Have you ever gone to the dentist and had a fluoride treatment? Wasn’t it hideous? Doesn’t the thought of it make you want to get up right now and run around the room flapping your arms?
What does that have to do with writing? Nothing. But I know that reading this is a burden, and you'd rather not do it. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Sentence structure. Verb tenses. You’ve heard this stuff a million times. It’s dry and lifeless. It’s the last thing you want to be doing. What could possibly be worse? I think we both know the answer to that: fluoride.
Let’s review. So far we’ve established that learning about writing is preferable to swishing a disgusting thick liquid around in your mouth. But at least that unpleasant task has some purpose; if we can believe the dentist, it helps keep our teeth from rotting away and falling out of our mouths. What is this writing thing anyway?
Writing is a tool that allows one mind to communicate with another, without talking. Why do we need tools? First, because we can’t read each others’ minds. Second, our minds are not coherent; they’re random and scattered. We think in abbreviated and overlapping images, sounds, concepts, and memories.
Thoughts appear in bursts, like fireworks, frequently unannounced (“Hey, great picnic last Tuesday!” “My ear hurts.” “Stupid car.” “I wonder where the cat’s been for the past three days.” “Spaghetti tonight?”) These thoughts leave impressions that we can store and later retrieve from memory, sometimes. But they’re almost never represented by clear words, phrases, and sentences. And again, we don’t have total control of our thoughts. I seem to have very little control, but that’s me. I don’t know about you.
Which is exactly the point. We live in our own minds. It’s a comfortable and familiar place. But what does it feel like to be in another person’s head? What really goes on in there? We can never know for sure, and it’s probably just as well. We’re all pretty much trapped in our own mental landscape.
This isolation works fine as long as we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves. But when we need to convey some of our ideas to another person, we have to give them structure. Otherwise we’d sound like babbling idiots. If the person is standing right next to us, we try to translate the ideas into understandable speech. If the person is far away, or will be receiving our thoughts at a later time, we usually resort to this act called writing.
Our goal, then, is to take these random, incoherent, abstract thoughts and give them order and precision, putting them down in such a way that they can be decoded later by someone reading the words. The reader, then, comes to understand the thoughts of the writer. Two minds -- disconnected and perhaps strangers to each other -- connect, and become familiar. At least a little.