the power of the written word

The Write on Wednesday prompt,

How do you find positive things to write about in these troubled times? Do you think the written word has the power to effect positive change?


What came first, the robin or the egg?   What came first, the use of language that produced the larger brain capacity, or the larger brain that facilitated the higher-level cognitive processes of language and communication?  According to Alfred Burns in his book The Power of the Written Word: The Role of Literacy in the History of Western Civilization, “the two steps were taken concurrently and seem inextricably connected.”  He also states,

…language was at the heart of the evolutionary step which created the species of homo sapiens. And apparently human evolution stopped with its creation. In the 30,000 years since Paleolithic man left his sophisticated paintings and ingenious tools in the caves of France and Spain, no further evolution is discernible.

I find this fact rather odd.  Was 30,000 years ago the apex of our evolution, and there is nowhere to go from here?  Or, maybe we don’t need anything else, because our brains are capable of taking care of any further business?   Back to that point 30,000 years ago, when humans first came up with the idea of communicating with pictographic signs on cave walls.  An example is the lovely paintings in Pech-Merle Cave in Lot, France from 14,000 BC. In this particular painting, you see a spotted horse with a negative hand imprint next to it.  Is this the artist’s signature, identifying him in particular, and later inspiring the development of written language, the next step in development of word-syllabic phonetic writing?


The next step in the history of our literacy was the creation of the alphabet, followed by the invention of the printing press and the introduction of paper.   Can you imagine a world without books?   The University of Cambridge owned a total of 180 books before Johann Gutenberg came along in 1454 and invented the first printing press with movable metal type.


Before this, all books had been written by hand, one book at a time.  These are beautiful, of course, but with the development of printing, a scribe’s work for one day could be accomplished in a few minutes.


Which brings us to the present, and the invention of the computer, the personal computer, blogs, email, and all the other wonderful conveniences of our time.  My grandma, who died at 93 years old a few years ago, just could not wrap her brain around the concept of email.  What unfathomable invention will be next for us?

Here I am after following this circuitous route, back to the original question posed by Becca:  Do you think the written word has the power to effect positive change?  From the brief history recounted above, the written word has obviously gone through a lot of change in tandem with us, be it positive change or not.   Proscribing to the cup-half-full philosophy, I would say positive change is most certainly affected and effected by the written word.  Writing makes knowledge and communication permanent (regrettably true after one has written a passionate communication with someone and then broken off the relationship…..).  But this permanency of writing also makes available the unlimited sharing of ideas and the potential growth from building upon them.  Why would there be so many “self help” books on the market if readers didn’t truly believe they might change their lives just by reading them?

What about writing a journal or a memoir to expel the emotions of the past, to bring order to a chaotic mind, or sooth a tormented soul?  In The therapeutic Power of the Written Word in The London Independent, Terence Blacker points to his personal evidence:

[what about] the air of gentle sanity that hangs over a literary festival like the scent of roses, the pleasant and easygoing natures of contemporary writers, with their strong yet modest sense of self, their quiet wisdom about the world beyond the study.

I love the picture evoked for me from those words: I want to be there!


Oops.  That is a tea party I wanted to attend, not a literary festival.

All of this reading and writing and ruminating led me to a poem, which made me smile:

Writing in the Afterlife

by Billy Collins

I imagined the atmosphere would be clear,
shot with pristine light,
not this sulphurous haze,
the air ionized as before a thunderstorm.

Many have pictured a river here,
but no one mentioned all the boats,
their benches crowded with naked passengers,
each bent over a writing tablet.

I knew I would not always be a child
with a model train and a model tunnel,
and I knew I would not live forever,
jumping all day through the hoop of myself.

I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin
in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,
but how could anyone have guessed

that as soon as we arrived
we would be asked to describe this place
and to include as much detail as possible—
not just the water, he insists,

rather the oily, fathomless, rat-happy water,
not simply the shackles, but the rusty,
iron, ankle-shredding shackles—
and that our next assignment would be

to jot down, off the tops of our heads,
our thoughts and feelings about being dead,
not really an assignment,
the man rotating the oar keeps telling us—

think of it more as an exercise, he groans,
think of writing as a process,
a never-ending, infernal process,
and now the boats have become jammed together,

bow against stern, stern locked to bow,
and not a thing is moving, only our diligent pens.

For me, heaven.  For someone else, maybe hell!

I cannot end this post without an update on the baby:



Note:  In the advent of St. Patrick’s Day and my blogoversy, a few weeks of celebrating all things Irish, coming up.

11 thoughts on “the power of the written word

  1. What a great essay! I simply love the way you tie so many thoughts together with word and image. Great choice of poem to share, too. The image of all those furious scribbles stuck in the boats will stay with me all night!

    I love the “unlimited sharing of ideas,” especially the way blogging has simply exploded that concept!

    BTW, the “baby” is darling 🙂
    You are very kind, Becca – thank you! I love your prompts.

    I agree with you about the blogging concept and the communication possibilities. It is so much fun. Writing is such a solitary thing, it would be difficult to come up with a group close to home like we have on line.


  2. Qugrainne, I love your posts. They are so thought provoking, and so filled with fantastic pictures. I was in those caves in France once, and even though I was only thirteen or so I remember the concept of man leaving behind an expression of his thoughts was very profound even then.

    I can’t address the power of the Written Word as powerfully as I feel about The Spoken Word. People who read, to me, will always have the brains to consider what they’ve read. Look at a few viewpoints. Expand their thinking. Those who rely mostly on listening (the unwashed masses, if I may be so bold) take in what they hear as Truth. I’m so upset about the power the media has, even in effecting our votes this November. I wonder if there were only newspapers, no radio or television at all, how the election would have come out.

    How wonderful, Bellezza – you actually saw those caves! Very lucky you.

    As far as the media effecting our votes last November – I suspect just having newspapers to inform us would probably have had the same results – media is media is media!! Change is afoot…. it may take a little while, but good things are coming for our country, and the world, I truly believe.

    The “unwashed masses” – in other words those not so lucky as us! I do recognize we are very, very fortunate to enjoy the extent of literacy I so often take for granted, and there are many, many people in this world who do not read well, or even at all. On the other hand, Iceland has a 100% literacy rate! Isn’t that amazingly wonderful?


  3. There would have to be words and writing in Heaven. After all, that’s where they all come from, right? Lovely post. And lovely poem by Mr. Collins as well. And of course….I’m crazy for your puppies!! Thanks for including them!

    Thanks for the visit and the comment, Pamela. The poem really painted a picture for me!


  4. I think Qu, that the pen is mightier than the sword. And writing it down, pouring out thoughts onto paper is a proven way of learning about the self, and being able to reflect on the past, and rewrite the future.

    O, Kathleen, exactly! “Writing it down, pouring out thoughts onto paper is a proven way of learning about the self…” Writing is just like looking into a (mental) mirror when you go back and read. I figure out all kinds of things I never knew about me once I start writing.
    Thanks for visiting.


  5. There simply is more here than my poor brain can take in just now. But here is an interesting question to ponder: one of my posts was lifted whole, forcefully taken to a sploggy site, and reposted with another person’s name. (Two names, actually. They were so smart they posted the same thing twice, with two “authors”). Now, here’s the question: does context make a difference? Would the same words, on my site with my name attached, have the same effect on another site, with a false name attached? Does the power of the words to affect change (or anything else) reside in the words themselves, or the words in context?

    I haven’t a clue, but I suspect the question and answer are important. If I come up with any world-shaking conclusions, I’ll let you know!

    In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the post – and poetry – a few more times. Well done!

    Hello Shoreacres,
    I would venture to say that the greatest power of the words to affect change resides in the words themselves. That said, context certainly adds something, but maybe it is more like icing on the cake…?

    Blogging is such an unusual and personal way of communicating, writing, visually entertaining, and etc. So your words on your blog, surrounded by gentle color, the beautiful photographs embedded, calligraphic type, the exchange of ideas in the comment block, are all part of the whole.

    I don’t think it so much about the context as it is about the theft. It was theft, it was outrageous, and it was a violation – that’s the bottom line. I’m glad you caught the eejits!
    Thanks for visiting.


  6. “Do you think the written word has the power to effect positive change?”

    Oh, most certainly!!!

    I believe wholeheartedly that the written word can effect big and powerful changes. More important to me, however, are the individual positive changes that the written word can bring about, for I believe that those personal inspirations that we get as individuals from things we read are a seed planted that goes on to affect those around us and the world we live in.

    Can I imagine a world without books? I don’t think I could dream up anything awful enough to describe what that world would be like. The power of story is one that started out verbally and as things changed and men were able to get those stories down in writing and produce them for a larger audience, life truly exploded. Think of all the things you have read in the course of your life that have stuck with you, be it the tiniest kernal of story or whole books and think of how that has effected your life! It is amazing what the written word can do. It can inspire us to great things or can simply inspire us to go on one more day. Even the books people would write off as trivial or ‘for entertainment only’ can and do have such powerful positive effects on our lives. I think of all the books that have inspired me to stop and take a closer look at my world, simply because of the way they described the world in the book and I am grateful for that one thing alone. But reading has made thousands of small impacts like that on my life that have changed it for the better.

    I cannot imagine a life without reading, and I do not believe that the written word is any less powerful than it ever has been. It is sometimes more subtle and quiet than the other mediums out there, but no less powerful.

    We are in agreement all the way around, Carl. The book memories that stand out the most for me are the books I read when I was between the ages of ten and fourteen. Obviously that was a time of transition – from little kid storybooks to “real” books. I just couldn’t get enough time to read, and to go into all those amazing worlds that were available to me only through books. Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Three Men Out by Rex Stout….. I have a physical reaction – a buzz running through my veins – when I think about what it was like reading those books.

    We are so very lucky to not only have books available, but to have been instilled with the love of reading. I know so many young people who have not had this gift, and I feel so sorry for them.

    It is nice to see you back, Carl.


  7. Hello!

    This is lovely–thank you! So much to think about (so little time). I especially like the picture of the horses in the cave, with the handprints. Rather like the carved stamps (or seals) that Chinese & later Japanese calligraphers used to ‘sign’ their scrolls. And then, of course, there are your words–and Mr. Collins–his ‘jammed boats’ will stick for a long time. Permanency is a real magnet, isn’t it? It attracts and repels at the same time…

    Thank you, ds, for dropping in and having a word! The permanency of the written word certainly is attractive, and can also get one in trouble: I am taking an online course right now, and a woman made a comment that was INCENDIARY, and there is no taking it back now!


  8. I’m afraid I caused offense at my unwashed masses remark. Please know that I meant no disrespect to the plethora of countries who have no access to education. I was speaking specifically about Americans, who all have access to free schools; I guess I do hold scorn for the opportunities offered here that are ignored or shunned. I guess I find little excuse for people who choose not to read. It’s a bias, sure, which is just becoming apparent to me now as I write, but I would not apply it to those who have lack the advantages so readily available in America.

    Oh Bellezza. I am sure I love to read as much as you do, and I certainly have great empathy for those who do not know the pleasure of reading. But I would have to defend those many who do not choose to read. I work in a very large urban school district, which educates children who most often live in poverty. Reading, unfortunately, is not a priority in many of these homes. Lead poisoning and various other disabling factors inhibit the ability to read in many of these children. As hard as we try as teachers, it is difficult to combat the attraction of videos and movies and other glamorous, “quick fix” entertainments. Because “all Americans have free access to schools” does not necessarily mean you get a good education either. It also depends on where you live, and how much tax you can afford to pay to support your school district.

    I appreciate that you came back to further comment. I certainly don’t mean to offend, either. It does happen to be a subject I feel very strongly about.


  9. I teach in a large urban school district, too. I am furious at the parents who don’t empower their children! I’m furious at the fathers who leave their children, the mothers who have several by different men, the lack of any importance put on education. I’ve taught for 24 years, it is my heart, and I will do it until I die. I’m just mad, mad, mad at ignorance, deliberate ignorance, right now. It isn’t the children’s fault, but it sure as heck is their parents.


  10. An extremely thoughtful post and far deeper and more illuminating than anything I could write. Oh, my — we do agree, but the insight you share dazzles me.

    Aw shucks, Jeanie. I have read dazzling words written by you! You are very kind, and I am not surprised we agree! Thanks for dropping in and posting, though.


  11. It is nice to be back, and what a great post to return to your site to read. I know exactly what you mean when you are talking about that buzz. I got it then and I get it when thinking about those times and ever so rarely I get a full on dose of it now when some particular book just sweeps me away. It isn’t that other reading experiences aren’t magical in and of themselves, but those rare moments are cherished and don’t happen nearly enough for me.

    Well Carl, I guess if those moments happened too often, we would be totally addicted to reading and wouldn’t go to work in the morning!!! Sounds like fun to me 😉

    Reading is a great escape, an exciting adventure, a wonderful trip, a chance to be someone else. I wish I could instill that love of reading – those “opportunities” – in kids who just don’t get it – they are missing so much.


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