While wrestling with my students on why they should write—at all—I came upon a quote from Plato’s Phaedrus that helped me understand what exactly I wanted to express to them. In it, Teuth explains how he invented writing and Thamus is giving his critique of this new invention.
‘Those who acquire it [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful…they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.’
A lot of what he says about writing is true. By writing it down, or finding it in books, our skill at recalling information has probably atrophied a bit. Not to mention, the dangerous notion that most any teenager can relate to having read a book that seemingly changes one’s life forever—or at least until the next week’s required reading does so again. But where Thamus goes astray is that he is really only critiquing reading.
Writing, on the other hand, is distinctly different. Though reading may boast itself as a solo task, done by individuals and not quite as good when done together, it truly isn’t. The experience of reading is quite often shared afterwards in talking of what one has read. Writing cannot be spread around in this way. It is truly an individual experience because as the writer sets the words down, in their strict thoughtful manner, no one else can join in, feeling the flow of words and the focused direction of thought.
When one concentrates on writing—whether it be fiction or non-fiction, a letter or an essay—you begin to see something form, an amorphous message or idea that forces itself upon you to be not only reviewed, but further chewed as you nitpick the structure of sentences with their word choices and order. It is not reflective, like reading, it is honed thinking, almost in the ilk of meditation, focused and precise like a beam of light.
This may be why so many writers claim astonishment at their final product, claiming it could not have come from them. The end result is refined and bare, but clean of all the normal, everyday flotsam. Normal thinking is so topical and lacking in depth that when anyone writes, they must dig deeper, striving for something of more substance; otherwise, it is not real writing. It becomes memos on the refrigerator.
For the reader, Thamus was right, it offers little, but for those who write…