July 13, 2021•1,110 words
Never asked myself before how I would define what writing is, or what a word is. Chiang does it in such a simple way that is also spectacular as a definition. His way of writing doesn't cease to impress me, both in terms of clarity and complexity, he manages to elaborate stories that are beautiful, captivating, thought provoking.
“It is an art that we Europeans know. When a man speaks, we make marks on the paper. When another man looks at the paper later, he sees the marks and knows what sounds the first man made. In that way the second man can hear what the first man said.”
"You could not find the places where words began and ended by listening."
"Jijingi realized that, if he thought hard about it, he was now able to identify the words when people spoke in an ordinary conversation. The sounds that came from a person’s mouth hadn’t changed, but he understood them differently; he was aware of the pieces from which the whole was made. He himself had been speaking in words all along. He just hadn’t known it until now."
I've always been interested in a meta aspect of writing, approaching writing as almost a meditative state. How amazing it is to think that what you're writing, what is coming out of your head, going through your fingers is making a mark on a paper, on the world, on a word processor that transforms pushing of a letter into data available for people to see and read. How amazing it is that I can move ideas and someone else will read them and get a glimpse, maybe, of who am I in this exact moment. How amazing that I can do the same with words that were written decades ago.
"You looked at the marks as if you were walking down a row, made the sound each mark indicated, and you would find yourself speaking what the original person had said."
Writing two parallel stories, one about writing and one about memory, both seem to be far away in time. One probably on a city, the other one on the countryside. What they have in common is: we want to remember, and maybe we write to remember, but later on Chiang will question it too. Do we really want to remember everything? Do we really understand written stories in the same way as an oral story?
"When Kokwa told the story, he didn’t merely use words; he used the sound of his voice, the movement of his hands, the light in his eyes. He told you the story with his whole body, and you understood it the same way. None of that was captured on paper; only the bare words could be written down. And reading just the words gave you only a hint of the experience of listening to Kokwa himself"
Maybe writing is not about memory, it is not necessarily about transferring information from one person to another. And I agree with him, writing is thinking, as I write these words I realize how what I want to say and what I'm saying help me clarify my thoughts. Also help me to remember, but more than remembering the story I will remember the feeling of sitting down, paying attention to what I'm reading and trying to convey my opinions with words.
"Writing was not just a way to record what someone said; it could help you decide what you would say before you said it. And words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate."
This section of my blog is about reading and writing, because from reading I get the pleasure and from writing I get the clarity. What I like about my writing here is that this is not a condensed version of the book, this is not meant to convey exactly what the story said. As Chiang says "full of facts but devoid of feeling", this is exactly the opposite. Filled with feeling, devoid of facts.
"People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. (...) Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn."
Wondering about what we chose to remember and what builds our personality. But what if that wasn't true? What if we trick ourselves and remembering only a portion, we shape our personality in somehow a wrong way acting as it was the only truth. But even if we could remember everything, if we had the technological devices to remember, is it that the only way in which we build our personalities?
"Earlier I said that the details we choose to remember are a reflection of our personalities. What did it say about me that I put those words in Nicole’s mouth instead of mine?"
"We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound."
The two stories ended up being linked in a refined way. I'm completely biased in how much I enjoy reading Chiang and I won't spoil the ending if you happen to read this far and decide you want to read the story (you should). Chiang reminds me of my favorite short story authors, Cortázar and Borges, the ending of a story reveals and opens up a world that you haven't imagined so far and makes you remember the feeling even better than the words. What any piece of writing should do and what the most amazing authors always do; they make you feel.
"We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves."
As another detail of meta writing that funny enough refers to my own exercise of writing about this story, this next quote sums up what I just did. Reconstruct a story while telling another, become a less faithful Pierre Menard.
"But in my choice of which details to include and which to omit, perhaps I have just constructed another story."