Why is writing an art form? It’s an intimate question that has permeated many of our subconscious thoughts.
Unlike other art forms, people who are not authors or poets, frequently find themselves needing to write in their daily lives. We write emails, letters, cards, notes, assignments – the list goes on. We seldom find ourselves randomly needing to do a bit of sculpture in life, or compose a little symphony. So writing has a unique position, for better or worse, within the artistic sphere.
And I admire that about writing. It is a democratic art. Anyone can write. Writing is the least aristocratic of the arts. You don’t need money to write. Almost everyone can afford a piece of pen and paper. You don’t need the expensive materials needed for painting, sculpture or music.
But where does the line fall between artistic writing and everyday writing? Should there even be a line? I don’t think there should be.
The fluid, expansive nature of writing makes it one of the most exciting. But it is also the hardest to define. So here are 7 reasons why writing is art, and 7 possible definitions as to what is art, and 7 reasons why my love affair with writing runs so deep.
- We Are a Storytelling Animal
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gotschall.
We are indeed addicted to stories. More than you think. Even if you’re not a big reader, chances are, you like movies, you like series, you like gossip, you like sport. All these things tell a story. When is a football game most exciting? When there’s a narrative behind it. Ronaldo up against Messi. Or a team is playing for revenge for last season’s defeat. Story permeates everything. Even songs tell a story. We need them to.
Writing, and its heir apparent, reading, is the most intimate way of absorbing stories. You’re not in a loud cinema or stadium – it’s just you and the story. At a beach. In bed. On the toilet. Wherever. Literature transports you to other worlds in the most intimate of ways.
- Human Expression
From diary-addicted teenagers to the elderly writing their wills. Whenever life challenges us we need to externalise. A lot of people do it by drawing, or singing, others do it by getting pissed. But the most common way is writing.
We think in words. Most of us. Our language gives our emotions its vocabulary. Writing something down, be it a thought or something on a sticky note, is a way of confronting an emotion face to face. Making it concrete. Making a problem perhaps seem less daunting.
A lot of the greatest works of literature have arisen from the need to express an internal emotion. Think the Diary of Anne Frank or Malcolm Lowry’s boozed-up Under the Volcano. Again, writing is perhaps the most intimate means of expression available to us.
Language, after all, is what makes us human, the dividing line between homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.
The uniting of two disparate realms. Unrelated concepts being forced together by the will of words. Coming across a good metaphor has the same evocative, relaxing, life-affirming sensation as coming across a good wine on a good day.
In life we are always seeking out combinations that bring happiness just that little bit closer to home. Our minds are multi-layered. Going to an old school with a new flame. Listening to a song you loved as a teenager and dancing it with your son. Or simply having a new drink in an old local.
Writing is the most direct way of evoking these transient moments in life. Writing and of course music. Music is the Mt. Fuji of spine-chilling nostalgia. No other art can send such waves of goose bumps as music can. But, can music do this:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Or even this:
“I want to tell you, don’t marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it’s adultery.”
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day
- Writing Is It’s Own Afterlife
Maybe going a bit grim here. But don’t all artists have the unspoken urge to live on through their work?
If there is no afterlife in the hereafter, artists seek to create an afterlife right here. To leave behind something that outlasts them, something better than them. This is why artists call their creations their children.
With writing, even the intimate details of a man’s soul can survive. With painting, music, architecture, only a powerful impression is left. Through writing, whether it be a deceased man’s diary, or an autobiographical novel, nothing is held back.
In a way, writing is even more accurate than a photograph. Photographs can lie because they are a selective image. But writing doesn’t lie. And if any writer has the good-will of creating something worth lasting, then he is ensured a long afterlife.
- Writing Can Change the World
The first example many of you will be thinking of right now would be the Bible. Or the Quran. Religious texts. And you’re not wrong. Both these religious texts were written with artistry in mind. The Quran, after all, is written in verse.
But works of literature have also changed the world in ways many of us don’t even realise.
Let me start by an irreverent example: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. A badly-written book that was yet exciting enough to revive a dying art: paleontology. The resulting film forever fixated children with dinosaurs, and without it we wouldn’t know half of what we know about the feathery reptiles. Jurassic Park, a mere book, inspired a lot of paleontological research.
On a larger scale, look towards Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe, the “author of this great war.” Referring to the American Civil War. As great a testament to the power of literature as can be.
There are other, non-fiction books as well, and I’ll make a brief list of them here, who have changed the world, for better or worse, purely because their authors felt the need to write down their revolutionary ideas: The Origin of Species, The Communist Manifesto, The Second Sex, and yes, even that ghastly, fat pamphlet, Mein Kampf.
- It’s Complicated
It is easy to write. But is impossibly hard to write damn well. Many people think they can write. But writing is perhaps more nuanced than any other art form available to man.
Hemingway called writing the hardest thing he ever did. To write well, to write truly, to write beautifully and meaningfully, this goes beyond merely putting words on a page. Writers need to be chess players. They have a limited amount of pieces, they need to know where each piece is capable of going, and they need to plan well in advance, and anticipate the reader’s every possible counter-move.
This is why I love writing so much. It is so easy to put words on a page, and that very ease makes it so challenging. Writers are like all the best cooks who have to create something complex with only a handful of ingredients.
But when it works, hell, it works:
Controversial subject matter aside, when I think of writing as art, I can think of no greater masterpiece than Nabokov’s Lolita. This is the Guernica, the Ninth Symphony, the Hagia Sophia of literature. If you care to ignore the 6 previous reasons outlined in the blog, do so, why is writing art, because of this:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”