The essence of writing's value to humanity is this: the art can convey thought from one human to another. As in gift giving, in writing it's the thought that counts.
Human thought encompasses our memory of the past, the crest we ride in the action-packed present, and our future expanding before us at the speed of light. I sense that I live in a now always going forward into new and unknown territory. I don't know what will happen next or what I'll do next. I know what I'd like to happen and what I'd like to do, and I act to improve my now or at least maintain a status quo I can accept. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, and often I leap from the frying pan into the fire.
I need constant answers to the constant question, "Now what? Now what?" Thought is my "devious-devising Odysseus," the active force within me that comes up with answers, "Try this, try that." Without telling me what to do, thought helps me create the strategies I use to cope with the perils of second-to-second life. Drawing on an age-old fund of remembered and ingrained experience, thought analyzes the tumult I confront and synthesizes instant solutions. Thought guides my actions.
Writing is an action. I push a pen, tap keys, and wield an eraser just as I shake pepper into my soup: to answer as best I can the latest "Now what?" — this time, "What will I write?" Thought guides writing freely, letting the play of whim affect the work of steady purpose. The actions of all arts convey thought; music, dance, acting, painting, and sculpture do so without words. Beethoven and Balzac both scratched boldly with their pens, and both convey bold thought. The chiseled stones of the Acropolis speak the mind of ancient Greece as plainly as the printed pages of Plato's Republic.
Writers find conveying thought in word no easy task. "There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily," declared Anthony Trollope, who disciplined himself to write every day, no matter what. Simply being aware enough of thought to write it down takes close attention. Every writer faces a mind-boggling array of thoughts that could be written. A trivial incident on a boring day, a silly flicker of evanescent imagination, a solemn conclusion drawn from a bitter lesson — all urge themselves into the mind, begging for the scrap of paper that confers immortality. Certain thoughts become more attractive for a host of reasons, aesthetic, practical, emotional, and economic; those are the thoughts that guide the body to the desk, the hand to the pen, and start it moving.
Writing, in a word, requires thought. Fortunately, a writer need not lug this essential ingredient about like sacks of raw material. Thought instead is a life-process, an active force that helps the writer work. Thought grows in time, and the writer who paces his efforts to match thought's growth, like a gardener who paces his efforts with nature, can halve his labor and double his output. Gardeners dig and manure the soil so their plants will flourish. Writers likewise cultivate thought as it sprouts and branches out from a germ kernel idea; they too must wait until passing seasons turn blossoms into fruit.
Writing that grows with thought does more than describe life; it is itself alive. A writer who lets her pen trace thought's most impetuous zigzags and most balanced symmetries, animates logical form with life force. Word by word and sentence by sentence, writing advances across the page like a vine creeping along the ground. The web of words becomes the skin of a thought, fleshed out by the energy of the thought itself. As Nathaniel Hawthorne hoped his own writing would, thoughtful writing grows like grass.
This is the writing I love to read, writing that conveys living thought with vibrant intensity, each word speaking its piece; no word is extra, none out of place. Here a man who relies utterly on God:
The Lord is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer; my God in whom I will trust; my buckler and the horn of my salvation and my high tower. —David, Psalm 18
Here a murderer's self-loathing:
What hands are here! Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red.
What thoughts leap like lightning from these words! These writers use words to open doors on thought's boundless depths. How far their thinking ranges, how much their few words bring home!
Such vivid thought makes writing come alive. The genuine interest of the thought writing conveys is a more reliable measure of writing's liveliness than abstract excellence of style. Style is not a quality distinct from thought; style is thought's voice, and when style is well wedded to vivid thought, that style will be well written. Lifeless or boring thought, on the other hand, cannot be well written. Dullness has a leaden vocabulary, narcissism a pompous one. I much prefer good ideas half-hidden in a clumsy style to glib ideas posing in faultless refinement. The anonymous student who wrote this famous howler:
"Napoleon stood with one foot in the Ancien Regime; with the other he saluted the rising sun of 19th century democracy."
—made Napoleon look cockeyed, but he did have a thought worth considering.
Good writing, in sum, conveys vivid thought in vivid words. Lining up words as a general lines up his troops, a writer sends them into battle on the page, ordering them to stand and fire when they see the whites of a reader's eye. Victory is won when the reader understands the thought the writer hoped to convey.
That writing can convey thought is easily proved. If I ask you, dear reader, to clap your hands, and you do, you have received and responded to thought conveyed by writing. Readers alone with a book are often moved to laughter or to tears. Some, when they put the book down, get up inspired to go in directions they otherwise never would have taken.
Whenever I read and understand, I feel I am seeing another person's thought as through a window. When the window is crystal-clear and thought presses through it with the intense interest of an ever-changing landscape, I become so absorbed in all that I see that I forget I am looking through a window. This is the miracle of the art: writing conveys thought mind-to-mind as if it were not there at all.
Yet writing is there, a window of words, made of ink and paper. I can keep the physical fact of writing firmly in mind only when I look at writing I cannot read. In museums I've bent over glass cases to study tablets of cuneiform writing from ancient Sumer. Since I can't read Sumerian, I can see plainly that writing is not thought pure and simple, but the trace of a human hand guided by thought. Every triangular indent proves that a scribe once pushed, lifted, turned, and pushed his stylus again and again into the then soft clay. His actions, like mine, took place in an ever changing present; like mine, his actions were among his zillion on-the-spot answers to life's constant question, "Now what?" Of all this long-ago writer thought, his writing tells me only this for certain: that he thought then, as I think now, "Write!"