Ken Gordon | Essays

Chasing the Unicorn: Why Writing Is Work

The notion that writing is a skill worthy of comparison to a magical, profitable beast might seem good for business. (It’s certainly good for my business, but I’m a professional writer.) And when John Maeda says so, designers sit up and take notice. In “Forget Coding: Writing Is Design’s ‘Unicorn Skill,’” Maeda notes that “words are important,” and that the very act of writing is an essential item to slip into one’s professional portfolio.

Agreed. But it’s not really that simple. Design, for many of you, is a full-time endeavor. You’ll need deep reserves of resilience, and a carefully calibrated ego, if you’re looking to add writing to your already-heavy workload. Writing well entails extraordinary quantities of effort and patience. While it may well be possible to adopt some basic guidelines about good writing and apply them as you scribble, you must be just as prepared to invest in the process as you are in your work in the studio.

And that begins with the simple act of reading.

For starters, reading might be the best way to walk a mile in the consciousness of another person—so as a starting point, let me take the liberty of suggesting you begin with Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. Baker produces some of the smartest and funniest sentences you’re likely to find anywhere, and among other things, he’ll teach you to become a better observer of your own environment (which, to be fair, can only help make you a better designer). In my experience as a writer, editor, and teacher, those who produce the best work venture beyond writing workshops and how-to guides to seek out the company of our most excellent authors. T.S. Eliot once observed that literary tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” (Read Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent.") If the process of working your way through Eliot feels onerous, you may not be alone. Gary Shteyngart sums up the situation perfectly: “Nobody wants to read,” he notes, “but everybody wants to write.”

Simply put, you write what you read.

Our finest works of literature remain, now as ever, our best writing instructors. Within them, carefully chiseled sentences demonstrate what’s possible and offer suggestions for literary innovation. (“Live on broken phrases and syllable gristle, telegraphese and film reviews,” writes William Gass. “No one will suspect… until you speak, and your soul falls out of your mouth like a can of corn from a shelf.”) The hard work of learning to write well requires deep immersion in the work of those who put in the time to produce these treasures. Even reading may not be enough. “[O]ne cannot read a book," wrote the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. “One can only reread it.” Literacy is a life sentence.

Beyond the lofty promises of literary success, the actual operational work of writing can’t be ignored. Weighing words. Testing cadences. Rearranging sentences and paragraphs and pages to produce the desired effect. Not unlike the stringent iterative process that designers apply daily to their work in the studio, make no mistake: writing is work. “To talk to ourselves well requires, then, endless rehearsals,” notes Gass, “rehearsals in which we revise, and the revision of the inner life strikes many people as hypocritical; but to think how to express some passion properly is the only way to be possessed by it, for unformed feelings lack impact, just as unfelt ideas lose weight.”

Reading. Rehearsing. Revision. If at this point, you’re suddenly less interested in the skill of writing—that’s fine. If nothing else, you’ve acknowledged that the unicorn can’t be tamed in a few easy steps, and that the act of writing requires a kind of deep well of understanding, of empathy for ourselves and others. As Northrop Frye writes in his classic The Educated Imagination, literature is useful because of its encouragement of tolerance. “In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others.” That’s not just an act of tolerance, it’s an expression of benevolence. And that’s good for everyone.

Promo image by Sebastian on Flickr.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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