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: