You are what you are largely because of the language other people have used on you. That’s true not only of you who are reading this article but also of the millions of illiterates throughout the world — and there are thousands of them born every minute!
The writings most important in this way are, of course, the great books of the world-religions— the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran and the numerous sacred books of the East. There are secular books, too, which have shaped history by their effect on the minds of masses of people, like Marx’s Das Kapital and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is not even necessary to read such books in order to be influenced by them. It is unlikely that you have read every word of Darwin’s Origin of Species, but it is equally unlikely that your ways of thinking have not been influenced by it.
Some people can point to a particular book that changed the whole course of their thinking and therefore of their lives. Do you remember what Keats wrote after reading a translation of Homer? —
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken….
Mighty books and great poetry may seem very remote from any writing you may do, but the principle is the same.
Most books are written by one person who, when he is writing, works away on paper until he has found what seem to him the right words in the right order to express what he has to say. These words eventually go out to the public, and then, if he has really found the right words and put them in the right order, events take place in the minds of those who read them that are very nearly the same as the events he hoped would take place. Through words he has caused things to happen in the other minds.
You are, shall we say, writing an ordinary letter to someone you know very well. You have certain facts and ideas that you want to communicate. You don’t necessarily pay a great deal of attention to how you put them down, because you know the reader and have a very good idea of how he will react to any words of yours. But he will react in one way or another; you cause mental events to take place in his mind by means of your words. It does not need great writing to produce effects. A simple letter may cast a shadow over your whole day; another, equally simple, may make you feel you are walking on air for hours after reading it.
Sometimes the effects of words are dramatic.
With a few words a hypnotist can make people do the most extraordinary things in a stage performance. Used in a more responsible manner hypnotism, which has nothing but words as its instruments, has been a powerful weapon in many a physician’s armoury. Psycho-analysts and many psychiatrists operate on troubled minds not with drugs or surgical instruments but with words only. At the other end of the scale there are those who have produced deep mental distress by the use of words — blackmailers and poison-pen letter-writers, for example.
Think of the last few occasions when you were depressed. Is it not true that words were involved in one way or another, whether spoken or written?
Think of the last few occasions when you were elated. Can the same not be said about them too? Were not words involved?
I put black marks on paper. They represent my thoughts, but they are not my thoughts. You interpret those marks; that is to say, you have your thoughts in connection with them. The meaning is not on the paper; it is first of all in my mind, then it is in your mind — and I hope your meaning is more or less the same as mine. My job as a blogger is to find the words that will give you the best possible chance of finding, out of your experience of language and life, the meanings that were in my mind when I chose these particular words and arranged them in this particular order.
Meanings exist in the minds of human beings, not on paper. The important thing when you write is the effect your words have on whoever reads them.
That is the basic idea behind this my writing related article at HowToee.
Complete the following sentences. In doing so you will not only be practising writing but also revising what you have so far read. Compare your completed sentences with those in the pages you have read. If your version is not exactly the same as mine, it is not necessarily wrong. Judge for yourself.
1. There is an essential difference between this article and any article on writing….
2. It goes on like that, page after page, until you begin to think….
3. I am putting words on paper now. In two or three months you will be reading them; it is then….
4. The reader’s mind, not grammar is….
5. You are what you are largely….
6. Some people can point to a particular book….
7. Most books are written by one person who, when he is writing, works away on paper until….
8. These words eventually go out to the public, and then, if he has really found….
9. A simple letter may cast a shadow over your whole day; another….
10. Used in a more responsible manner, hypnotism….