Writers Journey: Writing is Ancient

Writing is an ancient pursuit; in fact ‘writing’ existed before we wrote at all.  Stories have been a constant companion to human beings since before recorded history.  Before we had reason and science we had stories and when there was something we didn’t understand we strove to acknowledge it somehow through telling a story about it.  Stories are also a way to remember what is important.  It’s important as a writer to set aside all personal ambition for a moment and really stop and consider the history of the art of words.  We take words for granted so much today.  Nearly everyone can speak, and a lot of people can write.  Today it’s easy to push aside the veneration that writing, that story-telling in particular, deserves.

Even an examination of language will confirm that language itself is special, even sacred.  Ancient Hebrew did not contain vowels.  It was conjectured that one possible reason for this omission was to preserve the sanctity of what was being written down for those initiated into its secrets.  If vowels are the ‘breath’ of words, then omitting them stole breath from those trying to read without understanding.  And when we look into the history of language itself, we begin to see in these examples just how important language was and still is today.  Consequently, if this fascinated you then I recommend reading David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world.  It’s an exploration of language throughout history and reveals more fascinating insights into language itself.

When I talk with most aspiring young writers today, their main ambition in writing is to become famous first, and published as a byproduct of that fame.  Never mind the fact that fame itself is such a double-edged sword and a very uncomfortable experience, as well as being a difficult position to maintain at all today with any consistency; the reality is that most writers I meet have very little understanding or appreciation of the history of writing itself.  Who has started their career as a novelist by reading Homer (beyond school), or dug into Ovid, Virgil, or any other really ancient saga stories? Reading forward from ancient history into Shakespeare, onward into T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, and watching the progress of story evolve is vital to understanding what you’re doing with this art. Artists learn art history for the same reason. But at many writing conferences, I hear the same advice to young writers again and again: read your contemporaries. As if there is nothing to learn from old, dead poets and storytellers and this is really a shame.

I balked actually when I realized I had to go back to the beginning and really read works of fiction that seemed as dusty and dry as a Latin textbook. As a writer, it may be strange to admit it, but I don’t like reading at all. I like writing. And I was highly resistant to having to read up ‘on everything.’ I thought I’d never do it justice. But upon reading study guides to ancient epics, I realized that they were meant to be listened to aloud. They were recited from memory!  Hundreds of thousands of words memorized by poets in the ancient days and recited at festivals. I got an audio book and listened to The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid and others. And there was beauty in listening to ten or fifteen minutes at a time, for that was all my modern sound-byte ears could handle at first. I found that I could knit and listen longer.

For my slow efforts, I was gifted with writing tricks of the most ancient and venerable kind.  I will not share them with you, dear reader, for this is to encourage you to go do likewise.  But more than just filling my writing toolbox with tricks from Homer and Virgil, I could feel a connection within.  These were my ancestors – maybe not ancestors of blood and land – they were my ‘kinsmen of the shelf’ as Emily Dickinson would say. And in taking time to listen to them, I was honoring my lineage as a novelist and poet. I could say I studied Homer or Virgil and feel a small bit of pride there.  Not a smug pride of intellectual superiority, but a pride of belonging. This is the pride that must have been the heart of Dickinson’s phrase ‘kinsmen of the shelf,’ too.

So study language. Study ancient verse and epic tales. You will need these in such an overrun marketplace filled with many competitors at the publishing houses. You will need advantages but more than that, you need to be connected with the long line of your literary ancestors.


Meditation for your journal: Have you read any ancient stories since graduating from school? What is your resistance to doing this? Work with that resistance. Finally, who are your ‘kinsmen of the shelf?’