Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Magic of Writing

We were all born and raised in a literate society, meaning that most of us, even the most illiterate of us, have been so surrounded by written words, texts, and acts of reading since we were babies that we never stop and think twice about what a strange phenomena the technology of writing actually is.

Language, for most of human history, has been a strictly oral thing. According to linguist John McWhorter, people have been speaking for at least 80,000 years, but we've only been writing for fewer than 6,000 years. And this makes sense if you think about it. Language evolved as speech, sounds coming from human throats, heard by human hears, with words invented in human brains. For most of human history, language has been located entirely within the human body, and communication could only happen with those physically close enough for the sounds produced by one body to be heard by another body.

When you stop and really think about it, it seems like quite a remarkable jump to consider the idea that sounds coming out of human mouths could be correlated to scratches of lines on clay tablets. It's not an entirely logical leap, really, this idea of writing. How did someone get the idea that a symbol on a page could represent a spoken sound?

Well, it perhaps makes a little sense, if you think in terms of pictographic writing, or writing where the symbol for a bird looks like a bird. That kind of writing makes sense as soon as humans get any sort of ideas about drawing, about visually recreating things they see in the real world. The problem is that pictographic writing is incredibly limited. How do you draw abstract words and ideas?

Well, humans solved that problem too by developing partly pictographic words, partly symbolic images for words that didn't have an image to associate with it. Thus we get hieroglyphs and other symbol based languages, but the real leap, the real incredible jump, was when someone decided that we didn't need a picture for every discreet word. Instead we could have a symbol for every sound, and thus we get the phonetic alphabet.

We are inundated with this phonetic alphabet from the time we are so little that it feels too familiar, too childish, too simple to think twice about, until you try to teach a child to read and realize, well now, yes, why exactly does the symbol "A" represent both "ah" and "a" sounds? Who decided we could give visual symbols to spoken sounds? It's quite remarkable, really, if you stop to think about it.

What spoken language is in the first place is a verbal symbol representing the thing named, but that makes phonetic writing a symbol of a symbol. It is a visual symbol of a verbal symbol, twice removed from the actual object or idea or sentiment being expressed. And yet we can see thousands of those symbols typed out here in this blog post and process these symbols of symbols with no more difficulty than if we were hearing the words spoken aloud (unless of course, you happen to have a form of dyslexia, or a brain where processing all these written symbols reveals what an actually complex task it really is; the prevelance of dyslexia just serves to prove that writing is NOT natural for every human brain, because it hasn't been around long enough for all of us to adapt to it).

In our literate society today, we love our written words. We practically drown in written words. They are not just in our books, but draped all over our signs, our machines, our walls, our food containers. We spend most of our day scrolling through written words on the tiny screens in our pockets. In many cases, we even prioritize the written word over the spoken, from the casual preference of texting over speaking on the phone, to the legal preference for a written and signed contract over a verbal promise.

But it didn't always use to be this way. Back when writing was still an infant technology and most societies still operated under the forms of oral culture, some of the world's greatest minds viewed writing with suspicion and distrust. Socrates abhorred writing, believing it would destroy our need for memory (a fair criticism) and even our ability to gain and process knowledge. He didn't understand how a man could claim to be learned if he stored all the information of his learning outside his body, and couldn't just recall facts but had to look them up in books. Ironically, we only know about Socrates' negative views on writing because his student, Plato, wrote them down, thus preserving them for future generations, but Socrates was not the only great teacher to never write his own words. Christ himself left nary an iota of written record, though we know he could both read and write (I think about this often, and often wonder why, but it's topic for a different post).

I believe there are lessons to be learned from considering this, things we have lost from the oral cultures of yesteryear that are important. We must never forget that humans evolved precisely for spoken language, with our tongues and vocal chords and our ears and our brains. Writing merely borrows from the parts of our brain designed specifically for spoken language, and I believe there are great advantages to paying attention to the importance of spoken word, and listening to spoken words.

And yet, and yet, I would not give up the technology of writing for the world.

As much as I know the human brain in general evolved for verbal language, my own particular brain has been so shaped by writing that I don't know how to function without it. I don't know what I know until I write it. I don't understand my own emotions until I write them. I have no sense of identity, of personhood, until I write my own story and figure it out. I don't know what I want to say unless I figure it out in writing first. I am at best average at speaking in the moment. At worst, I find myself tongue tied and tripping, unable to recall even simple names or facts, unable to express complex opinions. But if I go to paper (or more often now, the keyboard) and hash it out, tell the story over, sort through the complex ideas... that's when the magic happens. I come to understand. I figure life out, myself out, the world out. I learn through writing. I think through writing.

Maybe Socrates is right. Maybe I could still do all of these things if I just had to rely on speech and rhetoric and memory, if I'd been raised in an oral culture. But also, maybe there's a reason writing has taken over the world. Maybe we really can do all these things better not just because we can store our words outside our body, but because the physical and psychological process of writing actually forces our brains to think more completely or more clearly, or at the very least differently than we think when we merely speak words aloud.

Whatever it is, something about writing is magic.

And that shows up in our magic stories as well. Perhaps stories about spoken magic words are more common than stories about written magic power, but the power of language in general seems to transcend medium. Historically, spells and charms were written on scraps of paper and worn in amulets, or even ingested. Runes and symbols of magic have been carved over tombs and inscribed over doorways or gates. It's perhaps not the most common trope in magic systems, but I love it when writing is given the power to change the world. Here are two books I love that use writing as an actually magical power:

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

This is the one I chose to teach in the "Magic Writing" unit of my course this past semester. We actually spent part of our discussion arguing about whether what forgers do count as "writing," but in the end, most of my students agreed that, like Chinese calligraphy, it was definitely a form of writing. This one is probably still my favorite Sanderson piece, possibly because I love this magic system so much, and the power given to writing to change the physical world.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I think I loved this book simply because the magic system was exactly this: the power of writing to create reality. It can't just be said, it has to be written. I mean, it's also a fun action/adventure story with romance and new worlds and evil secret organizations trying to destroy everything, but mostly, I love it for the magic system. It's just my thing.

I know there are others out there that I haven't read (I've heard Inkheart has a bit of this kind of magic system?), but I'd love to read some more. Do you know of any books where the magic system specifically involves writing to enact power? Please share!

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