Monday, December 04, 2006

The Birth of Writing

There are some theories that writing first evolved, in certain cultures, from the tally marks used in commerce. My friend Ms. Flaherty says, "How could poetry and literature have arisen from something as plebeian as the cuneiform equivalent of grocery-store bar codes?" She expresses sadness at this, but I think it is somewhat glorious. Beauty born of mundanity. Perhaps it is a reminder to us as writers to find the poetry and power in the ordinary, the everyday. Poets excel at this. We prose types may need to make an extra effort.

Which everyday activities might inspire you?


  1. With all respect to Ms Flaherty, I think she's a bit off on this one. Poetry and literature (especially poetry) existed long before writing systems. The written tradition of storytelling must have arisen from a brilliant (or brilliantly lazy, at the risk of sounding flippant) storyteller who realized, "Hey, I could use all those bookkeeping symbols and write down this stuff, then I wouldn't have to remember it all!"

    And the idea of the beauty to be found in mundanity is far under-rated. Beauty can be found almost anywhere -- those who look for it in less obvious places are more likely to be rewarded.

  2. To the best of my knowledge the first story ever told was "Gilgamesh" from Sumerian times. And yes, it was an oral story that was written down later in cuneiform. I really recommend it. It is such a wonderful quest for immortality, but more importantly I think, a story of friendship!

  3. Excellent point, Jamie! Language is spoken first, storytelling is oral first. As we have become more and more silent readers, we can't lose sight of the oral component of language.

    Love the image of that lazy, brilliant poet saying, "Hey! I can steal that bookkeeping thing and use it to remember this poetry stuff!"

    What are the pros and cons of moving from an oral tradition to a print tradition?

  4. The biggest downside to moving to a written tradition from the oral one, as I see it, is the loss of the direct connection between the storyteller and the audience. Although it could be argued that is a plus, in some cases. :)

  5. I think the move from oral to print also means our ears are not as well-tuned to the sonic qualities of language - rhythm, rhyme, alliteration.

  6. Cindy, I'm glad you brought up the sound of language. Maya Angelou says the same thing, especially when she talks about writing poetry. She's often said that poetry works best when it's read out loud.

    It also ties into the question of inspiration in everyday life. For me, the first obvious source is conversation -- in the word choices, turns of phrase, and sheer musicality of people communicating on the fly. I love music, so maybe that has something to do with it.


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