Thinking about Thinking I: Is Writing Important?

meThis is a post that really belongs in two categories, Consciousness and Writing.

Sometimes you might ask, why do we need writers? Why can’t they all stop writing about life and just start living it? Of course they are living; dead writers generally stop writing. But the question still seems meaningful, because it often appears that writers are getting paid to do what everybody is already doing.  They just get more attention because people think they talk about it better. Or just use bigger words to say it.

But there’s more to it than that. People in many occupations are paid to think. You wouldn’t want a surgeon or a dentist or an attorney who works for you thoughtlessly. The difference is, while everybody thinks, some more than others, their thoughts are usually one-offs that are used and then discarded. Gone. Never experienced again.

But that’s not the case with writers. Writers also think, but they write their thoughts down, so that they don’t disappear.  We probably all know good cooks and mechanics, but the ones that take time to write down how they do something well make it possible for others to learn how to do that thing in much less time.

This is why writing and books are important. We usually date the start of a civilization from the time it invents a form of writing. From that point on, knowledge can accumulate, can grow, instead of being merely maintained by verbal transmission from teacher to student. The great civilizations of the past were founded on remembering what works and what doesn’t discovered and preserved in writing.

There are some people who never read how-to books, and other who never read novels. The how-to people may tell you that books that teach you how to do things are useful and good, whereas novels are “merely” stories that entertain. They would thus make a distinction between scientists and engineers and craftsmen, who teach us things to make life better, and “mere” novelists who are storytellers that help us kill time between work and sleep.

I’ve been both kinds of person. In college and graduate school, I concentrated on physics and math because they seemed productive fields of endeavor. I still watched movies and read novels, but in my heart I considered them play rather than work. Mere recreation. I pursued a technical career in computer programming, now called software development. And I believed I was contributing to the greater good.

Now I am writing, and while I love it I am surprised at how much work it can be. You may think or reading as play time, but writing is not, I assure you. And it is important work, even if you’re “merely” writing a story. I still believe I am contributing to the greater good.

Why? Because I am trying to come up with thoughts that are meaningful and worth keeping. If a novel is just “a bunch of stuff that happened” it might not be worth much. But in any serious effort at writing, the characters in the story will have thoughts. The difference between a trivial work and a good one is that these thoughts will be non-trivial. Reading the story, watching the film or play will make you think, too. You will see something in a way you hadn’t considered, or be reminded of an important insight you had and then forgot. You will be reminded just how precious life is, just how much of a difference one person can make, or how life-changing choices can be. In other words, you will have experiences you would not have had if you had spent the time playing Angry Birds.

Writing is important. It’s not the most important thing, maybe, or the only important thing in our lives. But it is important.

—MRK

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