The Secret Language That We All Know

Some time ago I joined a number of writing groups online. My idea was to get a feel for the kinds of conversations that I thought must be taking place ‘out there’ in cyberspace, with a view to communicating about my book, which was all about stories and how they actually work (called, conveniently enough, How Stories Really Work). My assumption was that there would be groups of people as fascinated as I was about the patterns visible in all kinds of fiction, the interlaced similarities and differences between types of stories, the tapestry of oddities and recurring themes which writers weave as though from one vast collective unconsciousness.

What I found was not quite what I expected. Some groups were quite neurotic about communication and very nervous about newcomers; others concentrated heavily on the mechanical side of writing, seemingly anxious about where to put each comma. Most had fixed ideas about what writing was for and how it should be done. In almost all cases, the groups were dominated by their founders and ruled with the internet’s equivalent of an iron hand. That was fair enough, I thought: if you set up a writing group and manage to gather thousands of members, you have the complete right to determine the rules and grounding of that group. It was not for me to say how to run things or to question the operating practices of these cyber-collectives.

I learned a few things: writers were more numerous and ubiquitous than I had imagined; and many indulged in writing for a different set of reasons than I had thought. I had envisioned at least a few groups of writers who had mastered the art of writing to some degree and were now striving to make contact with the maximum number of readers; I had also thought that there would be quite a few wannabe writers who recognised that they didn’t really understand the language of fiction and were desperate to learn it. I don’t mean the English language, or whatever their native language might be - I mean the mode of communication which transcends the mechanics but is equally structured and universal among storytellers: the ‘secret language’ of fiction. In fact, most of the writers I encountered were not writing in order to communicate to readers at all, particularly: they poured out thoughts, images and ideas into manuscripts largely for their own benefit and pleasure.

That’s fair enough too - it just isn’t what I expected to find. Instead of voyagers seeking orientation on their journeys towards the reality of readers’ with the hope of trading ideas and emotions, I found more-or-less contented islanders, happy to work over and over the mechanics of their work or to jot down sporadic snippets of writing, without ever really interacting with the bigger world of story-telling of which they were a part, or even, in many cases, seeing that it existed.

To understand what was happening, we have to look at something that we normally take for granted. Even in reading this sentence, you are making certain workable assumptions of which you may not be fully aware. The word ‘reading’ comes from Old English rǣdan, of Germanic origi