Last week’s issue of The Habit had a typo in the subject line. THE SUBJECT LINE! “A New Way to Grow as a Writers,” it read. A typo in a subject line is painful in any case, but given the fact that the whole purpose of the email was to announce Field Notes for Writers, my new subscription-based model for online writing courses—well, the phrase “dark night of the soul” comes to mind. Almost none of you have mocked me to my face, however, and for that I am grateful.
I’ve been telling myself what I would tell anybody in the same situation: typographical errors happen to us all; it's nothing to get too exercised about. Still, I’ve been thinking all week about why that phrase, “A New Way to Grow as a Writers” is so bothersome. It is bothersome in the way that the phrase 2+3=6 is bothersome.
We human beings crave symmetry and harmony and balance. We can tolerate discord, but only for so long: we want resolution.
The equal sign in the middle of a math equation is a kind of promise. It says, Whatever the complexity that appears to the left of this sign, I can show you a simpler, more comprehensible equivalent to the right of this sign.
The equal sign is also a commentary on the powers of the human mind. It says, The world is a complicated place with an impossible number of variations. But watch what happens when the human mind goes to work on it: Symmetry. Order. Harmony.
When you see that an equal sign has not kept its promise, you feel the inequality as unresolved discord, just as surely as you feel it when a piece of music fails to resolve. That is to say, the trouble you feel when you see 2+3=6 is aesthetic trouble, not just cerebral trouble.
Like the equal sign, every sentence makes a number of promises. At every level, writing promises to bring order out of chaos. At the grammatical level, for instance, subjects align with their verbs, pronouns align with their antecedents, articles align with their nouns. Such alignment reassures the reader that the writer is indeed bringing order and balance and harmony to the chaos of human thought. Misalignment at this level disorients the reader. “A New Way to Grow as a Writers” gives you a similar feeling to the feeling you get when you look at glasses with one square frame and one round frame. It feels as if somebody is failing to keep some unspoken promise.
But I’m not just talking about grammar. At every level, writing says to the reader, This world may seem disjointed and chaotic and incomprehensible, but there are unities here, and order, and though there are things we will never know, there is plenty here that we can know and understand.
Metaphor and simile, for instance, say Look at these two things you thought were completely different. See? In a few ways, at least, they are very much alike. There is unity in this diversity.
In storytelling, we so so often say, Here’s something that happened to a person you thought was completely different from you. But see? I a few ways, at least, you’re very much alike. Or perhaps your story just says, The world has mysteries—every person has mysteries—that we will never comprehend; but here are some things we can all all understand, and some beauties we can all see.
If you are an essayist or an op-ed writer, you are putting all the chaos and complexity of competing ideas on one side of the equation and giving your reader something a little more clear and comprehensible on the other side. And, sure, you may be getting it wrong; I realize that there are plenty of people who oversimplify and mislead and manipulate. That’s all the more reason for you to approach your work with humility and to be sure you’re actually loving your reader.
The world seems as complex and chaotic and morally murky as it ever has. We need writers who will remind us that there are beauties and harmonies and order that are truer and deeper even than the chaos.
Every sentence is a promise. Keep your promises. I'll try to keep mine.