A Brief (Ancient) History of Writing

- by Judy Griffith Gill

I really enjoy blogging, but this time, I wrote one for the Ninc page and didn’t like it. I tinkered with it, changed this, changed that, and still felt I wasn’t saying anything that any intelligent life on any known or unknown planet would find interesting. So, I scrapped it and waited for inspiration to strike. Well, as most of us know, inspiration is a shifty critter who slips away just when you want it to come out so you can take pictures. What it does do is sneak around at daybreak and eat the nasturtiums . . .Oh, no. Wait. That’s the mama doe and her two babies…

Then, on a writers’ group I belong to, someone started a thread about how some unpublished writers seem to have developed an attitude of “entitlement” to the time and expertise of the published. The consensus was that these people exist and aren’t going to go away, so we have to learn to deal with them. Some of us charge money. More of us are kind and giving and free with advice and help. We also realized during the discussion that this has been going on probably since not long after the first woman drew a few symbols on a cave wall using a charcoal stick from her cooking fire.

Another cavewoman read it, said, “Huh, I can do better than that!” and wrote her own squiggles. This started a competition among cave-dwellers until finally one cavewoman, named Guh, scribbled all over the walls of her cave and what she wrote really appealed to others who understood her marks, giving her a reputation as a great story-teller.

Other nearby cave-dwellers came to read her stories. Pretty soon, Lunk, the caveman who was best at killing mastodons, and incidentally kept the writing cavewoman well-fed, began to charge admission to their cave so others wouldn’t get the idea that he allowed Guh to do this for free, public entertainment. (Yeah–“allowed”–we’re talking cavepeople here.) Now, history doesn’t go far enough back to tell us whether he was the first agent or the first publisher, but Guh was certainly the first professional writer of stories. (I know this because I peeked. I have a handy little time travel machine that I’m too mean and nasty to share.) The neighboring cave-dwellers grew jealous of the wonderful piles of fur, meat, roots and berries Guh now had, thanks to the admission fee Lunk charged and set out to scribble their own charcoal marks on their cave walls. Trouble was, they didn’t really want to do it once they discovered it wasn’t as easy at it looked. They just wanted the furs, meat, roots and berries Guh had and demanded she tell them how she did it. After all, didn’t she owe it to them? Here she was grabbing all the best furs and stuff and only because she wouldn’t let them in on the big secret.

Guh was a nice cavewoman, and quite happy to impart her knowledge, so much so, that she no longer had time to finish the next chapter she’d begun inscribing on her cave walls, and her readers quit coming because, well, there was nothing new. Her agent/ publisher/ mastodon killer left her cave and moved into another with one of the cavewriters she had trained and whenever that one sank exhausted to her pile of furs saying “Ugh! This is too hard!” he hauled her up by the hair and shoved a charcoal stick into her hand and grunted “Write!” Soon, cave-people were paying in furs, meat, roots and berries to read her stories (which were nowhere nearly as good as Guh’s) while Guh sat shivering in the dark and cold watching her children wither away to skin and bones.

“What have I done?” she asked herself. “What went wrong?” The wisest woman of her tribe heard her muttering and spoke up, explaining that she had sold herself out simply because people asked. “So what should I do now, O Wisest of All?” Guh asked. The answer was simple: Write a better story. (I suspect the wisest woman was the first professional editor.) Guh had very little wall-space left in her cave so she and her starving children staggered off to a larger one with what few furs, roots etc. they had left and Guh began to scrawl on her new walls as fast as she could. Word got out. People began coming to her new cave wanting to read her story. She’d learned one lesson, at least. They had to pay admission. Soon, her stack of furs, roots, berries and what-not grew even higher than her competitions’ and her children became fat and healthy. Other wannabe cavewriters came to ask her advice again, but this time, Guh was smarter, having learned yet another lesson: For each who sought information on how to scrape a story with charcoal on their own walls, she charged one nasturtium-fed white doe pelt. (Nasturtiums make them really soft and supple.) For each one who wanted her to read their writings and fix them, she charged six silver-tipped giant wolf pelts. Anyone who dared to copy her scribblings, and a few did at first, she smeared with honey and staked out atop an anthill.

When Lunk decided to come back and enjoy the greater comforts of her much larger cave, she fed him to a saber-toothed tiger.

There is a moral to this story. Writers are professionals doing a difficult, time- and brain- consuming job, often in addition to another job that keeps their children from starving and freezing while they do as the wisest woman suggested and “write a better story.” If those who want to write their own stories are willing to work hard and keep at it, they’ll probably get lots of good help and advice, especially if they are sincere, ask nicely, and are willing to listen to advice. Then, they, too, may reap furs, meat, roots and berries to sustain themselves and their families. Those who think they’re entitled to a free ride by demanding all the answers from the ones who worked diligently, studied the market, and kept at it in order to earn their bigger, warmer caves, might get apparently kindly help. However, that help, sweet as it seems, could be the honey with which they’re being coated before they get staked out on an anthill.

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  1. What a great post!
    I think I have a couple of nasturtium fed does—they certainly mowed them down.

  2. Oh, Ms. Gill, you made me chuckle.

    I salivate just thinking about those furs, meat, roots and berries a good book can bring in.

  3. Estella, I’m going to plant daffodil bulbs. I understand deer don’t like daffodil leaves, so maybe they’ll leave the flowers alone, too.

    Glad you enjoyed, Ms. Sheedy, ma’am! But I bet you’re far more interested in the furs than in the roots and berries!

    I’m off now to can or make jam out of my few paltry little berries before the hungry bruins come and take them all away. Then I’m going to leave for the Warm!