Thoreau, Thoughts, and Bullshit: A Reflection on Writing

No wonder the Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.

Henry David Thoreau

Recently, I was reviewing and revising an essay to use as a writing sample for a job application and ended up having a bunch of complicated thoughts about the value of writing, and by association the value of reading and literature.

It’s weird to go back and read what you’ve written before, and to try to do it with an outside perspective. It’s akin hearing a recording of your own voice played back to you for the first time – everything’s a little bit different from how it sounded in your head. Things you previously thought were precise are clunky and convoluted, and things you thought were mundane actually seem a bit more colorful. Some things are just downright embarrassing. It’s challenging to try and accurately describe your own thoughts, and it’s doubly challenging to describe the world around you in a way that makes sense to others. However, if you can overcome the weirdness of it and truly learn to write well, you get to participate in one of the most useful forms of communication that humanity has to offer.

Like painting a picture, it takes patience, concentration, and practice to really create a striking and meaningful piece of writing. You also have to stay organized while you’re doing it. Clarity and conciseness are paramount; there isn’t time to wade through piles of fluffy filler words. The habit of filling up space is ingrained in us pretty early on, however, so it’s a hard one to overcome.

In middle and high school we learn to write essays about books and personal experiences, and we are taught to follow a writing formula. It’s five paragraphs with one intro containing the main thesis, three body paragraphs containing three separate points supported by arguments and academic research, concluded by an outro paragraph which recaps and summarizes the thesis. It’s a fool-proof method, and it provides a framework which teaches students the importance of structure to ensure clarity of meaning. If you follow the formula, proofread each sentence, and properly address the prompt, you end up with a crisp, finished essay. If done well, it accurately portrays your ideas to the mind of the reader. This is the entire point.

When teachers and professors assign papers, they use word or page count as a grade measurement. I’m sure they figure if they assign a certain amount of pages, students will have no choice but to find more information and merge it with what they’re learning while they write it. This method comes from very good intentions, and it does work to some extent. In order to fill in so much space, you really do need to find a bit more information and write a bit more than you normally would have. It stretches you and makes you think. It makes you find more elaborate ways to say things. You do, indeed, learn.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch to this nice method.  It’s too easy to figure out that instead of spending the adequate time to research and read sources, or to really think through your ideas in detail, you can just add some more adverbs and adjectives. Insert bullshit, inflate the word count. This is, unfortunately, the attitude that many students (including myself) come away with, and it’s an attitude that is perpetuated by the system that created it. Just like teaching subjects purely for the sake of better scores on the state standardized tests, essays are viewed as a numbers game. You must have at least three pages. It must be five thousand words. It must have five sources.

If your ideas are flat and uninspired, your arguments tired and obvious, your word usage colorless – that’s OK, you can get away with it in most instances. This isn’t an English class, after all. Or, this is an English class, and we’re here to learn the intricacies of our beautiful language (yes, English is beautiful. It’s crazy, and hackneyed, and brilliantly malleable), but it’s possible to pass even if there’s no shred of thought or care in the things you write. There won’t be points removed for it. Sure, some teachers and professors do pay attention to the quality of writing and depth of thought – but not enough. And of course, not every student is going to care about every subject and have the energy to devote themselves to endeavors irrelevant to their life – and we can’t expect them to. But can’t we at least make it clear, in all situations, that learning to write properly and well is not just about word count and thesaurus proficiency? It’s about offering the skills to explore the wonders of language, and experience the powerful beauty of language’s capability to express and communicate.

Furthermore, to fully realize and embrace the power of writing and language, perhaps you don’t just learn to write, but you also learn  about the wealth of literature that is in the world. Literature not only allows the opportunity to see words and grammar in action, it also deeply conveys the story of language. Thousands upon thousands of books, in varying degrees of ubiquity, are available to anyone who will look.  There isn’t enough time or mental capacity to read – let alone intensely study – them all, but there is plenty of opportunity to find a few good ones to cherish. To learn from. To find inspiring tales, and eons of knowledge, and amusing fodder. To perhaps glean some wisdom about the world, and pick up a few good writing habits along the way. This is far more valuable than just learning to bullshit one’s way through a formula.

. . . the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. . . . the writer . . . speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.

Henry David Thoreau

Ancient hominids figured out how to communicate effectively through verbal intonation, which developed over time into the most elaborate communication method in the entire animal kingdom (as far as we have evidence for): Spoken language. Eventually, written language was developed; alphabets were born. The written word and the pictures that went with it were a way to set speech in stone, declare laws, immortalize history and its kings – “The symbols of an ancient man’s thought,” as Thoreau puts it. It became, quickly, a bearer of poetry and a vehicle for science and philosophy. It evolved into a way to record data and program computers, and to be a necessity of almost every aspect of modern human life. From the spelling of your name to the business you conduct to the available forms of entertainment, the written word is an essential component. The ability to successfully navigate the world of words is a guarantee that you have access to the rest of the world.

It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which [literature is] written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear. . . .

Henry David Thoreau

If you can write, you can communicate. You can read books, and articles, and anything you want until you have them memorized, but in order to turn all that knowledge around and share it with others, you must know how to write. Of course speech is equally important, but like Thoreau said, “The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion;” it pales in comparison to the concrete nature of writing. To write, you must be able to deliberately organize your thoughts and arrange them so that the reader can hear your voice and understand it.  Keen understanding of the language allows you share it accurately, and to express personal ideas and impressions that you have about a given subject.

Writing gives you a quiet space to slowly and carefully ruminate. Instead of just repeating blips of information and memes and other quips of phrases, you may unfold and examine your own perspective. If you choose to, you can present it to others and receive feedback. You can really delve deep, and by that process develop accurate self-expression. You get to share your understanding of a subject with other people, and you get to also learn from them. From your brain to theirs, and vice verse.

That’s so exciting, isn’t it? To have a tool at your disposal which gives you the veritable power of telepathy through the medium of letters and words and proper grammar. It’s a sort of magic. This is what the five paragraph Page-o-matic 5000 standardized essay is missing. We can squish enough words and punctuation together to reach a minimum and call it an education, but it is only a shallow one. We’ve all done it – we’ve all added ten superfluous adjectives to a sentence, just to make Microsoft Word finally declare Page 7. It’s normal, and understandable to be ambivalent towards a homework assignment. But it’s too easy to get lost in that Borg Cube of an essay and forget that contemplating a topic – and using language as a means rather than end – is the prime directive of writing.

And this is where I come back to the thought of my own writing – many times I’ve written fluff to accommodate a set of rules. I’ve got tons of writing (research papers, class reflections) that are nothing more than what I was supposed to do in order to get a grade. A lot of times, I’ve written personal thoughts down that are simply sloppily expressed. But sometimes, I’ll produce some paragraph here or there that actually makes me feel like I accomplished what I was trying to say, and it feels nice.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with my life, and harnessing one of my favorite activities seems like a good idea. That’s why I’ve started a blog, and also why I have been meticulously making progress with reading through my book list. As evident by even this blog post, I’ve got a lot of work to do. All I’ve got to do to improve is consistently write, and read, and experience the world around me.

With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame eve, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident. The oldest Egyptian or Hindu philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.

Henry David Thoreau

I love that language and information dissemination is such an integral part of the history of humanity, and that it is something we get to learn how to do through school and other means. I love that, though at times challenging, it can be used to spread knowledge and change minds and affect history. It can be used to write a compelling epic that invites you into a world of magic an adventure, alongside the main characters of a novel. It can be used to record laws that help and protect people, and ensure justice. It can be used to argue bad, unjust, draconian laws. It can be used to find common ground in an experience, or say “you are not alone.” It records history, events, revolutions, progress, science. Writing is as powerful as the wheel, and the cure for cancer, and sliced bread. A written word is the choicest of relics. Think about it.

In fact, write an essay about it.

All quotes by Thoreau are from Walden, in the chapter titled “Reading.”

Featured image was drawn by me. copyright and whatever.


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