Socrates dismisses writing as having no legitimacy and being nothing more than an aide to memory, but no more. Of course, I spent half my time at a school that has more writers than ‘The Odyssey’ has ‘e’s. (Sure…we’ll go with that.) So when I say that writing isn’t as ‘real’ as the spoken word, I get yelled at. But I say it, and I believe it.
It is said that we live in a written culture and that the oral (or aural?) world no longer exists, but I beg to differ. In fact, I would say that I live, at least partially, in an oral/aural culture. Being in the jazz world, sound is more important than writing. In fact, writing is inaccurate and every transcription or handout I’ve ever given or received has had the disclaimer that “all rhythms are approximate” since nothing can compare to the ‘spoken’ (instrumental) word.
(A fun ‘case-study’, shall we call it, to prove my point. I’ve been in Jazz classes where music is played, with no visual aids, handouts, or professorial interruption, for 20 minutes, and everyone is intently listening, hanging on every note. I’ve also been in a liberal arts class, about radio, where there have been 20 uninterrupted minutes of audio – both spoken word and instrumental, and of the 17 people in class, I was the only one hanging on every word. This is highly unscientific and could have other factors, too, but for now, I’ll go with the aural/oral-culture vs. written-culture thing.)
But back to where I was going with this…to me, writing isn’t as ‘real’ as the spoken word. What do I mean by this? Well, there are some things I won’t say aloud, but have no problem writing, either in email, instant message, hand written letter (or note in class), that I will not say aloud. And it has nothing to do with being embarrassed by the words. It is a sense of real.
As long as it’s on paper, to me, it is still in my control. Sure, it could be posted on my website or my blog, but once I say it vocally, it’s out in the air, free for the world to take.
Yes sound dies quickly and the written word can be read over and over again, but there’s something about the malleability that the written word has that makes it less scary to me. This is what I mean when I say it isn’t as ‘real’ as the spoken word.
In the music world, this principle is a driving force, at least personally. I guess that’s why I’m a composer. As a composer, I can shape and fix and reform ideas and sentences over and over and decide exactly what I want to come out. But when an improviser says what he says, it is out there. Yes, improvisers (I am one of those, too, but not as much as I used to be…hell, I essentially gave up the instrument seriously over a year ago) practice hard at their craft to make sure that they can say whatever they want to say when they are called upon to say it, but it is a lot more raw and, frankly, scary.
I realize I may have just illegitimated my own craft, which I work so hard at, by essentially calling myself a musical wimp, but it was to illustrate my point – and I am not sure that I would disagree with one who calls me a wimp for being a composer. In fact, I’d probably be the first to call myself a wimp.
As a high school student, I was a speech-geek, on my competitive speaking team, doing extemporaneous speech. Essentially, I would pick a question out of an envelope, and then I had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speech which I would then recite (no notes in front of me) in front of judges, doing my best to answer the question. Is this more legitimate of an art than, say, writing a 5-page essay answering the same question? It certainly is more candid and there is less of a chance of me stealing my words from elsewhere, since I wouldn’t have time to do enough research to steal…perhaps…
But let’s compare the old-style Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates to today’s. Yes those were highly prepared and the candidates were well-informed (I am speaking specifically about Lincoln and Douglas, not necessarily those who have come after), but they did not have speeches prepared. They listened and actually responded to what the other candidate said. Now? Regardless of the question, you get the feeling that the candidates are reading off a cheat-sheet prepared by a speech writer and a staff of unpaid interns and underpaid assistants, and there is no response whatsoever to what was actually said.
And if I had the desire to watch unedited clips of the Bush/Kerry debates, I’d be able to find great examples and post them to youtube…but I don’t have that kind of time or desire…
So this is written. You have all read it. And yet, as far as I’m concerned, it holds less legitimacy than had I extemporaneously said the same thing aloud and not been able to recall a word of what I had said.
Maybe it’s the thought that sound travels like light – in waves – and that light continues to travel even after the stars from which the light originates are dead, and I like to think that the best speech I gave in 10th grade is starting to reach some other solar-system right now, and someone else can enjoy my wit and candor, and that my senior recital from the NEC prep graduation may one day be captured and enjoyed on a planet we cannot fathom. If so, I hope they’re gentle; it wasn’t that great of a show.