What we’ve got hee-uh…is fail-yuh to commun’cate!
That statement appeared in the screenplay of a 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the warden of a prison in Florida to a chain-gang worker who insisted on challenging his authority. In the context of the movie, it was a great line.
That warden, played by Strother Martin, knew communication is a two-way process, involving both an expressive and receptive party. If either of the two is missing, it can be argued that communication does not occur. In the movie, it was obvious to the exasperated warden that the convict, played by Paul Newman, was not receiving the intended message.
However, when someone expresses an idea that does strike a response from another, be it in agreement or rebuttal, the two have succeeded in communicating. And with any luck, both will learn from the exchange.
Friends, acquaintances, and other readers of my work often ask me why I write. Some seem puzzled by the fact that, day after day, week after week, I continue to pound the keyboard, churning out thoughts about things that matter to me.
On the surface, it’s a simple question, so I generally offer a simple answer. “Well, I enjoy it,” is all I might say.
But occasionally, when I pause to think about the question myself, I discover it can be quite profound. And the answer is tied directly to the notion of communicating.
Millions and millions of people worldwide consider themselves readers. No matter what they read, or how often, or for what purpose, they are consumers of the written word. But without the writers of those words, there would be nothing to read.
I remember an experience several years ago that helped me come to grips with why I feel compelled to write. Riding a subway car in the city, I was struck by the fact that so many of my fellow-commuters were reading. People would enter the train at each station, settle themselves comfortably in an open seat, and begin to read—all with hardly a glance at the folks around them. Books, magazines, newspapers, cellphones, all capturing the attention of their owners.
One man in particular caught my eye. Leafing through a newspaper, appearing not to be reading anything too carefully, he paused on each page only long enough to determine whether to give more than passing attention to any of the articles. Watching from across the aisle, I smugly assumed he might be one of those who checks only headlines and picture captions—but I was wrong.
After a quick once-over of a page containing a number of articles, he began to read one of them in earnest. From my vantage, I could see the effect on him of what he was reading. His very posture changed in his seat. His facial expressions ranged from quizzical to credulous, from a smile of agreement to a frown of disapproval. At one point, he stopped, cocked his head back to stare at the ceiling of the subway car, apparently thinking about what he had just read.
And that’s when I knew. That’s why I write!
I had witnessed the communication of ideas and opinions from the writer of that article to the reader, although neither would ever meet the other. The writer had reached the reader and elicited a response. Across the cosmic void, communication had taken place.
In the writing I do—novels, collections of tales, poetry, blog-posts—I have no knowledge of the reactions of my readers to anything I write, save for when people post a comment on my blog, or send me an email, or ‘follow’ me online. Many of those follows come from faraway nations, from people I will never know.
But that’s not the point. It’s my hope, my belief, that whether or not people choose to contact me, they will respond to my writing as I saw the man on the subway respond. That is what provides the primary motivation to write.
It’s the urge to touch someone, to spark a sense of recognition, to provide a moment of enjoyment. And most of all, it’s to provoke a response—even if I never know of it firsthand—so that what we’ll have here is a forum to communicate.
It matters to me.