Talking, Writing, and Getting Complicated

People do lots of talking in schools. All day long. Talk is the primary mode in which we teach, when we gather in one place.  

But many writers will tell you that you can't really know what you think about something until you've written about it.  

Sure, we think in conversation, and in contemplation, too—and some people would say these are the ways they think best, including, I suppose, Socrates, who thought that the scholarly disputation was the most effective route to understanding. But that's not the kind of random access thinking I mean. I'm talking about thinking that puts concepts and objects into coordinated motion, creating orderly, locomotive meaning out of messy experience. It's not the kind of thinking we can do before we begin writing, and then transcribe faithfully, except in the most aphoristic and unusual circumstances. Instead, synthesizing and drawing conclusions about something bigger than a bumper sticker requires an encounter with actual syntax.  

Or at least, that's what it requires from me. And we should remember that Socrates believed that the emerging technology of "writing things down" would endanger our ability to remember them.  

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Diane Sheppard's Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Diane Sheppard's Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

I work in an environment—a secondary school—where there is lots of speaking: lots of questions and answers spoken in real time, lots of meetings where we announce and opine and discuss. And discussion has a role to play in education that is crucial and inimitable—conversation at its best can offer the satisfactions of both an art and a sport. The presence of good talk, honest interchange, open dialogue, and robust, civilized debate may be one of the best barometers of a healthy community.  

But we also need to learn to write, and that is most often a non-communal activity—it is how we learn to think for ourselves, as ourselves, individually. Secondary school was where I myself found literature, realized that it was essential to a suitably complex existence, and started to try making some for myself. I started to write in a composition book, and got hooked on the life of the mind. Writing for me meant having the power to bring to life a world where I could make anything do anything, where I could say exactly what I meant, and where there was space for my ideas—indeed, the only thing on that blank page was space for my ideas and imaginings, so I started having more and more of them. I managed to do this in some cases despite a rigorous boarding school schedule of classes (even on Saturdays), sports, and extracurriculars—on rambles in the woods and hours alone in the library. There was even one late spring two-hour detention (for missing required morning chapel) when I discovered William Carlos Williams' Spring and All, about which I eventually wrote part of my dissertation.   

What I knew then, and what I recognize continually anew, is that because the world is complicated, and our feelings about it are complicated, we can't only skim the surface of it and be full human beings. Complication is not chaos, but a species of order.  It's the kind of order our thinking takes as we write sentences that are complex—sentences that fold, crease, and articulate. And as they do that, ideas too become more layered, more substantive, and more characterized by depth. "Complicate" derives from the Latin "complicare," or "to weave together." This is what we do with language when we write. Our loose thinking needs the loom of writing, just as loose threads need an actual loom, to become a sensible fabric we can use.

We don't always catch the weaving maneuvers that writers make to help us reconstruct their logic for ourselves and understand their meanings. But even if we are not conscious of it, the machinery is there, and good writers are using it. When I realized I could also use this machinery to make myself understood, and to take readers to a mental place where they could see what I saw, it was like discovering a super power. I had to practice it in the backyard of countless journals like the X-Men (with similarly catastrophic moments), but it was worth it.  

If we're going to approach the world's complexity and attempt to reflect it in our thinking, we need to be able to write, using all our resources: grasp of syntax, precise vocabulary, prosody (cadence, tone, rhythm), and structure. So let's keep on talking. But let's get writing, too.