There come moments in the lives of writers when the words that they use everyday seem suddenly and wholly inadequate to the tasks to which they have been set. Moments when every turn of phrase, every carefully-planned construction, fails to capture and convey the desired meaning, leaving the writer with a gnawing fear that perhaps his or her mother tongue was not built to communicate important things at all, but merely to serve as a low-cost mechanism for establishing and cementing interpersonal bonds. One never loses the ability to talk about the weather, somehow.
Why is this so hard, the frustrated writer usually asks at this point, wholly rhetorically. If he or she is a good writer, the question comes with greater vehemence – the contrast between habitual eloquence and newfound inarticulacy is particularly galling for a craftsman. Yet though an answer may quickly be found among easy-to-hand external variables like the amount of sleep one has had, or the amount of coffee one has drunk so far that day, or the number of times one has been interrupted by an inquisitive child, the truth lies at a much more fundamental level.
The truth is that the written word is a terrible instrument for conveying meaning.
Here’s an example. You’re writing a newspaper article on the environmental improvements a global oil company has made to its operations. You decide to introduce the piece with a helpful bit of context, and so you type “Cormorant Oil, the major with the best environmental record, has improved its operations yet again.” You pause, and reflect on the fact that all of the global oil companies, including Cormorant, are significant polluters. Calling Cormorant “the best” seems to let the company entirely off the hook.
You try again. “Cormorant Oil, the oil major with the least bad environmental record…” Clunk. “Least bad”? That sounds awful.
Take three. “Cormorant Oil, known as the least environmentally destructive of the majors…” There. That seems to capture what you meant. But your self-satisfied smile vanishes as quickly as it came. What does “least” imply? There’s really no way to tell what a reader might think. Someone without much background knowledge in this area could well assume that Cormorant Oil is actually not very environmentally destructive at all.
You try pulling out all the stops. “Cormorant Oil’s operations are highly polluting, but are known to be the least environmentally destructive of the majors.” Surely you’ve expressed the truth now. You’re finally happy (though as a realist you’re also aware that your editor will not let that sentence into the printed paper tomorrow).
Only… Only that “but” seems like it’s forgiving Cormorant’s “highly polluting” nature. Like a skilled corporate tour guide, it moves the reader on from that little bit of messiness referred to in the first half of the sentence, towards the ever more positive stream of information about improvements and intentions and bright green visions in the rest of the article.
You sigh, return to your first version, and press on. Deadlines won’t wait.
Let’s try a different example. More general; more basic. Imagine that you’re setting out to describe a field to me. The field, as you know (since you’re staring at it), is full of daisies. I’d say more but that’s all you’ve told me so far. Yet since you’re staring at it, I know that you know a whole host of facts about that field. You can see its range of plant life (not just daisies, surely… what else is growing there?), its physical shape, the animals and birds it supports (though it may take a while for you to spot them all), the play of wind and sunlight on its surfaces, the presence or absence of a river or pond, the colour of its soil. It lies there in front of you, timeless, allowing you to look at any part of it as closely as you wish. It is a three-dimensional, five-senses-based extravaganza of information.
So you start writing. “It’s a field. It’s full of daisies.” Okay: I’m now picturing a field with one-hundred-percent daisy content, stretching out at eye-level to the horizon. Is that what you meant? No? Keep typing, then. “It’s hemmed in by trees…” (Do you mean pine trees? That’s what I’m imagining, anyway) “… and it has a path winding down the centre of it”. A path? What kind? Is it of crushed daisies? Trampled dirt? Yellow brick?
You might as well stop writing here. We both agree, I hope, that you could continue on ad infinitum, addressing my questions one by one and in this manner causing my mental image to align more and more closely with the actual field you’re trying to describe. But after an hour of typing we’d probably still differ on a thousand remaining points, and we’d likely have added some confusion into the mix, with something you’d written sending my mind off in the wrong direction due to some inherent ambiguity in the words you chose.
I’d also probably have stopped reading some time before. Who on earth wants to learn about a field of daisies at that level of detail? Show me a bloody picture and let’s move on.
Indeed, when it comes to raw informational content, a picture (particularly a photograph) is worth substantially more than one thousand words. A snapshot of that field would show me almost everything you were so laboriously trying to describe with your keyboard, and would have taken far less time to create. It wouldn’t be perfect, of course – the foxes kept their heads down while you were shooting, most of the birds were too high to make out clearly, and I can’t smell or hear anything when I look at the picture – but it would be vastly more efficient and accurate than writing could ever be.
Writing can be both as vivid and as limited a spotlight swept over darked terrain. With its narrow beam it can pick out only one thing at a time, but if these things are chosen with skill, then their nature and the order in which they’re highlighted can build a compelling image in a reader’s mind. While it may be far from the whole truth of the matter, the image will be close enough to that truth to serve the purpose of the story or article.
Describe, again, that field. As you write (and, more importantly, as I read), the beam flashes out into the gloom, sweeping rapidly across grass and flowers and glancing off trees at the periphery. A field, I think to myself. The light stops sweeping, and settles on a patch of flowers. I see they’re daisies. It moves a bit to the right, and I can see a dirt path. Now it follows the path for a short while until it meets a stream. It lingers. I realize there’s been a disturbance in the mud by the water. Footprints lead away into the darkness. What has gone on here, I wonder?
There are perhaps six facts in the paragraph above, selected out of perhaps millions of possible facts relating to the field itself. These six have been enough to capture my interest, and to give me a rough idea of what is in the field: daisies, a path, a stream, mud, footprints. My mind has filled in – or has neglected to fill in – the rest, an exercise which is sure to produce facts which, if examined, would turn out to be utterly incorrect. But to the writer, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I’m thinking about, or at least experiencing, the facts that he or she wants me to have in my mind.
This effect of precision-within-vagueness, by the way, assumes a competent hand. Should the writer be a poor one, then the carefully aimed spotlight can become a parachute-borne flare instead, casting a garish white light over the whole field: shadows springing up everywhere, lengthening and contracting crazily, daisies dancing in a sickening back and forth motion.
But as skilled a writer as one may be, the essence of writing is the selective illumination of certain things, and the intentional or unintentional casting into shadow of myriad others. By its nature, writing is only one word placed in front of another, each phrase generating an image that may last for a while but which will fade in memory, replaced in the conscious mind by new phrases and new images.
That anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach? It’s not the coffee. It’s your art.