My dad is my oracle. I wonder how much he knows (or actually ignores) how important his advice has been for me throughout my life. Advice of the best sort, passed on not only in the form of gentle remarks or strong imperatives, but also always -invariably- illustrated by his example. This has to be the best possible legacy a parent can leave to their children: little certainties about life, clues about how to navigate hardship, clear memories of effort, respect and fairness, stories with a beginning, middle and end, witnessed from childhood into adulthood, and which always seem to prove his statements right. I can only describe my dad as an inspiration, a force whose presence, even in absence and distance, provides me with courage and confidence to carry on.
As a way of marking the beginning of a new year of blogging and emulating last year’s Celebration of Literacy to open the Literature and Politics section of this blog, I have chosen to celebrate Writing on this occasion. From a very personal perspective, the act of writing is strongly associated with my father. I have this clear image of him sitting in front of his computer -the most likely place to find him in the house- writing. “I’m working on a speech,” he’d say sometimes, “I’m writing an important letter,” he’d say on other occasions. He would take days working on these and you could sense he was genuinely enjoying it. But you could also always perceive the struggle, that characteristic trait of all good writers: the struggle to find the right words, the time consuming endeavour of composing the perfect sentence. It is a shame my dad has never attempted to write fiction!
In contrast with my father’s stricter relationship with writing, mostly applied to work related matters, my paternal grandfather had the most inspiring poetic flare. Even though he never completed school, as his times unfortunately demanded work above academic training, he had a way with words and a natural literary disposition which translated into beautiful and perfectly composed letters to my grandmother and solemn speeches composed to mark special family occasions.
From a less personal perspective, French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, is a major inspiration to writers, or hopeful writers like me, around the globe. The author’s thirst for literary perfection led him to compose Madame Bovary, indeed regarded by the best names in Literary History as the perfect novel. Flaubert frequently described the act of writing, especially Madame Bovary, as physically painful: “Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.” He was obsessed with words and was manically aware of the power and true beauty of good writing. Flaubert knew how to sum up every writer’s obsession: “Whatever the thing you want to say, there is but one word to express it, but one verb to give it movement, but one adjective to qualify it; you must seek until you find this noun, this verb, this adjective.”
Distracted as we are in this modern world of advanced technology and fast paced communication, we tend to forget the crucial role that writing and language plays in our daily lives. We are probably reading and writing more than ever before but, paradoxically, we are paying less attention to both content and form and the way words influence us. “People respect good writing,” my dad said to me once, “always make sure you write properly as this will not only reflect who you are but it will also improve your chances of being listened to.” This, we talked back then, applied to all forms of writing, from academic and literary texts to even e-mails and text messages.
Today, however, writing is threatened by two powerful and destructive forces: manipulation and oversimplification. Politicians see their popularity soar by cunning one-sentence slogans created in a conference room at some marketing agency; newspapers see their sales improve thanks to sensational headlines manufactured with the only purpose of selling; and whole communities of human beings are boxed in stereotypes, sometimes one adjective long, right under our noses, from the realms of social media through to the modern, and usually over-simplistic, political discourse. We readers, in the meantime, keep on being treated as either marketable products or as grocery shoppers, all by means of language, mostly in the form of writing. Indeed, proper writing is a sign of respect and self-respect and taking the time to compose convincing and intelligent pieces could even be described today as a sign of integrity. Let’s make sure younger generations understand this and let’s train them to become not only critical readers but also critical writers.