It was National #WhyIWrite Day not too long ago (Oct. 20th for those who are curious) and since I’m in the business of helping people write, I should take that day seriously. And this year, I took my reflecting to the next level.
And to answer the question, ‘Why do I write?’, I started with ‘Why do we write?’.
Yes, as in humankind.
Let’s start with a history lesson.
The history of writing, more than anything else, reflects how unique humankind is, as a species, and how far we’ve evolved socially and technologically.
The prevailing consensus among historians has humanity inventing the written word (or rather symbols that signified subsets of an existing language) twice. That is, two separate ancient civilizations (Ancient Sumer and Mesoamerica) created the earliest forms of writing. And in fact, there are schools of thought that have us inventing writing at least 3 separate times (for instance, Ancient Chinese script might have been developed in isolation), though we’re not entirely sure. Why? Probably because we don’t know the movements of every continental nomad and trader in that era. History was such an inaccurate drag before we had written evidence!
We accept these early forms of writing, such as cuneiform, as proto-writing, symbols that meant whole things, objects, people, etc. This is separate from what we know as ‘writing’ today, as a series of letters that signify certain vocal utterances that are easily recreated (rewritten) from person to person regardless of time and place. Now that’s interesting, because the contrast between proto-writing and today’s writing already hints that early writing had different purposes for writers back then. And that of course, early writing worked in smaller groups due to environmental and temporal context and then had to naturally evolve as the world’s population rose and as ‘the writer’ changed.
Unless you slept through your middle school history class, you should be familiar with graphs like this.
So why did writing have to change as a result of the world’s population? Well, proto-writing was a great way to record things and transfer information in a particular village or society. Meaning, the way the symbols had been devised required you to understand the particular trade, village custom or the process in place. For example, some of the existing records that we’ve been able to make sense of from early writing in Mesopotamia are of beer sales. My first thought of course was, ‘who keeps bar receipts around that long?’ But the point is, ‘you had to be there’. As the historian Kriwaczek noted, it was all about knowing the context when trying to understand proto-writing. However, the need for writing to be a vehicle for delivering complex thought and ideas to multiple villages or large areas of a continent sprung out of a growing and developing civilization. And as we saw certain technologies emerge, we saw writing develop and become more sophisticated as well.
The first ‘author’.
The earliest known author (as in, she was the first we know of who signed her work) was a Mesopotamian priestess, Enheduanna, who wrote hymns to the goddess Inanna. Not only was writing now associated with a person at this point, but the idea that writing could be used to practice religion, record historical events about a civilization and transfer knowledge became a crucial part of the intermediate civilizations. (That’s a fancy term for ancient civilizations like Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, etc. that were around before ours, but after the earliest civilizations like Mesopotamia. At least you can take away fun historical jargon by the end of this).
Again, we saw that as the number of humans increased and emerging world technology developed, so did writing increase in complexity, medium and purpose. In the 14th century, we saw the first metal movable type in Korea, and in the 15th century, the Gutenberg printing press was invented. Suddenly writing became profitable too!
In the 15th and 16th centuries, we saw a bunch of countries undergoing their own separate renaissances with a rise in literature, science, complex language and technology. And as an interesting contrast, areas of the world with populations, but no developed form of writing, didn’t grow at the same pace.
Since I studied economics and know not to make causal judgements here, I can at least safely say there was a positive correlation between a rise in population and complex technology and a rise in more and more sophisticated writing systems.
That’s all I’m saying about that.
Professor Johnson would be so proud of me!
Fast forward to the 20th century.
So the history of writing took a turn for the modern age. We invented text editors. The earliest text editors on this thing called a ‘computer’ were around in the 1960s and it was in the 1980s that Microsoft released Word. Microsoft Word definitely changed the game for writers everywhere. It became so fully integrated in our lives by the 90’s that students, professionals, creatives–literally everyone used MS Word or some other similar competing desktop editor to do their writing.
As other computer related technologies flourished, such as that other thing, the internet, we saw a rise in creative writing through mediums other than physical publications. And of course, self-publishing took off as well.
And check out the literacy rates over this period of time all over the world:
Let’s start by drawing upon the parallel of the evolution of writing and technology (and just what that’s done for the world population and literacy rates) and just how interesting that’s going to be for the next few years. As in, how will writing change as a function of new technologies? This is stimulating interesting dinner party conversation material!
Will it still be a force for exponential population growth or will it help curb it (after all, written material and technologies around family planning and involuntary reproduction have been steadily growing in volume and effect)? Writing itself was one of the earliest technologies of humankind, but what will future iterations look like? We already see the massive amount of writing available on the internet and how our most prolific form of writing is now in short form tweets, emails and social media messages. What could this mean for a future full of self-driving cars, travel to Mars (yeah okay, Elon Musk has a ways to go, but he’s totally rocking it), life extending technologies, globalizing innovations, etc.? What will our future writing look like? Will the world standardize an international alphabet that’s a mix of Roman and other alphabets? (Please let us align over the metric system at some point too.) Will it adopt a more computer language driven alphabet? What will it look like?! Of course, based on our addiction to texting, my prediction is that Emoji could replace the Roman alphabet as the global standard of writing.
I may only be kidding (slightly), but the positive correlation between the rise and complexity of technology and writing’s medium and purpose has remained constant for the last few millennia, so trying to comprehend what’s next is a fascinating thought experiment.
However, medium and purpose aside, one interesting aspect that has changed drastically in the last, exponential part of the population curve is the writer. Before, only priests and religious leaders, or the very educated and wealthy wrote anything longer than a few pages for religious, social, governmental or academic reasons. And then as the world population rose and society grew more complex, although anyone could write more lengthy work, it was still a craft. It was more likely that you did it for a living and identified yourself as ‘a writer’. Like Camus, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) or Kurt Vonnegut.
And now? Everyone is a writer. Or at least, writing may be what you do in addition to what you call yourself. You may be a surgeon or a programmer or a chef, but from the moment you learned to write in school to now, you’ve likely written enough material to fill many, many books. You may have a blog. You may have written a book or two about what you do. You may have written a paper for a journal in your field. Or maybe you just write to articulate your ideas and experiences. You no longer have to call yourself ‘a writer’ to do it.
And tying this back to our history lesson, throughout time there’s been an ever growing sense of personal attachment to our writing. This didn’t happen right away. I mean, we don’t know who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Upanishads. How is it that we don’t know who wrote some of the most powerful and/or oldest stories of our species? But luckily, if you remember our first known author, Enheduanna had the sense to start a growing trend in authorship and proprietary literature.
Why I write.
It’s amazing that our own individual attribution to what we write is a very strong part of our history. It has, in essence, become a way to be immortal. And not to get too abstract here, but isn’t it true that Enheduanna, Plato and Dostoevsky exist today because of what they left behind of themselves? Their work, forever ascribed to their individual being, ideas and contributions, will live in modern education and continue to influence culture, science and human evolution.
Humankind has always thirsted for immortality. The fountain of youth. A way to overcome the passage of time and live on past the limitations of our bodies. And lest you think I’m making an entirely new claim here, there were perhaps, historically, a handful of famous artists, scientists and other thinkers who may have been aware of how to leave a part of themselves behind forever. But as culture and education grow and globalize, we’re only just realizing that we always (all of us) had it within us to be immortal. Who are your favorite authors? Your favorite artists? Will they live on generation after generation? What did they do except pour their ideas or souls into a medium that you enjoyed, learned from and then taught or talked about to others? Can’t you do the same?
So why wait for the fountain of youth? Or the magic pill to make you live forever? Or the bionic bodies I know Elon Musk is going to work on next after he’s figured out self driving cars and rockets to Mars? Those might all happen. It’s probably just a matter of time before science and technology catch up with the way writing already makes us immortal.
But until then, I challenge you to think about writing as a way to achieving your own kind of immortality. Writing is not the only way to leave a legacy of who you are in this world, but it has become the most integrated activity in our lives and how we move our own individual causes forward.
For the many writers out there who have stories unshared or unfinished, I implore you to not let your potential immortality go to waste. Think, write and share. For that is how we change the world.