More people should write

by James Somers, September 27, 2012

More people should do what I’m doing right now. They should sit at their computers and bat the cursor around — write full sentences about themselves and the things they care about.

I have a selfish reason for my demand: I have a lot of friends who are thoughtful, but keep their thoughts to themselves. I imagine finding notebooks under their bed, tens of composition books packed with little print. I think about what sort of a treasure that would be.

But that’s not why you should write.

You should write because when you know that you’re going to write, it changes the way you live. I’m thinking about a book I read called Field Notes on Science & Nature, a collection of essays by scientists about their notes. It’s hard to imagine a more tedious concept — a book of essays about notes? — but in execution it was wonderful. What it teaches you, over and over again, is that the difference between you and a zoologist or you and a botanist is that the botanist, when she looks at a flower, has a question in mind. She’s trying to generate questions. For her the flower is the locus of many mental threads, some nascent, some spanning her career. Her field notebook is not some convenient way to store lifeless data to be presented in lifeless papers so that other scientists can replicate some dull experiment; it’s the site of a collision between a mind and a world.

That’s the promise: you will live more curiously if you write. You will become a scientist, if not of the natural world than of whatever world you care about. More of that world will pop alive. You will see more when you look at it.

It’s like what happens to a room during a game of “I Spy”: if your friend spies something red, the red stuff glows.

When I have a piece of writing in mind, what I have, in fact, is a mental bucket: an attractor for and generator of thought. It’s like a thematic gravity well, a magnet for what would otherwise be a mess of iron filings. I’ll read books differently and listen differently in conversations. In particular I’ll remember everything better; everything will mean more to me. That’s because everything I perceive will unconsciously engage on its way in with the substance of my preoccupation. A preoccupation, in that sense, is a hell of a useful thing for a mind.

Writing needn’t be a formal enterprise to have this effect. You don’t have to write well. You don’t even have to “write,” exactly — you can just talk onto the page.

I suggest writing emails to your friends. Writing with an audience in mind makes the writing better, and writing to a friend means you won’t get hung up on how you sound. You’ll become closer, too, to whoever you share your thoughts with, and odds are you’ll draw the same thoughtfulness out of them. Your inbox will become less of a place for coupons and bullshit than for the thoughts of humans you like.

Walk around with a pen and a scrap of paper. Write some meaty emails. Engage more intensely with this place.