For an unknown writer, I receive quite a lot of correspondence from readers. I publish fairly infrequently and yet comments, often angry, frequently fill my inbox and overwhelm my Twitter and LinkedIn messages. I admit I read very few of them, and respond to almost none of it. This is not because of disinterest, but mathematics. With two jobs and a business, there is only so much I can accomplish in the two hours after my three children go to sleep.
At best I occasionally skim what I receive. Sometimes something catches my eye, such as a message I received a few weeks ago. It relates to a question I have been turning over in my mind lately. Here is the first paragraph:
“I was going to read WHEN YOU WALK INTO THE VALLEY, but when I read the sentence: ‘I have this vague sense that I have it better than women.’ I immediately stopped. You have a “vague sense” of the many benefits that men have over women in America. If you are that unaware I have no faith in your perception of life in America.”
While it may seem unrelated, this message lies at the heart of a difficult question I have been pondering: What does it mean to be a writer in the digital age?
Before the mathematics became apparent, I attempted to read all of my correspondence. Being a bit of a numbers geek, I even compiled various statistics. Two are most interesting.
Statistic #1: Of the men who write, 80 percent correct me.
Men will point out some flaw or perceived logical error and any further communication will increasingly focus on that specific detail to the exclusion of the essay’s main thesis. Even when they agree with me, men will often point out an error. I am sure I do this too. It is rather embarrassing to see it so plainly.
Statistic #2: Of all the people who write to me, 80 percent are women.
In fact, most of the people who write to me are specifically white Christian women who are generally engaged in making positive change. They also consistently use a particular phrasing, illustrated by this actual quote: “I have this vague sense that I have it better than you, but I was hoping you would help me know what to do about it.”
Writers write for an intended audience. The more focused that topic, the more focused the audience needs to be. It makes little sense to write about the joys of barbecuing pork if your intended audience includes those who eat halal. After compiling these statistics I shifted the intended audience of my essays on race to focus on white, Christian women.
One day, while responding to one of these women, I decided that my carefully crafted message would benefit the rest of my intended audience. And so became an essay titled, When You Walk Into That Valley.
The story of Krakatoa. The creation of reflective street paint. A woman playing cello to an empty room. Unconnected stories from childhood tied with one unifying thread: The phrase, “Read to completion, then review.” As a child, I read many such stories. I remember one about salmon and marvelled at the tiny fry who, years later, returned full-grown, fed by a world of which the river is only distantly aware.
Writing does not really belong to the writer any more than salmon belong to the river. We set our writing free and it enters a vast ocean of thought, returning to us imbued with meaning by a world of which we, the writer, are only distantly aware. As a child, “Read to completion, then review” would elicit groans, the expectation of boring passages and pointless questions. I eventually understood that I bring enough to the reading of a story that the writer’s intent could wash over me like water over a stone. The real point of those lessons was to separate what I brought from what the author intended. To find those subtle points I missed on first pass. To fully comprehend what I had read.
Is Reading Comprehension still taught in school? If so I do not envy the teachers. The practice of reading comprehension assumes the practice of writing as a craft, that the story is worth finishing, that the author had intent beyond a mouse click. If there is one thing social media has given us it is the listicle. We revel in The Rant. We have turned from thoughtful consideration to hastily typed condemnations of people who think differently from us, in which the conclusion is so disconnected from the sloppily constructed opening statement that the narrative arc resembles the thoughts of a slightly tipsy teenager flipping past channels on late-night television.
One of those stories I read as a child was about a cellist. Practice builds muscle memory, she said. Sloppy practice leads to sloppy performance. For every piece of music she played to others, she spent hundreds of hours playing it to an empty room.
Many people believe anyone out of grade school can write. That is true, in the sense that anyone out of grade school can also pick up a cello and make sounds. I believe that writing is a craft, however, and I practise it as such. I am no Yo-Yo Ma, admittedly, but I do practise with intent. Practice builds muscle memory, but I do not expect anyone to read my practising. Most of what I write is music played to an empty notebook. I may spend a week crafting a single sentence to ensure that the tone and the cultural reference of “late-night television” illustrate my age without being so disconnected from the realities of modern digital media that it draws the reader away from the narrative arc.
I begin every piece with the assumption the reader will finish it, and so I write with the conclusion in sight. I am a tour guide, of sorts, leading the reader down choice passageways to view specific monuments on their way to a destination which, while it may be unexpected, must always be inevitable. Without the conclusion, the scenes become arbitrary moments of disconnected thought. Random two-word phrases imbued with foreign meaning.
But to many, writing is not a craft. And all writing, it seems, is deemed equal. On social media, the listicles and rants are given the stature of the crafted and considered. I respect what blogs and sites like Medium attempt, I admire the opening of boundaries of voice. But we have devalued practice in favour of a perceived openness. Would music be as valuable to us if Yo-Yo Ma were placed as equal to someone who, having just picked up a cello, found they could make sounds? Would we be just as likely to walk out of one performance as the other, assuming they were as likely to be equally bad as equally good?
When You Walk Into That Valley was an essay I wrote for white, Christian women. I tried to craft passages that would resonate with that audience and I remembered a response I wrote years ago to a white woman living in Rwanda: “We live in a vast landscape of privilege, I am just as much called to task for my sexism as a white woman for her racism.”
When writing that essay, I wanted to place myself side by side with those women because we are together on a journey. We focus on different peaks, perhaps, but we stare at the same vista. And so I crafted a single paragraph of three messages I had received from women. Here is that paragraph. I have quoted each phrase and put the original wording in parentheses.
For instance, “I don’t know what it’s like to be [a woman] (Black)”, and “I have this vague sense that I have it better than [women] (you).” “If my actions contribute to that, what better way than to ask [women] (Black people) to teach me what to do, right?”
When this person wrote to denounce my language, they could not have known that “vague sense” was an intentional phrase, exact words from correspondence used to align myself with my white, female reader. Also, they could not have known I edited out a description of that paragraph because it drew the reader from the narrative arc. But neither did they perform the due diligence of finishing the piece and separating what they brought from what I intended. They, in other words, chose to not comprehend what they read. In fact, they assumed they needn’t finish it at all.
And herein lies the core of this question I have been struggling with.
For an unknown writer, I receive quite a lot of correspondence from readers. I admit I read very little of what people write to me, and I respond to almost none of it. This is due to mathematics, true, but also due to the unfortunate nature of our digital age: The fact that so few people actually read.
By far the most dominant media of our age is social media. Social media demands content, and the most ubiquitous form of content is the comment. Without comments, social media cannot exist as it would be, simply, “media”. The large companies who make money from our attention and our information need us to comment. More comments equate to more attention and thus more money.
This has seeped into our everyday culture, mostly because social media dominates our everyday culture. Reading, it would seem, is no longer fundamental. Commenting, however, is absolutely necessary.
Thus my question: What does it mean to be a writer in a time when people will not bother to finish your piece, but will still take the time to hunt down your email address and construct a long and angry response to you about the piece they did not actually read? What does it mean to be a writer when our entire culture values hasty comments over reading comprehension?
Maybe I am just too old. Maybe narrative is dead. Maybe the essay is outdated and writing should be nothing more than a short prompt to elicit comments. This is the question I have been pondering lately. I am sure someone will write to tell me what the answer is.
Of course, I probably won’t have time to read that answer.
Which I guess is fine, since they will probably write the answer without bothering to comprehend the question.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.