I once wrote, during a period of personal introspection and social observation,
Writing is like a drug; it can be a cure or an addiction.
A lot was missing in that simple statement. One missing piece concealed the danger of spare language.
As I reflect on that assertion several years later, I still believe what I wrote, but my attitude about writing has changed somewhat. I think it can be both a cure AND an addiction. It can be a treatment just short of a cure. And it can be an irresistible craving just short of an addiction. Would I have been more accurate to have written the following?
Writing is like a drug; it can be a cure or an addiction or it can be both. And, it can be simply a treatment just short of a cure or an irresistible craving just short of an addiction.
The simpler statement, “it can be a cure or an addiction,” presents a more powerful statement, but it conceals part of the truth. The statement was not meant to misrepresent reality, but unless one reads between the lines, it does. That is an attribute of a lot of writing, especially poetry.
Poetry, in its spareness and its economy with words, carves away explanation, leaving scraps of unsaid description behind, unable to disclose what was in the poet’s head during the writing of the poem. On the one hand, that raw, skeletal, glimpse into meaning requires the reader or listener to think, filling in the unsaid words with her own. On the other, though, the remaining words can mislead the audience by omission (or, rather, the audience can allow itself to mislead itself).
In spite of my tendency to use thirty words when five will do, I believe economy with words is a more powerful way to communicate ideas. It is a more powerful way to engage emotionally with the reader or listener.
But, in the wrong hands, spare writing can be intentionally misleading and dangerous. Take, for example, the current administration. Quite aside from its raging current of blatant lies, the few trickles of truth tell only parts of stories we need to hear; parts that, without explanation, lead to erroneous conclusions and positions that have no basis in reality. Feeding empty heads with these lies and these trickles of truth, the administration molds unthinking people into weapons of evangelical disinformation. The “base” becomes a propaganda machine.
To confront and overcome the disciples of evangelical disinformation, we need writing that looks and acts like a curative drug. Short, spare, simple, and catchy; attractive words that serve as bait, followed by short, explanatory words that overcome the lies with inescapable and irrefutable truth.
The explanation seems so simple. But it is almost impossibly hard. The power of words grows exponentially in parallel with the intellects of the people who read or hear them; their power is muted and smothered when confronted with stunted intellects. And that is the problem we face today. What curative drug can break through a shield formed by ignorance?