On Writing: An Abecedarian
the first manifestations of human art, even if the
meaning behind such commentary has been lost,
and may always remain so.
Alphabet. As notes score music, so the alphabet scores speech. Letters are notes for the music of language, and this explains two archaic practices that once mystified me. Until the Middle Ages scribes didnotseparatewords. (Punctuation had yet to be invented.) And originally readers read out loud, never silently. I now see how reading words is like reading music.
Book. I love a beautiful book. I love the feel of the pages as I turn them, the weight of the book in my hands. I love French flaps and deckle edges. I love book terms: foredge, foot, spine, head, headband, endpaper, flyleaf, pastedown, colophon, frontispiece, bastard title, font, the finials of fonts, type box, gutter. I hold in my hands a book, Uruk: The First City of the Ancient World. Its pages made of coated stock are large and heavy and smooth as silk. Its endpapers show a map of Uruk, located in present-day southern Iraq, city walls still plainly visible. The book is illustrated with photographs of excavated temples and statues and clay tablets inscribed with the world’s first writing. (Or, one of the first. Recent excavations have revealed early Egyptian writing contemporary with it. See ahead.) Uruk, the book, contains words composed by what may have been the world’s first named author, the high priestess Enheduanna. She wrote 4,200 years ago during a time of warfare and crisis. Enheduanna’s words praise the goddess Inanna, divine ruler of the city of Uruk:
Let it be known that you are greatly exalted like heaven!
Let it be known that you are immeasurably vast like the earth!
Enheduanna was certainly a powerful woman, but evidence that she was an author may be in doubt. See The Sumerians by Paul Collins.
Complete Writing. Steven Roger Fischer, in his book A History of Writing, defines “complete writing” as that which 1) must have communication as its purpose; 2) must consist of artificial graphic marks on a surface; and 3) must use marks that relate to conventional speech. “Complete writing,” then, is only a small part of the many meaningful marks made by our ancestors, including notches—cut lines—used as mnemonics as far back as Homo erectus.
Writing has another definition: visible speech. Speech that can be seen may include signs that do not involve “artificial graphic marks on a surface.” Such as the elaborate system of knotted ropes (khipu) used by the ancient Incas to communicate.
Diary. To write daily in a diary is to commune with the self. Is diary writing, then, a form of communication? It’s as if the self were two or more persons that had something to say to one another. How are you feeling today? What’s on your agenda? What’s happening, dear writer? Who and how are your beloveds? What’s in the here of here and what’s in the now of now?
I’ve never comprehended how those who do not keep a diary or journal can imagine the extent of their thoughts or feelings, their imaginings or dreams or deliberations or doldrums or delights. A diary is a friend to whom all things may be spoken.
English. I am monolingual, swimming in English, trapped in English, struggling to escape English by studying French. My progress is poor, but the door is open. To be inside the cathedral of a language is to be inside a particular view of the world. In French you don’t say “My name is Priscilla.” You say “Je m’appelle Priscilla” (“I call myself Priscilla”). Less fixed, more active. You don’t say “my hands,” you say “les mains” (the hands). Different ways of saying, different ways of seeing.
Fire. Books burn. Especially books made of the inner bark of the wild fig tree. These were the codices (old-style books) of Mayan civilization. In 1562, a Catholic priest, Diego de Landa, was assigned to “inflict Catholicism on the Mayan people,” in the words of Susan Orlean in The Library Book. Landa caused the torture and murder of numerous Mayans and burned most of their books. He wrote that these books contained “lies of the devil, and we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction” (quoted in Ambivalent Conquests by Inga Clendinnen, second edition). Only four Mayan codices remain.
Gods. Our species, Homo sapiens, is about 200,000 years old. A young, young species. And we are the only species to pay homage or pray to gods or goddesses or god. Our near relatives, the chimpanzees, for instance, do no such thing. When, in our existence as a species, did gods come to be part of it? When did the Sumerian goddess of writing, Nidaba, come into being? She must have arrived on the scene about when cuneiform appeared, between five and six thousand years ago. Nidaba originated as a grain goddess, but as Sumer became more urban, she changed occupations. She was widely worshipped, and Sumerian literary texts frequently end with “Praise be to Nidaba!”
And what of the Egyptian god of writing, Thoth, in the words of Fischer: “ibis-headed scribe of the gods, healer, lord of all wisdom, and patron of scholars”?
Handwriting. There is the feel of paper on fingertip, silken or soft or textured with a laid finish. A notebook can be pocket-sized or extra big as in the bulky blank book in which I now keep my journal. This Big Book is 13 inches tall, 11 inches wide, 2 inches fat. A two-page spread opens to 22 inches wide. So, room enough. In the notebook, of whatever size, you can practice making letters, drawing letters. You can write sideways or slantwise or in circles. You can draw pictures next to your words. You can dream, you can cross out words, write them again, begin again. You are free, at liberty. This is the quiet, intimate space of composition. By comparison, the keyboard is a corporate office machine.
Invisible. My need to write is compulsive, addictive, all-consuming. I am currently filling my 324th journal, and I have filled numerous other notebooks as well. Do we need to write because, although we may be shy and reclusive, we need to be recognized? As a child in school I was called “twin” (my twin sister was also called “twin”). I was quiet, and no one paid much attention to me. Am I a writer because I desire to be seen, to be remembered? To leave a record of my existence? Four thousand years ago, an Egyptian scribe wrote, “A man has perished and his body has become earth. All his relatives have crumbled to dust. It is writing that makes him remembered” (quoted in Fischer).
Jerome. Saint Jerome lived from 347–420 CE. Within the Catholic Church he is considered patron saint of archaeologists, biblical scholars, librarians, students, and translators. There exist hundreds of paintings of Saint Jerome, including paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giovanni Bellini. Almost invariably Saint Jerome is shown reading a book or leaning over his desk, writing. He was a prolific writer and is best known for translating the bible into Latin (the Vulgate Bible). For our concerns, though, Saint Jerome is most important for seeing the importance of punctuation. He devised a kind of punctuation, where before there was none. He stuck the beginnings of phrases out into the margins. In this way you could tell what words went together, when to take a breath.
Knots. Khipu (Quechuan, quipu). These were elaborate records made with knotted cords by the ancient Incas of Peru. There was a horizontal cord (sometimes wood) from which depended other cords. as many as a thousand or fifteen hundred. The suspended cords (pendants) were elaborately knotted with different kinds and colors and spacings of knots. Many khipu were organized on the decimal system, working like a rope abacus. They recorded the movement of goods, labor, and services over the immense Inca empire. In the 1500s, a Spanish chronicler, Martin de Murua, recorded this account of a khipu archive:
Thus the accountants have great heaps . . . of these strings, in the form of registries . . . and should anyone want to know something, they have to do no more than go to one of the Quipucamayoc [khipu keepers] and ask him how much this thing was, or which Inca made this law, [or] who conquered such and such a province, [or] who were his captains, [or] in which year was it dry and which fertile, [or] when were there pestilence and wars, [or] when did certain Indians rebel, [or] when did a certain volcano erupt, [or] when did a certain river flood and destroy the fields? Then, the accountant would take up his cords and give them a reading/interpretation . . . without making a single mistake (translated and quoted by Gary Urton).
Some particular knots and colors may have represented place names—specifying where this khipu came from. And something—so far, we know not what—must have identified objects being counted. If certain colors or forms of knots represented words, then, under the definition visible speech, khipu was writing.
Library. The smell of old books, their glue and embossed covers and sewn bindings. The weight of a fat book in your hand as you turn the page. The silence seeming to emanate from rows and stacks of books. The rustling of another patron pulling down a book, opening it, turning its pages.
Harvard University’s Widener Library. Although I was unaffiliated with Harvard, I spent years in the stacks of Widener. A friend who was a professor enabled my access by making me one of his “research assistants.” I did nothing for him but researched year after year a history of coal mining in the United States while working at my day job as a printer. Widener Library is named for a son, an avid reader who went down with the Titanic. It opened in 1915. It has fifty miles of shelves and contains more than three million volumes. Here was a row of technical manuals on how to mine coal dating from the 1860s and 1870s. Here was every issue of The Miner’s Magazine and The Workingman’s Advocate. Here I would get all choked up over forgotten coal mine disasters and then again thrill to new discoveries found in old documents, old books. Treasures sitting quietly, sometimes for decades, waiting to be opened once again.
Mesopotamia. In Mesopotamia, the region located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, writing emerged around 3,300 BCE. The language was Sumerian, the script cuneiform. It emerged in the context of one of the world’s first cities, Uruk, situated near the Euphrates. Sumerian is what is known as an isolate language, the only one of its kind. Its antecedents are unknown, and it died rather than evolve into some later language. The land, known as Sumer, was made up of city states (Uruk and Ur are the best known) and produced the world’s first epic poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is unknown where the people of Sumer came from. Their writing grew out of the increasingly complex record-keeping demands on a growing elite in Uruk. The earliest texts include not only records of trade and tribute, but also lexicons—lists of words to be practiced by student scribes. In later times, to 2300 BCE, Sumerian texts included inscriptions and incantations as well as private correspondence.
Came the Akkadians, who were Semitic, who gradually dominated the land, who learned Sumerian but also began writing the Akkadian language in cuneiform script. Gilgamesh was a semi-mythic king of Uruk (he appears on the Sumerian List of Kings) but the Sumerian oral epic was written down in cuneiform in Akkadian. Gradually, over the centuries the Sumerians were swamped out, or assimilated, by the Akkadians. Sumerian, the spoken language, vanished about four thousand years ago. It has no surviving descendants or relatives.
No-No Boy. John Okada was a writer. He wrote the novel No-No Boy, published in 1957. Okada died of a heart attack at age 47. After his death, a second novel, which he had brought to some sort of draft, was burned.
No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, age 25. The year is 1947, the place, Seattle. My city. Following the end of World War II, Ichiro returns home. He has not been to war but instead has spent two years in prison following two years in an internment camp. Before that he had been a university student. He was sent to prison for having said no to joining the army and no to loyalty to the United States, the country of his birth, the country that forced his West Coast family into an internment camp during the war, due to their Japanese ancestry. Ichiro returns to Seattle to a mentally ill mother who believes that Japan won the war—in her view the newspapers are lying about the Allied victory. He returns to an alcoholic father. He returns to Seattle’s Japantown, to a community that fears and scorns him, to a brother who won’t speak to him. On his way home, he runs into a former classmate who spits on him.
The author, John Okada, was no no-no boy; Okada served in the army. He struggled to write his novel in the 1950s, after his day job as a librarian. It was published, but hardly anybody read it. The few reviewers panned it. The Japanese American community wanted no part of it. John Okada was a writer with no readers.
Now that he is long gone, his novel has become a classic of American literature. It reveals a world that I, for one, had no access to. Even though I’m well acquainted with America’s racist internment of West Coast persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Even though I’ve walked—seventy years later—the dingy, rundown Seattle streets that Ichiro Yamada walked. But the shattered and emotionally conflicted world of this Asian American community after the war, the lived experience of it, was entirely closed to me until I read No-No Boy.
In reading you become the character. You experience his discouragement, his self-loathing, his strivings, the kindness that eventually comes to him. This is what writing does. This is what reading does. It allows you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to live in somebody else’s world.
I have put No-No Boy on my personal list of the one hundred best books read in a lifetime.
Origins. We have cuneiform, origin Sumer. We have Linear A, on the island Crete, which records speech sounds from a now-lost language, and on which Linear B, an early Greek dialect, is somewhat based. We have Egyptian hieroglyphs. We have Chinese, which originated in crack marks in burnt bones and turtle shells that scribes used for divination. We have, in Mesoamerica, Olmec writing, the first on the continent, undeciphered. We have the colossal Olmec heads with their downturned mouths. We have Olmec influence on subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations including the great Maya civilization. In Breaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe writes: “at a given level of social and political evolution, different societies around the globe arrive at very similar solutions to similar problems, in this case, the need by early state societies to compile permanent, visual records of impermanent, spoken language.”
Coe would not have agreed with the view of Steven Roger Fischer in his History of Writing: “Having been practiced in Mesopotamia and points east for some two thousand years, the idea of complete writing diffused from there to north-Central China, where, due to the demands of the Chinese language, writing went on to assume its unique East Asian cast.” Fischer comments on the similarities between Chinese and Mesoamerican writing. Both occur in vertical columns read from top to bottom. Both use compound “glyph blocks” containing two or more sounds, most of which are logosyllabic: the signs stand for morphemes—not sounds but the minimum sign denoting a meaning. Fischer speculates—there’s no evidence—that ancient Chinese vessels may have been carried north by the Kuroshio current, which flows strongly north, and then driven east by the westerlies from the Far East to California and then south to Mexico. This is what happened to Spanish galleons centuries later. It is thus conceivable that Chinese exerted an influence on Mesoamerican writing around 700 BCE.
But it is more likely that Chinese did not exert an influence on Mesoamerican writing. The Olmec “were the first to put together what we know as Mesoamerican culture,” writes Michael D. Coe, and their civilization was “in full flower” by 1200 BCE. Their earliest writing found so far dates to about 650 BCE. The Olmec lived on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Fischer’s lost sailors would have had to be literate—how likely is that? They would have had to be carrying some sort of written document, each produced by hand in the centuries before printing—how likely is that? And having landed on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico, they would have had to traverse the 200 miles across the peninsula to the Olmec side—this idea is beginning to sound far-fetched.
What of Egyptian hieroglyphics? Did they arise independently from cuneiform (there are no overlapping marks or symbols)? Or, via cultural diffusion carried by traders, was the idea of representing spoken speech with signs brought to Egypt from Sumer? The Sumerian language was monosyllabic; perhaps that enabled Sumerians to develop the rebus—signs that represented, not whole words, not ideas or objects or names, but sounds, such as a drawing of an eye to represent “I.” Fischer writes that it was the rebus that Sumerians gave to the Egyptians—and to the rest of the world.
But new discoveries of ever-older writing are overwriting old conclusions. The discovery, in 1988, of what is known as the U-j tomb in Abydos, Egypt, included finds of the earliest Egyptian writing, done around 3250 BCE. This was the tomb of an elite ruler, and the writing—on ceramic vessels, seal impressions, and miniature ivory labels —depicts typical African (not Sumerian) fauna. It’s dated to near the time of the earliest Sumerian writing and supports the idea of the independent development of writing in Egypt.
Page. A blank page in an open notebook or sketchbook is a quiet invitation to write or to draw. It’s a space in which to articulate, and, “articulation,” writes Edward Hirsch in How to Read a Poem, “gratifies, and the act of making is itself a great consolation.”
Quality of Attention. The internet provides quick information: In three seconds I ascertain the meaning of quiddity—the inherent nature or essence of someone or something. I ascertain that on this day, February 9, 2019 CE, there are snowstorm warnings across the state of Washington. I listen to a beautiful, sad story, “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury, sent to me instantly on email by a friend, read to me by Leonard Nimoy on YouTube. I go to Facebook to check up on my nieces and nephews.
All good. But the digitization of our lives is causing a rapid deterioration of the quality of our attention. This includes the quality of my attention. And although I am quite digitized, I am less digitized than many others. Persons in their twenties, according to a study by Time, Inc., check their cell phone on an average of 150 to 190 times per day. Reading online, we read as many words as we did before. But, according to Maryanne Wolf’s alarming book Reader, Come Home, we are reading by “skimming, skipping, and browsing” in an atmosphere of constant distraction. And, if we compose mainly online, this becomes the way we write—multitasking, skimming, skipping, browsing. Distraction is changing our brains, our very ability to read quietly, to read longer sentences, longer passages, to contemplate. The average memory span of many adults, Wolf reports, has diminished by 50 percent over the past decade.
The solution is not to eschew the digital world—a silly, impossible idea—but to reserve time daily to read quietly a printed book. And writers: A notebook made of paper cannot ding you or email you or provide you with an escape hatch into the morass of distraction and trivia that is the internet.
Reading. Reading, as Alberto Manguel elaborates in his book A History of Reading, came before writing. Ancient astronomers read the stars. Ancient hunters read animal tracks. Ancient diviners read the guts of sacrificed animals. Even today, reading is not entirely about reading writing. Farmers read the sky to ascertain the weather. Card players read the faces of their opponents. Lovers read each other’s faces. All these readers “attribute meaning to a system of signs and then decipher it” (Manguel). Still, the best part of reading is reading books. Books written by writers.
Spaces. Literature creates spaces—rooms, towns, landscapes, worlds. There are literary spaces a reader can enter and get lost in. A book holds a world, and it is also a means of transportation to past worlds, to places far away. Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies, imagines a painting in which a woman sits on a garden bench with a book in her lap, gazing into the distance. She is “planted in one reality, the garden setting, while adrift in the spell of another.” Books allow us to drift in the space of a reality different from the one we are reading in.
Tombstone. Text message carved on an old New England tombstone:
Death is a debt to nature due
which I have paid and so must you.
Unknown. The ancient Minoans on the island of Crete began writing between 1950 and 1700 BCE. They used two scripts, likely representing two languages, one hieroglyphic and the other dubbed Linear A. This according to L. Vance Watrous in his book Minoan Crete. Linear A eventually replaced the hieroglyphic script. Linear A was the writing and language of the great trading center Knossos. The Minoans were seafaring people. Traders. They made brightly colored pottery and jewelry and painted frescoes on the walls. Literacy was fairly widespread; tablets and other inscribed objects have been found in excavated houses all across Crete. Many of the deities portrayed are female. Women, Watrous writes, played elevated roles in Minoan society.
What happened to Minoan civilization? It was no doubt weakened by the eruption of the volcano on the nearby island of Thera. This catastrophe occurred at some still-debated time around 1600 BCE. The volcano ejected four times as much material as did the volcano on Krakatoa in 1883 CE. Its tsunami devastated ships and coastal towns and weakened Knossos. Eventually, Mycenaeans, a more militaristic people from the southern peninsula of mainland Greece, took over Crete and developed Linear A into Linear B, an early form of Greek. The language spoken and written by the Minoans remains unknown.
Vatic. Vatic, pertaining to prophecy, from the Latin vates, seer. Chinese writing originated in vatical concerns. The original Chinese scribes, working in the 14th century BCE, were master diviners. To divine they would apply a hot brand to cattle bones or to tortoise shells. The heat would crack the bones, and the scribes would read the crack lines in answer to questions asked. They would then engrave the date and purpose of the ceremony next to the magic cracks. Later would come the great Chinese poets Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei . . .
Writing. Writing widens the space for individual feeling, for paradoxical emotion, for self-integration, for second thoughts, for confession (Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem). Writing allows you to discover what you are thinking and feeling, what you believe, what you remember. By writing you can elegize or rhapsodize or argue with yourself or with another.
X, Malcolm. Malcolm X illustrates the near-miraculous transformation that can occur in a person’s progress from illiteracy to literacy. As he recounts in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in prison, doing time for a life of hustling and robbery, he found that he did not know enough words to read a book. He did not know most words. He admired a certain articulate fellow inmate and, in emulation, tried to read, but it was, he said, like reading Chinese. He could barely write. He thought if he could get a dictionary and some tablets to write on, along with pencils, he could learn a few words.
The prison school supplied a dictionary. He said, “I’d never realized so many words existed!”
After two days of rifling through the dictionary in amazement, he began copying the first page “down to the punctuation marks.” This took a day. Then he read the page back to himself, over and over again. He went on to copying down and reading out loud every page in the dictionary. He began reading books, many books. He joined the debate club. He became Malcolm X.
Yesternight. Language is always in flux, always changing, morphing, moving. Words are added; words drop away. Words shift in meaning to mirror the world: digitize used to mean to manipulate with the fingers. But what about yesternight—meaning last night—last used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1888? What was it that caused yesternight to disappear while yesterday stayed in common use?
Z. The letter z (in British English, zed) is the last or twenty-sixth letter of the alphabet. So we are back to the alphabet. So, how did we get this alphabet, this z?
Egyptian hieroglyphs had signs, used as part of the hieroglyph, that stood for a consonant. Gradually Egyptian scribes reduced some of their writing to using consonants only. One sign for one sound. This did not supersede hieroglyphic writing but happened alongside it as early as 2000 BCE. Semitic trading partners and guest workers in Egypt took this alphabetic idea back to Canaan (Israel/Palestine) into their own languages. The north Semitic Phoenicians, descendants of the Canaanites, used a consonantal alphabet. Phoenicia was located in today’s Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel. “All ancient North Semitic scripts,” writes Fischer, “Phoenician, Canaanite, Aramaic—represent consonantal alphabets with fewer than 30 letters.” From Aramaic came both Hebrew and Arabic with their consonantal alphabets. The Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet, but Greek had many more vowel sounds and lacked some Phoenician sounds. The Greeks turned into vowels Phoenician consonants that had no corresponding Greek sounds. The Greeks completed the alphabet we know today.
The z, though, is a directly borrowed north Semitic (Phoenician) consonant. As is our entire twenty-six-letter alphabet. We have a Semitic alphabet, which was modified by the ancient Greeks.