A former boyfriend of mine once remarked, in not entirely complimentary tone, “You write better than you talk, don’t you?” This just after I had sent him a heart-felt, carefully-crafted note about how much I had enjoyed the weekend I just spent with him.
My reply, “Yes, I do. Thanks for the compliment. . . I think.”
In “When Writers Speak” by Arthur Krystal (one of the amazing essays included in the 2010 Best American Essays), I was pleased to read this sentence – “I am smarter when I’m writing.” It’s certainly true for me.
When I put myself to a task of writing, I suddenly feel my vocabulary open up. The other day I used the word “chivvy” in a post; I had just learned it from The Naming by Alison Croggon and was eager to try it out. “Chivvy” is not a word I would pull out in a casual conversation with my friend Hez – “I hate how he chivvies me with his stupid text messages.” It just doesn’t work in conversation; people might think I’m obnoxious or pretentious or any of the other things Americans lay on those who seem intelligent. (Why do we do that?) But on the page, a new – fancy even – word deepens a piece, makes it seem better somehow.
The same thing is true of more formal grammar. In writing, I can embed appositives, drop in hyphenated asides, and loop language back on itself again and again. If I do that when I speak, I run the risk of losing my audience. It’s hard to get a hyphen to convey well in speech.
There’s also, typically, just more thought involved in writing than in speaking, and I say that from experience. While social media is probably closing this gap – it’s just so easy to dash off an email or comment on a Facebook post – it still takes more time and concerted effort to write something down rather than just say it. When most of us speak, we do so effortlessly, without having to think about the order in which we will put the words (this is, incidentally, what often gets me in trouble). But when we write, even those of us who find writing to come fairly easily, we have to choose words and orders and then translate them into a disparate part of our body – our hands – before we capture them. This is why we so often have missing words in our writing (see any number of student papers from my ever-growing collection); we think a lot faster than we can write, so when we write, we were choosing from a variety of words or ideas that cross our minds even as we put them on paper. As Krystal says, “There’s something about writing, when we regard ourselves as writers, that affects how we think and, inevitably, how we express ourselves.”
This may be why I get so frustrated when students give up so easily on the writing process or are frustrated when the words “don’t come out right” the first time. “Why can’t i just tell you what I want to say?” I’ve been asked more than once. Well, the reason why you can’t just tell me what you want to say is that you probably won’t say it as well as you would write it, if you took the time to write it well.
And that’s the point for all of us, I think. There is a strength in writing that allows us to be more eloquent, more thoughtful, and more careful than most of us could be speaking extemporaneously. (Plus, writing lets us redeem painful moments – like those critiques from old boyfriends – and make something beautiful from them.
I am nervous that our move to instant communication over great distances – IM, text messaging, tweeting, although I like all these tools and use them regularly – may teach us that writing is more akin to speaking than we have thought. I hope that doesn’t become so. Because if it does, I’ll never get a chance to send a hopefully more warmly-accepted love letter again or work the word “preterist” into my vocabulary.
– Nabokov and Trilling on Lolita – The video that spurred Krystal’s article.