Why I Write
Published February 12, 2021
I have the writing bug. Don’t worry, it’s not communicable (pun intended), at least I don’t think it is. But I’ve got it real bad.
I do not write for money (unfortunately) or vainglory (note the first part of that word). If I am to be honest, I write for two principal reasons: to be able to finish a thought uninterrupted and to learn.
I come from and married into large families. We talk a lot. Sometimes to, sometimes with, sometimes at, each other. Interruptions are frequent and often part of the fun. I personally think in a very linear fashion and, because of my legal training, I tend to build to a point, laying out my evidence along the way. Some in my family and friend groups think laterally (and sometimes even circularly). As a result, I am often frustrated in my attempt to make a point. I’m not particularly fond of being frustrated.
I’ve noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to my personal circle. Gone are the days of Huntley and Brinkley, of Cronkite, Murrow, Russert, Chancellor and Mudd -- thoughtful, respectful, probing questioners and listeners who sought in their interviews of guests to elicit information and insights that would help their audience make sense of the chaos that is the natural state of the world around us. Their modern-day “successors” in the world of “news” interrupt their guests constantly, with abandon and sometimes malice, often with their own opinions or non sequiturs that serve only to prevent the guest from making a complete reply, frustrating any attempt to provide the audience with the benefit of the guest’s presence on their program. Some of these once-respected programs now seem nothing more than a verbal tennis game (or bar fight).
And to top it off, they are no longer even informative. Growing up, my concept of news was the professional delivery of reliable information that we as citizens of this country and of this world either needed to know or should know in order to live our lives as best we could, protecting our personal, physical and economic security and the great liberties we’ve been bequeathed by our Constitution and our forebears. Newspapers and broadcast media separated their news and editorial content completely and visibly: newspapers had their “editorial page” and broadcast media had “commentary” or “opinion shows.” Entertainment was completely separate.
Today what passes as the professional news media offering is almost purely opinion, structured as entertainment, dressed in the hallowed (and now hollow) costume of news. Even worse, it does not even try to disguise the fact that entertainment value (as measured in ratings) is the media’s new holy grail. Entertainment and controversy drive readership and viewership, which drive ratings, which encourages advertising spend, which drives corporate revenues, which drives stock prices, which drives financial market attention, which drives further investment, which befits the top media executives, which then validates their focus on entertainment and controversy. A vicious circle if ever there was one. It thus is no wonder that we are saturated day in and day out with pontificating pundits, pandering politicians, pugilistic promoters of pious poppycock, and just plain pandemonium. Noise. All noise. Shakespeare would have called it “A tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I personally want to hear what others think. I want “true facts” that I can rely on. I want to make up my own mind about what I see and hear. I am not a mindless adherent to any view or position, political or otherwise. I and many others have had the benefit of education intended to make us critical thinkers, masters of our own mind. I do (and I believe we all should) resist the attempts by the media or anyone else to tell me what to think or to confine the breadth of my views to a box of their labeling.
I said that I write to learn. I mean this in two ways. First, I have found that the practice of putting one’s thoughts down on paper forces them to have structure, and often reveals connections one had not appreciated before. There is an old saying: “Do not engage your mouth until you have put your brain in gear.” All too often, that happens in conversation. It is impossible in writing. Writing forces you to be thoughtful, to make your case with clarity and precision. When done well, it makes it easy for your audience to see, taste, feel, understand exactly what you mean to convey. It respects the audience by being mindful of their time and attention. Sometimes, I do not fully understand what I think about something until I have reduced it to writing.
Second, I feel that writers should always offer their audience something new: an insight, a piece of information, a story. The internet is a wonderful tool in this regard. Often, when searching for the right word or looking for the perfect image or quote, I find something new and unexpected. That process of learning enriches my life and sometimes helps me do the same for others.
We live currently in difficult times. The “culture of interruption, confusion and distraction” described above has birthed today’s “cancellation culture” which seeks to stifle speech and impose orthodoxy on thought through bullying means inconceivable in the past. While the means are different (the enforcers today are corporate entities and social media outlets and platforms), the basic concern is not. In Whitney v. California (1927), Justice Brandeis wrote, in reference to the Founders:
They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth: that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law – the argument of force in its worst form. … If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
“The remedy to be applied is more speech.” Writing is speech, perhaps speech in its most effective form. The written word allows for full, complete communication in exactly the form intended by the writer. It exists physically (or electronically), available always to be taken up and read. Anyone who has been taught to read and write can be a writer. I believe that we need more speech, more exchange of information and views. Let’s move away from the recent “battle of personalities” and back to the more productive practice of the “clash of ideas.” Take up a pen (or computer keyboard, or simply ask Siri to take dictation) and join me in this form of the exercise of a freedom so foundationally fundamental to our future happiness, the pursuit of which has animated this great nation for over two centuries.