Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Energy of Writing

In physics class my high school junior year, I learned little, and of that little I remember little. Our brilliant though irascible teacher, Mr. Whitney, did, however, impress me with one fact of nature I've never forgotten.

"Bear in mind, gentlemen," declared Mr. Whitney in lab one day, pushing a long lock of sandy-red hair back over his freckled dome for the millionth time, "that when a wave rolls across the ocean"—and he drew on the blackboard a sine wave like this:

—"the molecules of ocean water don't travel horizontally with the wave. No, they move vertically, rising and falling with the wave, but they stay in one spot, just as you would if you went swimming out beyond the surf"—

"So we can't say the energy of the wave is in the water," Mr. Whitney concluded, sweeping his chalk-bearing hand dramatically across the board:

—"the energy of the wave moves through the water!"

Wow, I thought, that's cool! We see water moved by a wave, but the wave isn't the water, it's an invisible energy rolling through the water. Each little drop of water rides quietly up and down as the wave approaches and departs; only when the wave reaches the shore does the water flow forward, crashing against black rocks or spilling across a sandy beach.

That physics class is long ago, and Mr. Whitney went long ago to his reward, but his image of a wave moving through the water has stuck with me. In recent years I've used the image as a metaphor for the art of writing: the energy of writing is not in the words; the energy of writing flows through the words.

Not that words are weak or meaningless, or that they sit in their skeletal sentences like stiff little bones, passive agents of a superior force. On the contrary, words are restless bundles of energy ever ready to explode in our minds like bombs, to blossom in our minds like flowers. Yet why do we put words in sentences? To convey energy from ourselves to others! We hope our words will convey the energy that animates them, but that energy began in our spirits before we chose the words to convey it; that energy has a life of its own beyond the words, bigger than the words.

Take, for example, this sentence:

I know what you did last summer.

Say the sentence in a calm voice, giving no one word any particular emphasis, and it means just what the words say it means: I know what you did last summer.

But if we say the sentence seven times, giving each of its words in turn a marked emphasis, for instance:

I know what you did last summer.

I know what you did last summer.

I know what you did last summer.

—the meaning of the sentence changes dramatically. "I know what you did last summer" means, "Who cares what Betty did last summer, I know what you were up to." Likewise, "I know what you did last summer" means, "Forget about this winter, Bob, I'm talking about those sexy August nights last year!"

Each time the seven words of the sentence remain the same; only the non-verbal emphases we give the words change. The added push we give each word gives the sentence seven new meanings; that's the energy of writing passing through the words.

Or, as a philosopher once put it, "'Tain't what you say, it's how you say it." The energy we give our words can turn word meanings upside down, make the tragic comic, the commonplace sublime. Sarcasm makes the same words mean their exact opposite:

"Thank you for leaving me so much ice cream!"

What is this energy that passes through our words? Without getting in over my head—in Concerning Human Understanding David Hume ranked "energy" among philosophy's "more obscure and uncertain ideas"—I think the energy of writing springs from the human desire to communicate, our frequent wish to send an idea or emotion from inside ourselves, across space and time, into the spirits of other people. We want, we need to communicate; that's why we shout, "Help!", why we whisper, "I love you."

Good writers do their best to communicate energy through their words swiftly, surely, and with no loss of vigor. In Sonnet 18 Shakespeare conveys all the rush and tremble of sweet spring:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.

When the words are less well arranged, less energy crosses the space between writer and reader. This sentence drowns the energy in static:

Winds rough the of May darling buds shake do.

—and this mess conveys only bafflement:

Do winds the buds rough of May shake darling

In David Copperfield Dickens paints an old house in Canterbury in such loving detail:

The old-fashioned brass knocker on the low arched door, ornamented with carved garlands of fruit and flowers, twinkled like a star; the two stone steps descending to the door were as white as if they had been covered with fair linen, ... and quaint little panes of glass, and quainter little windows, though as old as the hills, were as pure as any snow that ever fell upon the hills.

—that, along with the picture of the old house, we get Dickens' eagerness that we see and love the house as much as he does. A contagious zest for life and writing bursts out of his bright images—twinkled like a star, his quiet assonances—"carved garlands," his serial alliterations—"stone steps descending to the door," his not-quite repetitions—"quaint little panes...quainter little windows." and his final roll to the resonant ending— "as pure as any snow that ever fell upon the hills." Dickens' arrow flies through the sine wave and hits the bulls-eye!

My singing teacher of many years, Vienna-born Miss Julia Wortman, spoke often of music as a "fluidum" between singer and listener, an invisible but subtly sparkling net that the music casts over the artists and audience. That's how I feel the energy of writing, both when trying to cast my own net and when happily trapped by another's: as an intimate, pleasurable embrace with other human spirits. So truly can writing's fluidum convey a writer's ideas and emotions that we can know our on-the-page friends as we know our face-to-face friends, develop a trustworthy sense of who they are as people: Theodore Dreiser is a cool, almost cynical companion, George Eliot a woman warmly affectionate; P. G. Wodehouse is silly but charming, Abraham Lincoln somber and thoughtful, and Kafka, well, one can only say he's Kafka-esque.

Writers use the energy of writing, in sum, to reach out to readers through words, to offer a world of strangers a welcoming hello and handshake. If we return their generous gesture with a generosity of our own, the energy of writing can spark and fuel a life-long and most rewarding love affair.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 10th 2011, 3:06 AM
Comment by: Sante J. Achille (L Aquila Italy)
Thursday November 10th 2011, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
So BEAUTIFUL! Thank you, Michael.
Thursday November 10th 2011, 11:44 AM
Comment by: sandra S. (tucson, AZ)
Insightful. You have a way with words, sir.
Thursday November 10th 2011, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Toni H. (Artesia, NM)
That is both a phenomenal and mind-changing thought. As a writer for many years, I concur and applaud. May all of us with pen (keyboard) in hand find our private momentum and make waves!
Thursday November 10th 2011, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
Well, that's the first time I've ever heard writing compared to physics! I bet if my teacher had taught that way I would have done better. Great article, had to read a little more actively than usual but it was worth it. Well done, sir. Again.
Thursday November 10th 2011, 1:11 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I am not a writer Micheal but someone who learns English , so when you compare writing and physical I like the comparaison; mabybe I often interested in"mathematical and physical"fluctuations are not ;Archimedes'principle.
Thank you Micheal.
Thursday November 10th 2011, 9:29 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Your article brings into the light, the sprituality of words, Michael

Thank you
Friday November 11th 2011, 12:17 AM
Comment by: Margaret (Perth Australia)
Ditto to all the above comments. Thanks
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Tina C. (Cincinnati, OH)
Tuesday November 20th 2012, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
This article says everything I'm feeling when I write, and I like having a mental image that expresses it so beautifully. Next time I wonder why I'm writing at all, I'll re-read this explanation of my need to put my words out there, no matter where they land. Once again, I thank Mr. Lydon for a very enjoyable read.

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