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Write on : The George Mason Review

Write on : The George Mason Review

I recently had the privilege of helping welcome a revived and enthusiastic student commitment to The George Mason Review, dedicated to student writing. The Review will publish annually, but with online contributions periodically. It’s backed by a talented and dedicated student group with various faculty support.

My comments drew one suggestion that I convert them to a blog. All right, the suggestion came from someone who reports to me, but that does not mean that she’s unperceptive. Ironically, in brief remarks about writing, I had not written them down, but here’s a reconstitution:

First, it’s a privilege to participate in this event. I welcome the relaunch of the Review and the constructive efforts that have gone into its planning and the several initial contributions. This will enhance the cultural climate of the University and the breadth of the undergraduate experience.

I often have occasion to greet groups, and while I always wish to add something interesting, it’s not always possible. Recently I helped kick off a conference on drought observation and forecasting, and I wracked my brain for something to say beyond a sincere welcome to the University. Alas, all I could come up with, beyond the hello, was to note that it was raining.

In this case, I can do a bit more. I want to offer two kinds of thoughts about writing. The first is personal: I write a lot, and the process has become second nature to me. And it’s a privilege — a privilege to find this way to express oneself, a privilege to discover audiences (if sometimes small) besides relatives and teachers, willing to read the results. Of course, it’s sometimes a painful process: not everything comes out smoothly; there’s often not enough time. I find the most challenging aspect simply realizing that one has to get a thought down on paper, that there’s no comfort until that’s done — but then the satisfaction can be correspondingly considerable.

The second thought has to do with what writing is for: The discovery of writing was surely motivated by a desire to improve memory and memorialization. Granting that oral societies have better memories than we develop, it’s still a great advantage to be able to record a property arrangement or a formula (one of our earliest records of Sumerian writing is simply a recipe for beer). This advantage, of course, persists even with our vast expansion of recoding opportunities. It quickly became apparent that writing also has the advantage of carrying communication over wide geographical spaces. Again, we have amplified this quality, but the need persists.

Ultimately, however, the key gains writing brings involve persuasiveness and stimulus to thought. Writers face some obvious disadvantages compared to oral communicators: one does not see the audience; one cannot use voice modulations or facial expressions. Instead, one has to use style, even beauty, and while this probably took a while to realize (initial literary efforts, after all, were mere transcriptions of oral compositions) it now inheres in the genre. Beyond this, as Walter Ong claims in his studies of orality and literacy, writing has the supreme advantage of helping to both organize and stimulate thought. It invites reflection and critical appraisal more than any other form of communication.

So, as we launch the new Review: build the record, disseminate over geographical space, be beautiful, and help us all think more clearly. It’s a great mission.