Friday, August 13, 2021

Between Writing and Speaking

Why do I write?

I don’t really know.  I do so, sporadically, secretly and typically in solitude.  My output alternately artful and amateurish, but never without ardour for the form itself.  After all, words are such a versatile ingredient, and in the kitchen of my imagination I relish experimenting with the most outlandish combinations possible.  A tasty mystery, their infinite variations of colour, style and complexity allure me with their ability to anger, inspire and arouse.

James Patrik Between Writing and Speaking

However, writing and speaking, while superficially, may seem like common bedfellows but the differences are numerous. 

First and foremost is the element of choice – most of us choose to read, either reflexively or not.  Nestled within this ability is another – that of being able to understand written language itself.  Words make themselves apparent to us a million ways every day, often in the most pedestrian of situations.  Warning signs, food labels, street names and instructions.  These utilitarian words simply “are” and exist only for the conveyance of information.  In tone and delivery, they care not for our feelings or whether or not we subscribe to the ideas they espouse.  Medical reports, exam results, witness statements – all such genres present themselves to us plainly.

Then there are the words we chose to read for pleasure.  Correspondence, love letters and works of fiction both short and long.  These words - arranged in the proper order by a suitably qualified individual - have the ability to transport us from the awful mundanity of our lives to some other more preferable destination.  Such expert wielders of words have held many titles throughout history – a contemporary novelist no different in function to a witch with an incantation.

Of course, the written word can be just as potent when the element of choice is removed.  It’s at this critical juncture that words transform themselves into labels and insults - able to be lobbed vengefully at another person like a clump of wet dirt.  Most people can easily conjure a handful of such words fairly effortlessly.  With their serrated edges, such terms can inflict significant damage to the recipient, and are thusly, rightly expunged from the lexicon.

Written words also carry connotation – an emotional component attached to the use of said word, either good or bad.  This linguistic baggage implores us to use our words considerately, to take heed of how they might be absorbed by those around us.  Lover.  Disabled.  Invited.  How do you feel when you hear these words?

I bring to mind the writer’s process of composing, re-reading and editing – like a recipe being adjusted after each attempt.  Wracked with self-doubt and an honest desire to creatively self-express he or she will tentatively share the fruits of their labour with friends in the hope of garnering praise and adulation - or at the very least - modulated opinion.

So, I ask myself again, why do I write?  Not because I am inherently creative or objectively skilled, but because I am confused.  I write to find purpose.  I write to find therapy and relief from my infuriating, vomit inducing anxiety.  In black and white, my words sit stately on my computer screen composed of trillions of tiny pixels.  As they and their brethren reach forward through time, I have less and less control over how they will be interpreted by any future person who might intercept them.  Their terrifying potential for immortality is an even greater motivation to execute my expression exactly.

Why do I speak?

To ask for what I want, to convey my feelings and ideas and to make an audible sound.  Why then in this particular realm of human communication do I find myself so ill equipped?  So often saying the wrong thing?  When compared to the writer, the speaker is a wild oaf – a clumsy house-guest possessing neither grace or decorum.  If the written word is indeed a finely calibrated tool, then its audible analogue is a bludgeon.  It is as scalpel is to sledgehammer.

Unlike the writer, the speaker need not wait for feedback, as it is often immediate.  The effects of his or her words written plainly upon the faces of their recipients.  Words are short order cooking, conjured spontaneously in the moment with only the paper-thin pretences of decency to prevent us from uttering something catastrophically stupid.

The element of choice plays a role here too, as we can either be talked “to”, or talked “at”.  Who cannot relate to the experience of a harsh word drifting ominously toward our general direction? There it sits at our feet – uninvited – yet able to expertly corrode our self-esteem. 

Equally universal is the scenario of the discourteous dinner guest, spewing words so inappropriate that they are unbelievable.  “I can’t believe he said that!” we gasp through breathless offence, or some other similar idiom connoting disbelief at a poorly timed or acidic remark.  This is one of the truest pitfalls of words – they cannot be taken back, be undone, recovered, deleted or retrieved.  They are sound waves, traversing space and time.  When it becomes apparent that our words have caused some damage, our solution is to issue forth even more words – a socially sanctioned ritual called an apology.

Spoken words also mean the quality of the sound itself – a person’s voice.  Whether rich in timbre, tone, tinny, loud, smoky or of irritating pitch our voices are the unique noise each of us is capable of producing.  Like a sonic fingerprint, each voice is special and capable of evoking colourful emotions.

But it is not merely enough to be able to make noise – most animals have that ability.  Speaking with another person is a transactional exchange, a dance requiring a willing partner of requisite skill.

Our voices change during puberty, prompting us to reconsider our sonic signature, to use our voices more carefully.  Others take a less considered approach, preferring to speak profusely rather than precisely.  Motivated by vanity (or perhaps a fear they will suddenly wink out of existence), they speak only to fill silence and say nothing of any substance at all.

To hear a conversation from the outside is to hear musicians plying their trade, each one exhibiting their relative skill (or lack thereof).  Symphonic or cacophonic, the orchestra of conversation is only as pleasant as the skill of its greatest musician.

Whether written or spoken aloud, words become the threads that knit together the fabric of our lives.  I wonder whether spoken words are merely the three-dimensional renderings of the things I write, or something more – something ephemeral and still outside the bounds of human perception.  At the intersection between writing and speaking lies a third thing – invisible but nonetheless essential.


Thoughts which build our reality, and in their infinite quality allow me to write about my words and speak about my writing.

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins