Talking on Paper

Richard Mayne shares his views on writing and what it has meant for different people throughout history, from the Cherokee Nation to Shakespeare to C.S. Lewis. What is writing? What powers do writers wield?

By Richard Mayne

A respected member of a Cherokee tribe once referred to written language itself as “talking on paper.” At a campfire one night, not long past the dawn of the nineteenth century, he remarked, “White men must be wiser than red men because they can talk on paper.” A crippled and illiterate half-Cherokee whose English name was George Guess was also present at that campfire. He’d never forget his kinsman’s remark. 

Even far after the moment had come and gone, he’d remember. In fact, the crippled old Cherokee didn’t forget about it for over a decade. He is better known by another name, his ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ name, Sequoyah. Pronounced in Cherokee as Tsalagi Gawonihisdi, Sequoyah was the first to write “ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ” and know what it meant. He’d go on to say that, “Any Cherokee of average intelligence could learn the alphabet in three days.” 

Twelve years after that fateful night by the campfire, Sequoyah had become the creator of the Cherokee written language, though its initial success should be attributed to his young daughter. For much of its creation, Sequoyah’s only pupil was his young daughter. It was said that he would mutter different sounds to himself that were actually characters from the language he was forming. Then he’d scratch odd-looking marks into wood or stone. Many of his tribesmen felt he was crazy and had fallen victim to madness. A chance of sheer luck brought Sequoyah’s small daughter, the Cherokee people, and Sequoyah’s new, 86-character written language together on a collision course that would alter the Cherokee people and their culture forever.

Sequoyah faced a tall task in introducing his new language, and he faced an even taller one in teaching it and showing its usefulness to his people. His tallest task would be attempting to get the Cherokee nation to adopt written language itself. The Cherokee nation was—and more importantly, still is—a group of people whose entire history is told in stories and songs, whose entire history is one of oral traditions. So early on, the skeptics were many, and Sequoyah must’ve seemed like a man talking in circles and figure eights to his clansmen. 

By accident, his daughter walked into a room one day and, in front of a group of Cherokees visiting Sequoyah, read some words written in ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ from a blackboard. The people in the room then saw the use of the language. These types of encounters would continue to garner the attention Sequoyah’s language needed until it was put on trial and tested. Once the tribe’s resistance subsided, Sequoyah went on to teach his language for the rest of his life. He went so far as to create a newspaper with the help of a missionary named Samuel Austin Worcester. It was called the Cherokee Phoenix and was the United States’ first bilingual newspaper. 

Sequoyah’s invention of the Cherokee written language reveals something important about “talking on paper” and how it affects history as well as the present day. Language is and always will be a culture-altering medium, while writing will always be an instrument of alteration. Sequoyah gave his people a system of education to follow. It had ripple effects throughout the Cherokee nation, and in turn it altered history. In a world where scribes controlled the discipline of writing, “writers” were a dime a dozen. What are the odds that Plato physically wrote The Republic? The written word is only as powerful as the person controlling the pen. Is history really written by the victor or is it just narrated by the victor? 

Writing was once a measuring stick: it was either an unattainable privilege or an inherent right. How long did the collective lower classes of the world go without a tool as simple as the ability to write? How many people still lack the ability to write a full sentence or even write their name? Writing has become an essential pillar to any successful form of education. 

To have the ability to paint with words is a wonderful oxymoron. If a picture’s worth a thousand words and actions speak louder than them, one could come to wonder what words are truly worth.

Fiction writers test the very limits of suspension of disbelief and allow their readers to escape their everyday lives. Not only that, fiction allows its writers to escape their everyday lives. Non-fiction writers tell true stories. Some dedicate their lives and careers to writing for the good of academia (for the sake of criticism, for the freedom of the press, etc.). Fiction and non-fiction writers are two sides of the same coin and are essential to one another’s existence. 

An author will always tell a story but not always his or her story. An author has the ability to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s not.

Authors of allegory intentionally craft stories around a deeper hidden meaning, many times using symbolism. Take for instance The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Allegory of the Cave, and Animal Farm. All three are allegories but are very, very different from one another. Yet it remains that C.S. Lewis, Plato, and George Orwell all crafted stories within stories and hid messages and meanings within their narratives, wanting the reader to enjoy the plots of the stories while at the same time trying to get the reader to subconsciously delve deeper into religion, human perception, and Czarist Russia and communism respectively. Allegory allows a writer to tell two stories simultaneously. Good writers mask the allegorical parts of their stories, and the reader doesn’t even notice that they’re reading an allegory.

It is speculated that Shakespeare used his comedies to satirize the politics and philosophy of his time, using his plays as a means to relate to his audience and in turn critique society. In retrospect, he walked a fine line between standing ovations and the chopping block. He left his colleagues and contemporaries something to think about while giving the masses, or “the sheep” (or maybe “the mob”), something to talk about. 

Is The Canterbury Tales a satirical parody? It sure reads like one in 2019. Was Chaucer “trolling” his readers when he wrote it? Should the Irish have sold their babies as food to the bourgeoisie as Jonathan Swift suggested in A Modest Proposal? Of course not. Did Jane Austen mean to insult every reader of Gothic fiction with Northanger Abbey by parodying arguably every Goth motif and character trope at the time? The world will never know. Works like The Canterbury Tales, A Modest Proposal, and Northanger Abbey created controversy over the stories themselves, but in the process they caused debate and discussion over hot topics during the time in which they were written. Parody and satire demonstrate an effect that writing has had on society. With these particular genres—which, more times than not, are not-so-distant cousins of each other—authors and writers are allowed to write an increasing number of pieces of hyperbole while raising awareness over societal issues. In this way, writing can be used to alter a person’s perspective, position, or beliefs. It can raise awareness, plead a case, or make an argument. 

Writing’s effect on history has only been as impactful as the effect it has had on the one reading. There’s no set way of measuring the effect that writing has had on history. There is also no set way of explaining what writing does, but that’s the best part about it. It’s also the thing nobody seems to understand.

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