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One definition of writing is to form letters, words or symbols on a surface such as paper with an instrument such as a pen (www.dictionary.com). To many this is an obvious definition. We use paper, pens and pencils almost every day of our lives. It has become so much the norm that we take it for granted and don‘t give it a second thought. But in retrospect, writing can be looked at as a technology that has come a long way and that is more complex than we may know.
When given the task to write 20 words or less by using something natural, I found it to be very difficult. I thought long and hard. Without using something that was created by someone such as a pen, I came up with very few ideas . Not only did I have to find the instrument to write with, but also the surface on which to write upon. What in the world around us today is truly natural? Not much is the conclusion I came to, and being as it is winter, a whole lot less with all the snow.
At first I thought about using my nails and writing into a piece of fruit. However, I would have to go to the store to get a piece of fruit because of the season, and stores aren’t really natural. I really wanted to do this project with as little use of things unnatural as possible. Than I thought about doing something with fire and ashes, but I don’t know how to start a fire using only two sticks. There were plenty of matches around, but like the store, those aren’t natural either.
My final choice was to use a stick to write in the snow with, since there was plenty of both around. However, I had difficulty getting a stick to break off the frozen branches of the trees. So, what I ended up choosing as my instrument was an icicle.
The icicle was very cold in my hands, and very uncomfortable. I could feel it melting as I stood there thinking of what to write. So I thought quickly, and proceeded to write “hi” in the snow. I chose “hi” because it was a short greeting that is commonly known. As I etched my word into the snow, I found it very smooth to move through. At first I hadn’t written deep enough for the word to be readable, so I had to trace it over again , this time with my icicle halfway into the snow.
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My hands were freezing cold, so I was very happy when it was over. I set the icicle down next to the word and proceeded to take a picture of my work for show and tell. Once I finished with this, I started to think about what I actually had done. Up until this point I hadn’t exactly put too much thought into why our class was doing this as an assignment, and about what the parallels to writing in the snow were to writing as a technology or as a whole.
At first I began to wonder why we were using things from nature. Determining what to use while staying within this limitation was probably the hardest part of the assignment. No matter how creative I tried to be, most everything I came up with dealt with using something man made, and not by me. This is what lead me to using the snow.
When I started thinking about the tools I used, I realized that both were not permanent. Both the snow and icicle would soon melt away. What I had written in the snow would be lost. And if it was of something meaningful, my endeavor would have been pointless all together.
However, the fact that we have something so universal among educated human beings to communicate with is amazing. Although there are different languages, there is a system of translation that can be used to make what is written available to everyone who can read. Available to everyone? This thought reminded me of the Plato reading, “Phaedrus.” In this, Socrates argues that anyone being able to read what is written can be of no good. He states that,
“the specific which you have discovered (writing) is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but on the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” (Plato 362).
This possibly meaning that putting what you teach into writing would do injustice to the lesson mostly because one would not understand. They would just be repeating what they read without ever really learning. Basically, there could be almost no truth that can come from anything written.
This made me wonder who would be reading my “hi” and what they would take that simple word to mean. I figured being as it is such a simple word, everyone who saw it would grasp its true meaning as a greeting. But what if I had written something more complex? Not everyone would understand the meaning unless they asked me for an explanation. Plato writes in the voice of Socrates,
“I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence (Plato 362).”
Words do have intelligence behind them, but if you were to ask them a question, just like the lifelike work of a painter, they would not reply back. And with writing, the author is many times not present for you to ask.
It seems that the purpose of “Phaedrus” is to discredit writing all together. But if that was Plato’s intention, why would he write down this dialogue in the first place? Maybe he only believes writing is bad in a very narrow sense. The dialogues are merely a portrayal of his and Socrates philosophical, political and personal beliefs. If he hadn’t written them down, they might be lost forever. It still presents an apparent contradiction on Plato’s part.
As I continued to think, I was reminded of the Naomi Baron article, “The Art and Science of Handwriting,” and what she had to say about the actual image of handwriting as a presentation of one’s self. Although mine in the snow did not reflect the same shape and style it would have on a sheet of paper, nonetheless I was curious as to what someone might conclude from it. I considered what I would have thought if someone else had written it.
With the brevity of the word, I would mainly be drawn to the largeness of the letters and say that they were trying to make a statement of some sort, also because of the fact it was written in capitals. But knowing that I was the one who wrote “hi,” I could remedy that this was not my intention at all. In fact, if I had written much smaller, the word would not have been legible at all. That is why it was as large as it was. I also capitalized the “I” only for the reason that it is more clear than the lower case when written in the snow. This proves that maybe handwriting is not a very good judge of ones character at all. And as Baron says, “Not surprisingly, we no longer see handwriting as an expression of social standing, much less as a mirror on our souls” (Baron 60).
Souls, technology, handwriting, words in general; oh to have Plato alive today, what would he say? Everywhere you turn there are documents, books, and even now web pages filled with words. We have labels on our shoes, our computers, our clothes, I’d even go as far to challenge somebody to find me something that has no type of writing on it at all. Even paper has a written image that sometimes can only be seen when you hold it up to the light, or our fruit which has stickers on each individual piece of the company that supplies them.
In the present day, we don’t have to search for natural ways to write. There are an abundance of pens, pencils and paper for anyone who chooses to do so. There is even the computer that has recently been transitioned into the writing process. Writing may have started as a form of language only scholars or the educated would use, but today it is nearly impossible to escape.