Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Writing (the first of many related posts I'm sure)

It's taken me three days to write one sentence. And no, not this sentence (and by that I mean the previous one), but the opening sentence to a white paper I'm writing at work. I've been struggling with its composition, tone, and message. I've looked to other papers for ideas. I've deleted nearly ten drafts of it. And, for the sake of full disclosure, as of this moment I still have not completed the sentence in question.

I find myself questioning the decision to take this job quite often - usually around 4:00 in the afternoon on weekdays, as the late-fall sun sets over Chelsea and my caffeine levels drop - and it wasn't until just moments ago that I was able to understand both the reason and the answer. The source of my frustration is actually the reason I know I'm learning: it's taken me three days to write one sentence.

I don't write about software or business continuity - or about most of my job for that matter - because I enjoy these things specifically, but because the process of writing itself gives me a thrill. I'm a certified control-freak, and the idea that I get to represent any part of our world in permanent ink gives me a (probably unhealthy) amount of satisfaction. (And as I write that, I ask whether I might be refering to the physical permanence of print media or the digital permanence of the internet.)

Our control of language is just as exciting as the control that languages exert over us. In writing, I routinely confront (either accepting or overcoming) the limitations that our languages place on the expression of thought and experience. And I learn new languages to see what limitations change accross borders of translation. I can't translate awkward out of English, but I can't translate unheimlich out of German either. I like that there are limits, and that some words or constructions have more of an effect than others.

When reading Strunk and White curtly dismiss the use of "utilize" in The Elements of Style, I smile. I've never liked that word. And when reading their criticism of my common errors, I quietly judge myself, take note, and do my best to remember them next time I'm crafting a sentence.

And while the art of writing is certainly a craft, it's not a craft that should (or can?) ever be entirely mastered. I don't think we'll ever run out of experiences to represent on paper - or on iphone screens for that matter - and humans are (thankfully) prone to errors.

What are some of my errors? Overusing parentheses. And writing this post instead of that one sentence.

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