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Why I Write

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Oct 21, 2011

I stole this title from Joan Didion who, herself, stole it from George Orwell. These are two decent names to include in any piece on writing, I admit.

Today is the National Day on Writing. For the third year in a row, the Senate passed a resolution marking October 20 as a day to recognize writing. This comes at a time when many are lamenting the demise of the written word.

Yesterday, I attended the annual Hawaii Social Media Summit in Honolulu. Newspaper-reporter-turned-blogger John Heckathorn led a discussion titled “R we ruining the language 1 Tweet @ a time?”

For those who don't know, Twitter is a micro-blogging online service, a social network. It allows users to send text-based posts--called "tweets"--of no more than 140 characters.

John's answer, in that gruff voice of his was, “No.” (Imagine a man beyond his newspaper prime, wearing a jacket, hair speckled with grey, bent in a perpetual hurry to meet a deadline and a big paw of a hand flying through the air. The irony, of course, was--I’ll put it succinctly--the old guy in the room was embracing new media, including Twitter.)

John’s reasons for why social media is not ruining language is because the new form of communication is simply the next step in the evolution of language.

Writing, he said, is a technology. "It requires both hardware and software. But every time the hardware shifts, everyone freaks out and thinks the entire culture is going straight to hell."

Socrates, he reported, disliked the very act of writing way back in 370 BC, because it eliminated the need for face to face communication and reduced memory capacity. We only know this, of course, because Plato, Socrates’ student, wrote it down.

Hundreds of years later, Gutenberg arrived on the scene and his printing press was deemed the work of the devil. But that led to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reclamation, the American Revolution and the spread of modern science. In the process, language changed. Standardization arose--of spelling, grammar, punctuation. Dictionaries got printed.

The next language game-changer was the telegraph machine, which gave rise to brevity. Adjectives and adverbs were dropped in favor of short sentences. In telegraphic messages, the most important information went first, hence, the inverted pyramid style of journalistic storytelling.

Not everyone liked the new technology. Henry David Thoreau said, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Sound familiar? Replace “social network” for “magnetic telegraph.” I’ve heard numerous friends make similar statements about Facebook’s status updates. What do I care what my long-lost friend from nursery school ate for breakfast?

Joan Didion and George Orwell have both written essays on why they write, and while they are short, neither essay would fit in the 140-character limit on Twitter. Not even the original 420 character limit that Facebook set.

But that is precisely what the National Writing Project is asking. They have collaborated with The Learning Network of The New York Times, Figment and Edutopia to compile reasons why people write--in 140 characters or less.

I admit I thought it would be a fun exercise. And, so, I started:

So I can understand myself. So I can understand everyone else.

To explore new worlds. To be more compassionate.

Because some, little voice inside me tells me to. Because the voice of approval speaks when I do.

Because writing absolves me of the guilt of not cleaning my house.

So I have something to do when I wake up.

Because I hope to see the world a little bit differently.

Because writing gives me an inexplicable feeling of purpose in life.

John said. “Social media is good writing. Period. Be short. Be sweet. Know what you are trying to say. Work at it a little.” And, then, he added, “Tell a story.”

And, so, after a little work, here was my submission:

She dons a wetsuit, adjusts her mask and bites down on the reg. A quick look around, and she slips into the sea to discover....#whyiwrite

O.K. It's a bit over the top. It's precious. But it doesn't matter. I am writing. Even with just 140 characters. And so are a whole bunch of other people. An average of 50 million tweets are posted every day. I believe it's important to celebrate writing in all its forms. You don't need a special day to do it. Try it today. Try writing a story in 140 characters. That's not so hard. Make it about an experience of yours in Hawaii. Maybe a new Hawaii discovery. And share it with us here. Who knows. Maybe I'll send my favorite entry a gift certificate for a free Hula Pie at Duke's Canoe Club.


Susan | Oct 23, 2011 01:41 PM

A family writes their "holiday letter" as a page of tweets. A year encapsulated in lines of 140 characters each. It shares their year, who really wants to read more?

Jason | Oct 25, 2011 11:31 AM


Andrea | Oct 25, 2011 02:13 PM

Holiday letter in a tweet? #LovesIt. Haha!

Davis | Oct 29, 2011 03:29 AM

Evelyn Waugh wrote a charming short story in the form of postcard messages, albeit he was not that rigorous about the length of his entries. It is easy to write a story in the form of a Christmas letter, so reversing the matter is no problem. As for working within the constraints of the 140-character format, I will offer no opinion, as I am innocent of tweetery. As for the old news dog embracing new media, it is not that surprising that someone staring down the gaping maw of obsolescence and irrelevance should embrace the new. And, after all, he is a journalist, to whom words are as paint is to a house painter or nails to a carpenter. But your question was why one might write. I began as a way of exploring my own past, particularly my curious Gothick childhood in an equally curious place called Little Egypt. Then I discovered travel and travel writing and read the wonderful adventures of Fermor and Thesiger and all that excellent crew and I wandered off into writing and travel and never came back. I kept a journal on my first visit to Greece, simply because I had read that travelers in the golden age did such a thing. That was in 1981, and I have written almost every day since. Most interesting at the moment are two packing cartons full of travel journals that I am mining for stories and using my blog to show some of the work in progress. Whatever is going on around me, I need only sit down with my notebooks and word-processor and I am Elsewhere and Elsewhen. I am at the moment twenty-some years ago, deep in the Yucatán.

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