Word as Art and Artifact


In Walden Henry David Thoreau says: “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself” (71). Was he thinking at that moment of “written word” as “unit of meaning” or was he considering the word in its entirety–its materiality as script and physical motion and visual rendering as well as its etymology and  context and meaning? Surely the latter. Or at least I’d like to think so.

If we approach writing as craft it seems to me there ought to be more time spent on the visual composition of the word–not just as a dimension of document design but as a dimension of wordcraft.

Writing is physical and it is visual and it is tactile. But in college writing classes we attend mostly to verbiage, sometimes to visual rhetoric (though more often as a conceptual approach or as overall document design, and periodically a groovy lecturette on the history of the font, usually in a tech writing class), but not much to the making of the word on the page. The act of [not typing but] writing itself–pen on paper–has become physically painful to those of us who habitually compose at a keyboard. Which is to say pretty much everyone in college. Including the professors. My scrawl verges on illegibility, especially in the wee hours of a grading/response marathon but even on post-it notes.

For some time now it has bothered me that my handwriting has become unstable. I can’t always recognize my own script because it changes from week to week depending my mood and my ligaments and my caffeine-intake. I sometimes wonder what a graphologist would make of it. Would she diagnose me as schizophrenic? Perhaps just always in too much of a hurry with too many different kinds of thoughts and manifestly frustrated by my physical and material limitations. A chronically multi-tasking mind depending on the slow sequential strokes of a pen. At the keyboard I used all ten fingers, creating the illusion of simultaneity. My work sounds more productive. Typed words are sequences of taps. Staccato. Verbal pointillism. Cursive writing enforces legato, continuity, contiguity rather than hyperlink. The difference is disorienting and marvelous.

Digital literacy is essential but if we continue to emphasize its value over that of other technologies (such as the pencil) we become detached from the handicraft of writing. This displacement is unnecessary and seems to be missing an opportunity to experience more of what it means to write. (Does Ong discuss this aspect of technologized literacy? I can’t recall.)

I don’t want to teach penmanship in Composition 1.  But I’d very much like to create a space for calligraphy and printmaking and other forms of wordsmithery in a writing curriculum. I’d also like to argue that [creative] writing is a fine art not only because it is imaginative but because it is, in all its dimensions, aesthetically significant.


image source: KRSPO


Some of the Works Cited in this Blog


Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin, 1934.
Doctorow, Cory, “Love the Machine, Hate the Factory.” Make: Technology On Your Time. 17 (Mar 2009). 14.
Greene, Maxine. Variations on a Blue Guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute Lectures on Aesthetic Education. New York: Teachers College P, 2001.
Leonard, Joanne. Being in Pictures:  An Intimate Photo Memoir. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2007.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.
Schon, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Or, Life in the Woods. Reprint. Forgotten Books, 1924.
Vico, Giambattista. On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language. Trans, L.M. Palmer. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.
  • Verum and Factum” (45-47) – Verum esse ipsum factum = “The true is the thing made [or done] itself.” In other words, the ultimate knowledge of the thing is inherent in the making of it. Vico claims this level of truth is God’s truth, perhaps understood as his transcendent knowledge of the thing. Pg 46: “But to know (scire) is to put together the elements of things. Hence, discursive thought (cogitatio) is what is proper to the human mind, whereas intelligence (intelligentia) is proper to God’s mind. For God reads all the elements of things whether inner or outer, because He contains and disposes them in order, whereas the human mind, because it is limited and external to everything else that is not itself, is confined to the outside edges of things only and, hence, can never gather them all together. For this very reason it can indeed think about reality, but it can not understand it fully.” Although Vico claims that cogitatio is “proper to the human mind”, he is not arguing that humans should be satisfied with that way of knowing. Rather, educators should view God’s way of knowing–creativity–as a model for human learning for (as Palmer says in her Introduction): “it is only when we produce that we become like God” (34). 

Vico, Giambattista Vico. The New Science. 3rd ed. (1744). Trans., Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State UP, 1998.