Information Sheet #53
March 19, 1991
The Visibility of Prose
[This essay was written for Topics in Composition last fall by Tom Messer, who is currently a freshman at Coe.]
At first, writing was invisible. That may seem strange considering that the way most people read and write is by looking at it. At least, when I was really young, I was too clueless to notice it. Back then, writing was the way to answer questions when I wasn't allowed to use a number or a single word. I remember that having to write your answers in complete sentences was something that only cruel and unusual teachers required. As time went on, the number of teachers of that type in my life increased. Or else, especially cruel teachers might ask me to do a report, but that was just putting down ideas as they came. I wrote stories, too, but that was the same sort of thing. All there was to do was to put one of the hundreds of adventures that went on in my head onto paper. In those early years, I think that what was most important about writing was what gets done with it: reading.
I read a lot when I was in grade school and junior high, but writing remained largely invisible to me. Books were not filled with writing, but rather, ideas, thoughts, stories, and people. The words on each page were merely the way that my mind could be given something to imagine. Books were as valid a way as movies, television, or storytelling. In fact, storytelling was a favorite because often visually reading the words in a book was the only tie that held my imagination to the "real" world.
The concept of authorship was rather fuzzy to me then. I knew who wrote some of my favorite books (at least for fiction, nonfiction did not even have authors, it just existed), but their names were just an attribute of the book. I knew that the Tom Swift books that I loved were by Victor Appleton, and that the Last Legionary series was by Douglas Hill, but I never thought of men named Appleton or Hill sitting down and writing. That wasn't important. What was important was Tom Swift and his spaceship The Excedra. Or Keill Randor and his quest to avenge the dead Legionaries of Moros. How was I to know that somewhere at a typewriter, wracking his brains was a writer?
I didn't. I had always loved books, but I had little idea of what writing is, at least from the writer's perspective, until I tried my hand at it.
In high school, writing suddenly ceased to be short answers and reports, and the essay came into being. At first, it was rather new and interesting, but it later became a mixed blessing. The newness of essay writing and the idea of purposely constructing phrases, sentences, and even whole arguments was attractive to me. From the start, I enjoyed attempting to use words in effective ways. But later, essays could become a chore, as they were often about topics that didn't interest me. When I didn't care about the topic, I found myself merely playing with the words, trying to come up with good sentences, rarely producing anything worthwhile. But when I was interested in a subject, essay writing was enjoyable.
My attitude toward writing changed dramatically when I took a creative writing course in high school. Somewhere in the process of my education, at least as far as English classes go, I fell in love with the short story. Even though some of the magic of writing is gone, now I know that I don't have to be a magician to write.
Since I learned to like writing essays, and I loved reading fiction, it seemed only natural to try writing fiction. I was taken by Edgar Allan Poe's definition of the short story, and enjoyed Ray Bradbury's writing, my favorite of which is The Martian Chronicles, a book of short stories. Writers such as these added a new dimension to my appreciation of writing as I began to look at the use of language as well as the stories themselves.
When I tried to write stories of my own, I began to understand the difficulty and the labor involved in creating short stories. Because this form is limited in length, its content is more important, so everything included must be there for a purpose. Sometimes I think such a requirement exists only to condemn my efforts. These attempts to write have greatly changed the way that I look at the books I read now. Stories and novels no longer exist of their own accord, as it once seemed. Now, I admire the deliberate crafting that goes into a good piece of fiction. This has given me, in some ways, a greater appreciation for the books that I like.
Writing, however, has now ceased to be invisible, and at times it seems to even cloud my vision of what I read. It is harder for me to simply read a book and love it for the tale, not the telling. Sometimes, instead of allowing my imagination to run free with the images given to me from a book, I get caught up in the wording and the sentences--what is on the page rather than in my mind. When that happens, I lose sight of what I have always loved most, the story. Though I can now enjoy writing from a new perspective, the purity of storytelling as I used to know it is gone. It has become more art and less magic. Now when I read, it requires more of a conscious effort to allow myself to be taken in by the illusion the author attempts to create. In that respect, I have lost my innocence with regards to writing, but in the end more has been opened up to me. Now that writing has become so visible, I am afforded the opportunity to try my hand at it. Even though some of the magic of writing is gone, now I know that I don't have to be a magician to write.
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