Literature is the art-form of language, and words are its tools. As a painter uses paint, as a musician uses musical instruments, as a sculptor uses stone-and-chisel, so a writer uses words.
Words have definite meanings. That is the first point every writer must address — though of course not every writer answers this point as I just have.
In fact, it’s become somewhat fashionable to say that language is arbitrary and definitions are, at best, approximations. Indeed, many writers accept these tenets without even realizing that they’ve accepted them and without any regard whatsoever for the fact that it’s not actually possible to write clearly unless you know the meanings of the words you’re using.
If you don’t know the meanings of the words you’re using, your writing will be unclear, and readers will not grasp your intent.
Clarity is the number one priority in all issues of writing style.
It is certainly true that language evolves, and that words develop nuances and different connotations and associations and new meanings, and it is also true that this process is natural and it is good.
This natural process does not, however, negate objectivity, but just the opposite: the evolutionary process of language is gradual, so that at any given point, the words you’re using do possess a definite meaning.
If a word does not possess a definite meaning, it’s a non-word, an antithetical concept, an amorphous abstraction, lacking the weight of actuality to anchor it to reality.
Words, I say again, possess definite meanings. That is the beginning. This point is important to emphasize, because it’s the foundation upon which the rest of all literary knowledge is constructed.
But to fully understand the nature of words, we must ask: what precisely are words?
Words are abstractions. Abstractions are the human method of grasping things in nature. The human brain works by means of abstractions — i.e. concepts — which are, in essence, words.
When, for instance, as a child you first discovered the meaning of the word “pencil,” you had to at some point be shown what in actuality a pencil is — i.e. this object:
Once you processed and therefore learned that that’s what the word “pencil” referred to, the word was absorbed into and retained by your brain — automatically — so that thereafter when you heard or saw the word “pencil,” you knew what a pencil was, and similarly when you saw an actual pencil, you remembered that the word for that object was “pencil.” You grasped the actual thing in reality — this is a pencil — and that knowledge then made it possible for you to differentiate it from, for example, a pen, or a crayon.
That, in brief, is the uniquely human method of learning, with which language endows us.
Thus you yourself learned to use the word pencil in a meaningful way: the sentence “I write with a pencil” became for your mind not an unintelligible string of words but an act that you understood.
That very process is, in abbreviated form, the process we all must go through in learning every single word we know, and all learning is ultimately shaped and conditioned by the structure of the human mind.
The art of writing is this same process in a more intensive and concentrated form.
Why is this important?
Art by definition is communication — communication between the artist and the audience. If it’s not communicable, it’s not art.
If, in your literature, you reject the notion that language is definite, you will not only confuse and frustrate your readers, but worse: you will confuse and frustrate yourself, because you won’t know the meaning of the things you’re trying to communicate.
And this, in turn, is why intelligibility is an infallible signal of good art.
I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.