The Power of the Written Word

by Olurotimi Osha

If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and writeMartin Luther

Today is D-day: when I take a break from writing and going through Facebook feeds. But I leave with this thought. When I first started writing, and shared my first published article on social media, someone asked me if I had written an article that got published in a major outlet, for which I was paid, for “attention.” (Many times, I am not paid for my writing, so I do not simply write for the money.)

After I discovered my passion for writing and conveying ideas and information, I was concerned about how to do it in a skillful way, and so I sought advice from one of the accomplished authors in my family—my award-winning older brother. He said to write every day and to form an opinion on almost everything: then crystallize it on paper. One seasoned editor told me to read tons of magazines daily, while her colleague said: “talk to different people, of varying backgrounds. And then write stories about them.”

The person who asked, if I had written for “attention” had a different background from me. But that statement said a lot about the state of our society, which seemingly values form over substance. Well, I am not the sort of person who does things for attention. Neither am I a blow-hard. People I admire would be egregiously misrepresented if they were accused of being all veneer and no substance because they write.

Writing may have saved the life of Abraham Lincoln and given us arguably the best President the United States has ever had. Before he penned the famous Gettysburg Address, the young Lincoln was known to use his rapier tongue to excoriate his foes. But he lived in an era when men upheld their honor through a duel. Unlike the main author of the economic policies of the first administration of the United States, Alexander Hamilton who died after a duel, the future President Lincoln sensibly backed out of a duel with a crack shot who had been humiliated by Lincoln’s wit.

Lincoln would cultivate the art of venting privately on paper, and storing away his incendiary missives. His constant writing would develop his craft as a writer who would leave the world the most inspirational messages, such as this one:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan […]”

It was interesting that the person I had the dialogue with could have assumed that there was no substance at all to an article they had not yet read. It was perplexing that the speaker could have fixated on potential outcomes (possible attention) rather than the content of the material. Strangely I vaguely recall that the person was reading a book. You would expect that one who digests knowledge via the written word would have an appreciation perhaps of the import of the written word in expression and disseminating information and knowledge. The written word has extended freedom to a significant portion of mankind in so many ways.

It was puzzling that expression had been devalued to any form of attention seeking. We would not have a Christian Reformation and liberal ideas and even the freedom of expression, now a mainstay of western society, without Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, which he created in 1440. Now ideas could travel far and wide with the printing press, and thus, the church was reformed.

Today, social and digital media have taken the analogous role of the printing press, five centuries after its creation. We do not write simply for attention or just random, gratuitous expression, but to convey information and ideas that serve as a catalyst to human progress. Writing merely for attention indicates an inordinate fixation on vacuous expression and appearance. Something would be wrong with education if it were so. There are many things which we have no power to directly influence. Thus, you may have your dignity scorched because of your race; you may be denied an office you have earned, because of your gender; you may be barred from a country, because of your religion. But with your writing you may move people’s hearts to change. Oppression invariably co-opts silence as its accomplice. Why do you write?

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