The Loci of Meaning: Language and Writing from the Writer’s Perspective

Maya writing on a pyramid at Xunantunich

I am fond of reminding myself that human beings are animals, mammals, creatures subject to chemical signals and the pre-verbal cues of behavior and body language.  We are not special.  And yet.  I think there are aspects of humanity that do set us apart from, not above, other species.  There is no verifiable proof that those other species do not experience subjective consciousness, so I won’t spend too much time on that.  Perhaps what I want to think about tonight are the related aspects of language and writing.  What do these phenomena mean to me, as a writer and a human being?


What “Extra-Genetic” Really Means…

Consider what animals do.  We can, for the purposes of this segment, draw a direct parallel between that non-human animal behavior and the sub-verbal reactions to pheromones, facial expressions, and body language by which we negotiate our everyday lives; by which all human animals have been negotiating everyday life as long as there have been human animals to experience it.  But we have other layers to explore.

Humans may react in a way that is called “instinctual” and draws on non-verbal understandings, but at this point, we have to consider the impacts of cultural conditioning–what we learn to do, think, and say based on any number of given variables.  I would like to set that aside for the moment, because it is a rather complex issue and would take a great deal of time to explore, even partially.  Rather, let us assume that at some point in our little evolutionary journey to having nice, large brains–and cars, and cell phones, and wars of religion, and political differences–we moved from acting solely based on this non-verbal signaling, and began constructing ideas.

There’s still some hot debate going on in linguistic and anthropological circles about which came first–the word, or the thought that formed the word.  And I don’t think anyone here at this point, including me, feels the need to delve into the details of that debate.  Suffice it to say that at some point, we began to use words, and have thoughts, create novel items from component elements, build deities, ask questions about the nature of our existence and our place in the larger sphere of being.  Our big brains represent the storehouse of all that extra-genetic knowledge–stuff–that isn’t passed from parent to child through genes, but through communication and teaching, via demonstration.


The Mystical Significance and the Mundane Advantage

In many mystic religious spheres, scholars carry on an exploration of the power of the written word.  Kabbalah ideologies of staggering power and beauty would hold that through the act of writing, of thinking in words that have a written form, we become vessels for a divine presence.  While I refuse to either aver or deny my belief in any specific deity, I have to say this concept is seductive.  It echoes my thoughts about the creative faculty, what I have termed “The God Space” or the “Floaty-Nowhere Space” here.

Written language, and the fact that literate cultures actually think words as well as what those words symbolize is, I think, rather massively important.  Not only do I feel that the ability to write ideas and observations down is a rather key facet in our advancement, I also believe that by examining this strange precocity, we may yet gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.  Writing, words, and the act of arranging them in pleasing or meaningful ways is a bit of a lynchpin of my life.  I am a writer, and so I have much cause to be invested in a meaningful exploration of the nature of written words, as well as a profound belief in their significance.

The Fundamental Divide Between Writers and Technicians

Recently, I’ve been corresponding with a colleague who requested a bit of advice about pitching his work in a freelance photojournalism market.  While he has taken large strides in the region of teaching himself about photography, the other aspect of photojournalism, the writing bit, is something I’m not sure he has a great deal of experience with just yet.  We should distinguish between the technical act of writing, which we all learn in this age and culture of literacy, and the act of being a writer.  It is quite one thing to know that letters form words, which are then used to make up sentences that communicate meaning through a generally agreed-upon grammar.

Being a writer is something quite different.  In a way, to be a writer is almost a compulsion, an addiction, and a slavish devotion to the act of and thoughts about writing.  If you are one or you know one, then what follows will be rather familiar.

On many occasions, the writer can engage normally with his or her companions, perform everyday tasks, even have what might be considered a normal job.  But if you take just a moment to observe, you may see the faraway look that sometimes creeps across their face, the subtle twitch of the fingers on their dominant hand, a slight movement of the lips, as if they were speaking silently before recalling themselves.  This is the mark of a writer who is not simply familiar with words, with grammar and sentence constructions, but ruled by them.

And while you may learn to write well, to write easily, if the above doesn’t describe you, then I will never consider you a writer.  You are a technician, because you have mastered the technical use of functional, written communication.  You are not owned by your Muse, and you do not understand what it is to give body and soul to your craft.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a bad thing, either.  A writer is a word addict, and the Dragon we chase is far more dangerous than any opiate available on the market.  Because it’s not just one high, not a single drug, and it is an infinitely repeatable experience.  We aren’t trying to match the first taste of writing.  We’re interested in pushing it farther, making it better, seeing it in a new light.  The bad news for you?  We know we can.  If you disagree with me, think about the moment when inspiration strikes inconveniently for mundane occupations, or in the absence of the accustomed medium for recording these things.  You are seeing a junky desperate for a spoon and a needle–they have the drug, but they can’t get high without the implements that accompany their addiction.

“Sometimes, living with you feels like I’m living with a heroine addict-sex fiend who is occasionally interested in the fact that I’m there.”

Living Together: No Really, Find Another Writer

The above was said to me by a girlfriend of mine who was not a writer, just before she became an ex-girlfriend who was not a writer.  She was a biochemist, and a brilliant one, but most of our fights started with her nagging the shit out of me when I was wandering in my head.  Repetitively asking me what I was thinking about chased whatever I had been thinking about quite firmly from my mind.  Thus, my answer was always “I don’t know.”  Eventually, she became tired of not being able to go where I did, called me secretive and ungiving.  I eventually became tired of never being able to finish a coherent thought when she was around.  People asked me why I “let her get away,” citing her beauty and intelligence, her sweetness, her wonderful sense of humor, her bank balance.

Listen to me very carefully when I tell you that none of that means anything.

In a way, what she said shortly before we broke up is absolutely correct.  When I’m chasing an idea, I don’t want to be bothered.  I withdraw between the covers of my journal or behind the computer screen.  I can’t share what’s happening in my head.  There is no logical system of symbols yet created to express it, especially if the idea isn’t fully formed.  And once I do begin to actively write, I might as well be fucking someone else.

The act of writing is very much like the sex act for me, and the completion of a piece, on paper, is accompanied with a similar, orgasmic release and post-coital languor.  Only, it has nothing to do with sex or the physical mechanics of orgasm.  If I wished to be less cynical and prosaic about it–when my writing process is interrupted by anyone, it is to disconnect a communion with the divine.  The intrusion of another, uninvolved person, shatters the flow of energy–divine, human, soul, intellect, or whatever you would call it.


Hermits and monks seek isolation to commune with the divine, to exist in a place of contemplation and peace.  Writers may often take the same path, but most of us are rather oversexed individuals, so it doesn’t tend to last for very long, unless we can channel that generative urge back into our work.  And just think, you always thought that being a writer was a simple matter of putting words together.  I suppose now you know differently, though whether that will make any difference in your life remains to be seen.





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