I’ve been toying with a theory about the formation of a preference for writing vs. speaking (and vice versa). Most people I know do have some preference. They either feel more comfortable communicating through the written word or the spoken one.
The impetus of my theory was myself, washing dishes one night. As I was washing the dishes, I was thinking to myself, “Ah! How much I do like the smell of lemon dishsoap! It is just precisely like the light on that bubble there, bright, ephemeral. Why is my mind so loquacious? I’m sure I could never say such a thing out loud… Maybe I could write it down. Why are the same words that I might write down irretrievable when I go to speak?”
By the time I had finished the dishes (and inhaled a good amount of lemon soap bubbles, very invigorating), I had a tentative explanation. Maybe my inner voice was somehow connected to my writing voice, while my speaking voice had to labor over some sort of barrier to access words. The more I thought about my experiences with other writers and talkers, the more I became interested in the idea.
Eventually, I separated out three categories of people.
Those who can’t speak as well as they write.
I would definitely place myself in this category. The voice in my head seems incapable of materializing in the open-air of conversation. I feel much more equipped to respond to my world when I am given a pencil and paper; I feel like I have more control over a pencil in my hand than the tongue in my mouth, and I have more words at my disposal when confronted with a blank page than I do when confronted by a blank face.
I can think of many angry occasions when I found myself stammering for the words to berate the source of my anger, or even to vent to someone else about it. Minutes later, I would go into my bedroom and scorch the pages of my diary with righteous indignation (well, not always righteous, but eloquent? Heck yes!)
Other times, friends have asked me to tell them about my day or describe a trip, and all I can come up with is “you know, okay” or “wonderful! magical! the grass was soooo green!” and yet I can sit down and pour out five page letters to my written-correspondents about these experiences.
Even after I’ve written down the words I want, I am rarely able to recite them in conversation. I struggle even to read aloud from something I have written and am holding in my hands.
Isn’t that curious?
Those who can’t write as well as they speak.
I have spent years teaching English, in one capacity or another. I’ve worked with college students, foreign refugees, children with learning disabilities, and professional life coaches. Some of them take to the written word like swans to a Tchaivoskian lake. Others find the process of composing their thoughts on paper to be grueling work.
Interestingly, I haven’t noticed any correlation between intelligence and a preference for the written or spoken word.
I once had a student from Ghana in an ESL class. He was full of opinions; his eyes would light up when I read stories to the class; his hand would shoot into the air when I asked what a new vocabulary word meant. In many ways, he was my most advanced student. But when I gave my students a written assignment, he would return one or two brief, choppy sentences, while my other students turned in paragraphs.
In the same way that I so often feel like my tongue and larynx are too clumsy to produce the words I want, Stephen seemed to have some mechanical difficulty in the act of writing. In the same way that I dread mispronouncing words, he feared misspelling words. In the same way that I feel daunted when confronted with a blank face, Stephen felt daunted when confronted by a blank page.
I have encountered this same response in students across all demographics. They simply clam up when I ask them to write down their thoughts. If I take away the paper and pencil and ask a few questions instead, they can produce thought-out, eloquent responses. When I give the paper and pencil back, they sometimes can’t even write down what they just said.
Isn’t that curious?
Those who write as they speak and speak as they write.
Now these people, wow wow wow! I don’t know whether I am more impressed when I meet a person who can toss around words like “ephemeral, loquacious, irretrievable” in conversation or when I read dialogue that smacks of real life. I usually end up gaping at said person or page either way.
These people seem to have access to their inner voice no matter what the circumstances are, which is perhaps the most curious condition of all to have!
Of course, this idea has spawned a plethora of new questions. How does a preference for written communication or spoken communication develop? Do shy, book-wormish tendencies during childhood attach the inner voice to the written word? Do chatty, social tendencies during childhood attach the inner voice to the spoken word? What about visual artists? Does their inner voice communicate in images rather than words? What of musicians, mathematicians, chefs? Dolphins?
I guess I need to do some more dishes!