Daily Dojo

What Writing Be?

So let’s rap a little bit about writing, shall we?

I had promised I’d discuss my latest venture into fiction, the differences between fiction writing and writing for the stage and screen, all that jazz.

But before I do that, we need to clarify terms, if only for the edification of this particular column. Before we can talk about the difference between alternative forms of writing, we need to agree, at least for the duration of this post, on what writing actually IS.

Just by saying that, I know that’s quite possibly a can of worms in and of itself. Folks get mighty defensive, me as much as anyone, when one tries to definitively state what something ABSOLUTELY IS, especially if that something happens to be an art form of a sorts.

So before I do that very thing, a couple of caveats.


Nothing is absolute, except life and death itself (and even then, many have their doubts about both.) All life and all that life touches is fluid, which means it’s subject to change as it evolves. Yes, I believe in evolution, and if you get a flu shot every winter, so do you, whether you want to admit it to yourself or not.

But there is a identifable constant to fluidity and change - how absolute the constant is, I could not say. I can only say I know it’s there because I’ve experienced it. Which leads us to . . .


What follows is strictly my own subjective experience and opinion, nothing more, nothing less. It’s what I’ve gotten from the work I’ve done the past twelve, fourteen years and like everything else, subject to CHANGE (that damn evolution rearing its ugly head again).

The writer I am today is in no way the same writer I was five years ago, and vastly different from the guy ten years ago. Therefore, in ten years I probably will have new discoveries and offerings to share. One hopes, anyhow.

I’m also a writer who, though very experienced, with no formal training, everything I’ve picked up is from books and personal experience on the job, so to speak, and pearls of wisdom from elders (writers more experienced than I who have been good enough to share, like this guy) given to me here and there.

Okay. That’s out of the way.

Now to the big question . . .

What Writing Be?

That is the question . . .

In the simplest terms, writing is communication.

To which, the sardonic slacker in the back row of class (which was usually ME, might I add) would go “Duh!”

But it is that. Now only that, but it is that to begin with.

Of course, we communicate every day, we say Hi to our neighbor, say Scat to a stray cat in our garbage and Boo and Hiss loudly whenever Karl Rove’s name comes up. Is that writing?

Nope. But it could be. Get it? In other words, it wasn’t then, but it is now. It might not be that tomorrow, but could be the day after that. Got it?

“Wait,” You say. I get it. If it’s WRITTEN DOWN, it’s writing. Yeah?


And . . . No.

The Slacker in the back (me, years ago) shakes his head in frustration.

See how hard this is? Okay, wait. Let’s back up.

Writing is communication.

What does writing communicate and how is it different from other forms of communication?

Okay, we can do this. I can think of at least three constants that writing communicates.

One: Information

We see this every day.

Wife leaves a note for you, “pick up toilet paper.” Traffic sign says, “no left turn.” Graffiti on the wall of the men’s room says, “Don’t eat the big white mint,” and headlines in the newspaper tell us that there are “Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq!”

Get the point? We’re not judging the content of the information, whether it’s true or false, it’s information. It’s hard to imagine writing in some form or fashion that does not contain information.

Two: Ideas

Originally I had ideas and information together, and realized that I needed to separate them, if only because ideas are so very important. But defining IDEA is hard, it truly is. Webster’s definition of IDEA is as follows:

1 a : a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations b : a standard of perfection : IDEAL c : a plan for action : DESIGN
2 archaic : a visible representation of a conception : a replica of a pattern
3 a obsolete : an image recalled by memory b : an indefinite or unformed conception c : an entity (as a thought, concept, sensation, or image) actually or potentially present to consciousness
4 : a formulated thought or opinion
5 : whatever is known or supposed about something (a child’s idea of time)
6 : the central meaning or chief end of a particular action or situation

I guess that’s the point, an IDEA can be a lot of things, it could be defined as the POINT or GOAL of the information, the reason for sharing it.

The writing in the men’s room that says “Don’t eat the big white mint,” offers up two ideas, one being that it’s not a good idea to eat anything sitting in the urinal, and the other being yes, there are guys that drunk and stupid who might do that very thing (see Jackass, TV show and film).

Could be simple information, one plus one equals two, could be a complex breakdown of the strand of DNA belonging to a Rheus Monkey, or a scathing critique of Frazen’s THE CORRECTIONS. It’s hard, for any of us, to think of any writing that does not communicate any idea at all, even if that idea is old and recycled and false (see Rove, Karl, and also Iraq WMD’s, above), it’s still an idea.

More importantly, in a way, it deals with information UNSEEN, when you think about it.

If, for example, you walk into a toilet and see a sign that reads: “THIS IS A TOILET,” it’s still information, but there’s hardly an idea behind that. You can see for yourself that you are in a toilet.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you walk into a toilet and see a sign that reads: “THIS WASN’T ALWAYS A TOILET,” then there is an idea there. It makes you consider, what was this toilet before it was a toilet?

What if the sign read: “THIS WON’T ALWAYS BE A TOILET!”

An idea is a trigger, it triggers the mind to see that which is not there, but perhaps used to be there or will be there, someday.

I believe it’s an integral part of writing. It’s especially important when it comes to the arts, be it fiction or non-fiction, that’s where you’re creating thoughts. Information shares what is known . . . ideas create information from the known and unknown to form something wholly new.

There’s power there. The idea behind the resurrection, in the bible, is very powerful. Powerful enough that some silly people will kill over it.

Ideas can be that strong.

Think about the ideas behind some of your favorite books . . . they’re there, right? The idea behind THE DA VINCI CODE was very powerful (but not original, I’d read the same hypothesis in a non-fiction book, HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL, years earlier . . . granted, Brown managed to combine the idea with story it in such a way to get it out there to a wide audience, but other authors got there first, including fiction author Lewis Purdue) so powerful that people couldn’t help but talk about it.

Or plays or movies . . . let’s try THE MATRIX, for just one example . . . the idea that we’re all slaves to some unknown corporate machine is very powerful, as is the idea that, if we free our minds, our bodies will follow . . . I’m simplifying it, of course . . . but is that not part of the idea behind that movie?

In fact, that movie has its forebearance in Patrick Henry’s “GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH” pamphlet* which, in turn, spurred the call for the American Revolution.

Yes, the surge of popularity of the printing press in the American Colonies helped spread the idea that we could all be free . . .

Everything communicates . . . dogs howl, birds sing and crickets chirp. We are all thinking creatures in a sense, but what separates people from the other creatures on earth is HOW we think . . . the ability to create something out of the unseen and make it reality . . . the IDEAS behind those thoughts, IDEAS and thoughts that led us out of caves and into condo’s, into airplanes and into space.

Our thoughts and ideas are quite powerful. Those ideas led us to writing, writing was invented so we could communicate our ideas to people we could not see or talk to.

Ideas have power. String those ideas together correctly . . . and you could quite possibly have a revolution.

Three: Emotions.

We, the people, are creatures not just of thought but also of emotions.

In fact, emotions take precedence over ideas for most of us. We make choices based on how we feel. We make laws and war based on how we feel. We also march for peace based on how we feel (though I like to think that there are strong ideas behind that last one).

This is especially important in the arts, but not unimportant in other areas of writing (see Henry, Patrick, above) - the goal of communication for many of us is not only to inform but to move.

Express yourself . . . with writing, not only can you TELL someone what you are feeling (I am really pissed off about our corrupt government!) you can show it (FUCK THIS CROOKED ADMINISTRATION!) with your words. Check out blogs and you’ll see many a fine example of this, or step into any library.

Really, why do you read books?

To be moved, right?

Isn’t that why most of us do anything?

We attend a basketball game to feel the excitement, go to an opera to cry at the tragedy (which one can ALSO do at either a Knicks or a Clippers game, right Ken?) and see a stand-up comedian or watch MY NAME IS EARL in order to laugh.

Ideas can move us (see Henry, Patrick, above) and so can information (see Gonzales, Alberto, and lying to Congress, anywhere on the net) but also just plain emotion can move us.

Love between Rhett and Scarlett? Romeo and Juliet? Lennie and George in OF MINE AND MEN?

We are creatures of very complex emotions . . . just as our thoughts and ideas have surpassed all other creatures, so, too, do our emotions. We can CREATE emotions out of thoughts, ideas and communication . . .

Ideas can have emotions. Information can have it. Or not.

Add to that the POWER that words have (more on that on a later date) on their very own, even a very simple story can evoke powerful emotions, thoughts and images.

As an example, I cite the famous six-word story, whom I heard attributed to Hemingway:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”

Which may be the best short story ever written.

So to sum up:

Writing is communication.

Writing communicates:

1) Information
2) Ideas
3) Emotions

Notice I didn’t put in imagination in there anywhere. Imagination is how the author puts all of the above together.

Good writing has at least one of the items above, though I recommend involving all three if at all possible.

A lot of writers focus on one over the other, author Michael Crichton places great importance on ideas . . . sometimes to the detriment of characters. Pat Conroy is a very emotional writer who wears his heart on his sleeve but sometimes gets a little silly, and James A. Michener was all about the details and information, baby, and almost nothing else.

Me? I believe it works best when all three are fully employed.

Which leads us to our last and final point.

In addition to the above, writing is ONE other thing entirely.


It is an experience to read something, and it’s that experience that separates it from other forms of communication.

First of all, writing doesn’t necessarily mean words written down, as I mentioned above.

You can, as anyone who has ever read THE FAR SIDE can attest, communicate with images and not words and convey the same information as above.

Musicians write music, which does much of the same.

First off, it’s a second person communication, if that’s a proper definition (if it ain’t, then I just invented it). The author is communicating with you, but the author isn’t speaking to you, you have to read it. Or hear it read.

It’s true, someone who doesn’t even know how to read can experience writing, just by listening to it read.

Even in an audio book, it’s not really the person reading the book who is communicating with you, but rather the person who authored the words.

But it’s how a man or woman who died long ago can still affect you, just by reading a book.

Is not Jane Austin still communicating with you, when you read her work? Or James Joyce, or Samuel Becket?

The experience, or rather, the exposure of writing (which is primarily, but not limited to, reading) is what separates it from other forms of communication, even those that also communicate information, emotions and ideas (like music for example) and it’s the experience of writing that I plan to chat about at length with you on future posts.

That experience is the difference between bad to good, good to great, great to excellent. It is the ever-changing constant I’m kind of obsessed with.

That’s what I hope to discusss over the next few weeks.

These are all just my musings . . . if you have anything to add, please do so . . . life is, after all, fluid and subject to change.

More to come . . .

*Unk points out, in the comments below, that my example of Patrick Henry’s Treason Speech doesn’t hold water, and that Henry’s COMMON SENSE pamphlet is more apripros . . . I cede his point and rather than change it above, I decided to mark it as example, showing that it’s always good to listen to those more experienced and that no one, especially me, is perfect (or absolute) . . . this is a fluid process, that damned evolution thing again, but I do believe my point was valid though my example was flawed . . . and I will take credit for the big white mint joke . . . jj

9 Responses to “ What Writing Be?”

  1. Unk Says:

    Whew… Glad you clarified terms… LOL.

    Geez… I haven’t had a flu shot since the 4th grade. I believe that there are some absolutes in life besides that and death…

    But that’s just me.

    The “Give me liberty or give me death!” pamphlet was actually Patrick Henry’s closing words in a speech he gave to the Virginia House of Burgesses March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.

    I only mention this because I’m also a stickler for absolutes like this… LOL.

    And, being the “Tongue of the Revolution” that he was, we certainly don’t want Patrick turning over in his grave especially when Playwright Joshua James certainly meant no disrespect.

    Ahhh. I feel better now… Change is good.

    Just JOSHING you, Josh… LOL.


    Great fuckin’ post!


  2. Just JOSHING Josh… Get it? » The Unknown Screenwriter Says:

    […] I know he’ll be stopping by to get his own JOSHING in but really… A great post by regular COMMENTER, Playwright Joshua James over at his Daily Dojo. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been up for another couple of days… Maybe it’s the fact that I’m still UP right now… Maybe it’s the fact that I couldn’t help but get my own JOSHING in… But really, read the post… Then absorb it throughout the day. […]

  3. Joshua James Says:

    Henry’s speech was printed up and passed around however, wasn’t it? Don’t make me break out my copy of Zinn and read that shit again, dude! It was hard enough the first time around . . . but pretty sure it was printed up as “leftist propoganda” as O’Reilly might say.

    Seriously, thanks for swinging by!

  4. Unk Says:

    Ahhh… But even if it were a pamphlet like COMMON SENSE, which came first? And, what’s he best known for? The speech or a pamphlet.

    I’m betting my beer and jalapeno peppers substituted for cheese nachos that it was the speech… But yeah, I believe it was later known and called THE TREASON SPEECH.


  5. Joshua James Says:

    Unk, you really don’t sleep, do you? Isn’t it like, five in the morning where you are in the desert - LOL!

    You’re right, but which one had more power, the speech or the pamphlet? Which one reached more people, the speech or the pamplet?

    Which one came first is moot, as that I’m talking about the experience and / or power of the writing . . . allegedly God spoke to Mose thru a burning bush, which happened before some guy wrote that down, but the power is in the writing and who it reached.

    You’re right to cite COMMON SENSE, of course, but the TREASON SPEECH was also a pamphlet, if I recall (I’m really reluctant to yank down my Zinn, it’s a big book) and you have to admit, the pamphlet’s had more impact than any speech . . . because more people saw those rather than the speech.

    Great example is the Macacca moment, Allen, George . . . if not for Youtube, it’d be just one of many boneheaded racist things . . . youtube brought it to the people and the people responded.

    That’s not writing, that’s something else, but the metaphor is the same . . . I wasn’t necessarily talking about originality (referring to which came first) but the experience of writing (rather, reading of writing) and the effect it has . . .

    Bet that beer, babe!

  6. Unk Says:

    Whew… Just woke up. Not actually in the desert this week… But next week? LOL.

    I don’t have a big book to look it up so for ONCE, I’ll go ahead and rely on Wikipedia…

    From the following page:

    Wikipedia on Patrick Henry

    Which says:

    Henry is perhaps best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, urging that legislature to take military action against the encroaching British military force. The House was deeply divided, but was very much leaning toward not committing troops. As Henry stood in Saint John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, he ended his speech with his most famous words:

    “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

    The crowd jumped up and shouted “To Arms! To Arms!”. This speech is credited by some with single-handedly delivering the Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War. Problematically, the text of this speech did not appear in print until 1817, in the biography Life and Character of Patrick Henry by William Wirt.

    Sounds accurate to me… But what do I know?


  7. Joshua James Says:

    Okay, okay, I tap out - LOL!

  8. The Writers Buzz » Blog Excerpt - What Writing Be? Says:

    […] Playwright Joshua James is the author of The Men’s Room and Tallboy Walkin, as well as the co-founder of The Defiant Ones. Read more of his post, What Writing Be? at Daily Dojo Share and Enjoy:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  9. The Writers Buzz / What Writing Be? Says:

    […] Read more of Joshua James’s article at his Daily Dojo blog. […]

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