses of the same Basic Medium.
So that's the core of my own personal pet theory about why people tend to be so wrong when, knowing themselves to be tactful and engaging conversationalists, they assume they'll also be good writers.
This is slightly off-track, but connected enough to say: The trick to good writing -- the challenge, the monumental difficulty, the plain ol' nightmare of it -- lies in the brain-splitting alchemy that is changing something that's subjective into something objective.