Can we figure out a 'unified theory of writing'?

During the years of research leading up to my next book, "How To Write Short," I have read countless short works, texts that span the history of writing itself. Turns out that Steve Jobs did not invent the tablet, folks, unless he led a previous life as a Sumerian.

So, yes, I have looked at the content of those cuneiform messages written with a stylus onto clay. And I have read a googol blog posts, text messages and tweets. The arc of my research spans the earliest written messages to the most recent: the once and future language.

That perspective — across epochs of communication and information — has led me to this surprising conclusion: that while technologies and forms of delivery change, the content and rhetorical strategies designed to express that content remain the same.

It just so happens that during this research on short writing, I also have been dabbling in cosmology, the science of the universe, and the theories of mathematics and physics behind it. Just this week, big news has broken about new data on the so-called Higgs boson, controversially called the “God particle,” a subatomic particle that could help us understand how matter — in all of its manifestations — came into being.

I became fascinated by the notion that if you collided enough particles at high enough speeds, you would be able to detect evidence of something real but invisible and indescribable. That idea in physics began to intrude into my thinking about language. In short, I wondered if the energy and matter created by a writer came from something so small that it could not be directly examined, but only inferred from its effects.

I am speaking analogically or metaphorically, of course; there is no phoneme collider under the Alps ready to reveal the secrets of style, rhetoric, news judgment or literary meaning. In essence, I have become the collider.

The words bump into each other through my eyes, ears and memory. In my work on short texts, fewer words collide, leading me down to a subatomic level of language. At a macro-level, the language forces I seek to measure are at work in a thousand-word novel. But they also work at the sentence level, at the phrase level, sometimes inside a word, sometimes inside part of a word.

The secret knowledge I seek, I now believe, is embodied by and embedded in the number two. Just as two defines the information coding of computer science and genetics, two has become in my mind the essential number to create meaning in all texts, most visibly in short texts:

Jesus wept.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Is it possible to examine the effects of these combinations of words so closely that they would reveal a unified theory of language and literature — with a few writing tips along the way?

Let’s begin with the “Jesus wept” effect, arguably among the shortest, most memorable, and most powerful sentences in gospel literature. The context is the news that the cousin of Jesus, Lazarus,  has died. Jesus will raise him from the dead, of course, a foreshadowing of his own resurrection. But that act of divine power is preceded by one of deep human vulnerability. One cousin dies. Another weeps. In that sense, “Jesus wept” can be seen as the narrative expression of a theological doctrine centuries in the making: the idea of the God/Man, the dual nature of the Christ.

I am no linguist, but I can understand an essential two-ness in how meaning is created, expressed by the collision of subject and verb. “Jesus wept.”

Let’s move to a very different type of savior: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Lest you dismiss this creation of screenwriter and director Joss Whedon as lacking high seriousness, know that it has been the subject of more scholarly attention than any similar work of popular culture.

Until Buffy came along, vampire hunters in film and literature were older men, usually doctors or scientists, with serious names like Van Helsing. Instead, we are given a blonde high school girl from Southern California, with a name associated with the empty-headedness of the Valley beach and galleria culture. Watch any of the more than 150 episodes and you come to realize that the entire narrative is contained in the homunculus of that name and title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I am back to a metaphor of collision and energy. To make meaning, especially in literature, requires a bit of rub between the elements. No rub, no friction. No friction, no heat. No heat, no light. No light, no illumination, no seeing, no understanding, no meaning.

Let’s play this out in a longer phrase, attributed to the young boxer Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I could argue that these eight words form one of the greatest catch phrases in the history of sports.

The most obvious expression of two-ness in this sentence can be found in its parallel clauses. At first glance, they look perfectly parallel:

Float = sting

like a = like a

butterfly = bee

But while the patterns seem to repeat syntactically — imperative verb --> simile marker --> noun for insect — the power of the language, the punch, comes from the friction between the parallel elements. In pugilism, the traditional figures were either boxers or punchers. Among the greatest, of course, were men who could combine dancing footwork and defense with knockout power: fighters who could float and sting.

Butterfly and bee, at first glance, are marked by their similarities. They alliterate; both are nouns that describe insects; both are objects of the preposition; both are second terms in a simile. But I feel a rub, which has at least four sources:

  • Length (three syllables vs. one)
  • Poetics (flow vs. stop)
  • Semantics (you try to catch one, but run from the other)
  • Connotation (something beautiful vs. something that could cause anaphylaxis)

On the macro level of language and literature, you can always catch me chatting about the encompassing power of three, the sense of a whole that comes from beginning, middle, and end.

I now think that my attention to three may have been myopic. Now I have another lens —I'm biopic! — that sees the more fundamental effects of two. We may have the analytical skills to slice a long work into several parts. But when we seek the sources of energy, again and again it seems to resolve itself to two.

In a story, it’s Robert McKee’s inciting incident colliding with the safe patterns of daily life; in news, it’s a radical variation from the norm: Man bites dog.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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