The Effect of Writing on Popular Culture

By Mark Pumphrey, November 7, 2020

For most of my childhood years, I was a complete television child. I would come home from school, flip on the television, and watch one show after another until the time I went to bed at night, stopping only when my mother made me get up off of the couch to do a chore or come to dinner.

At the age of fifteen, caused by a particularly difficult adolescence, I became obsessed with finding a religious, rather than a popular culture escape route from facing the life that was mine as a child.  Always the extremist, I stopped watching television at all for nearly two years.

What need did watching television obsessively as a child fulfill for me?  What need did becoming overtly religiose for two years as a teenager fulfill for me?

Was the need the same in both instances? I think it was.

As a child, I was a homosexual who grew up in a home in which homosexuality was never to be accepted. “God does not make mistakes.” I was so sheltered by my devout Southern Baptist mother that I did not even know the meaning of the word “homosexual” until I was fifteen years of age, even though I knew that I was different from other boys, and that I was physically attracted to men rather than women from the time I was four years of age.

What does this have to do with the effect of writing on popular culture?

As a teenager, I would not have been able to answer that question, neither in the television phase or the religious phase of my young life. Only as an adult did I realize that it was not television watching that drew me as a child. Only as an adult did I realize that it was not religion that drew me for two years of my teenage life.

What was it then that drew me to obsess over television, and then over religion? What do these two things have in common?

The answer is this: both television and religion are full of marvelous stories that carried me away from the harsh reality that was my own life, a frightened child and a confused teenager living in a conservative, rural, Southern town where I literally never met another person who was like me.

But on television, through the stories told in both deeply meaningful and trite programs, I came into contact with the larger world, in which people accepted their differences, either with a moment of truth or a good cry at the end of a drama or through tears of laughter and a feeling of connectedness and physical relief from suffering in the form of a silly situation comedy.

Religion was also for me an avenue to connectedness with people who were different from me, and to a world in which differentness was respected, not condemned. It was a way to not only see the whole world, but to embrace the whole world and every sentient being in it.

Like with television shows, religion was, for me at least, a passive pursuit, one I could participate in as an observer rather than as an active participant.  “Being” rather than “doing” was at the center of my religious world view, and the discovery of “being” was a safe harbor for a frightened little child such as I was at the time.

What are stories? They are the gathered imaginings and inspirations of writers. They are written forms of communication that do not require absolute accuracy. Many writers, especially of fiction, plays, screenplays and even poetry are professional liars. They can embellish any story to make it meaningful and ready for mass consumption, whether it be as a cautionary tale or an uplifting, inspirational guide to living.

Writing is the vehicle through which the common consciousness of all human beings can be tinkered with, discovered, and explored by readers and viewers on a path to enlightenment.

Do we remember every story we ever watched play out in a movie, in a stage play or musical, in poetry, in essays, in journalism, in a movie or documentary?

No, we do not. We may have vague recollections of having a positive experience whenever we encountered a meaningful piece of writing; or of a pleasant escape from harsh reality by resorting to written words to soothe our overtaxed hearts and minds, allowing us to relax and forget all our worries for a time by getting all wrapped up in someone’s else’s story.

In this dual sense: writing as a teacher and writing as a balm, writing has had a tremendous impact on popular culture. Without writing, there would be no popular culture. Even in a history museum, all the artifacts cannot stand alone. They need written words to describe and reveal their different meanings and significance to the museum goer. Without the descriptive written commentaries on what we are seeing before us in a museum, we lose much of the context of the artifact on display. Writing is essential to all human understanding of the endless parade of things on display in our lives. A life bereft of the written word is a life that is not well-lived.

In my grandfather’s country home, there was a Bible, a Baptist Hymnal, a Farmer’s Almanac, and very few other written books. But even in that sparse reality, writing in the form of those few books played an important role in the lives of my grandfather and step-grandmother.

At night, before going to bed, they would sing from the hymnal together. In the morning, they would read their Bible together. And even when my grandfather was too old to continue a life of farming, he would rely on his Farmer’s Almanac to know when the weather would be changing, when to harvest from the vegetable garden that sustained them, when to rise in the morning and go to bed at night. Without books employing the written word, where would my simple grandparents have been, alone together in a big drafty house with nothing to do but sit and rock from daylight till dark?

In my mind, words that have not yet been written play an important role in my drive for creativity. The mind has a huge capacity for storage of ideas, insights, and information. And especially in a person who has tapped into his or her creative nature (something I believe all human beings have even if they have never been aware of it), the mind has an even more wonderful capacity for recall whenever, as a writer, I sit before the blank page conjuring up a story. Even the thoughts that are not written down somewhere are recalled in that moment. The mind-written word connection is a powerful tool all human beings have at their disposal that can make our lives not just experienced, but also shared with others with the goal of enlightenment, through the act of writing.

“In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God. And the word was God.” What is the “word” in this oblique Bible reference that appears in a somewhat similar form in both the Old Testament and the New Testament? Some scholars interpret “the word” as the manifestation of a savior in the world. I do not think so. I think it is literally a reference to the power inherent in language, in words, in the written word—in writing.

It is with words that we think and it is through thoughts that we describe our feelings, our needs, our motivations, our insights, our interpretations of our reality, to those who can understand us and benefit from our experience. The most effective way to convey our thoughts, for whatever purpose, is through writing.

Speaking words is fine as far as it goes—if people listen. But writing adds the element of a studied organization of thoughts that cannot be quite as efficiently achieved through speech.

Where speech is practiced, it is still limited to the audience’s capacity to listen, or to sit through a speech or lecture without letting their own thoughts meander onto other ideas floating around in their own minds (ideas are another form of “the word”) instead of focusing exclusively on our speech.

With book in hand, we can make mental note when our minds wander from the text. We can go back and reread to gain a greater depth of understanding about what we have just read. Not so in most conversations, speeches, and other forms of oral communication. Unless you are recording a speech, there is no reversing the tape to listen again to what has been said. In most cases, you must rely wholly on memory to recall what was said to you with words, and memories are nearly always distorted.

But with writing, with the act of committing words to paper, an amazing transformation takes place in the writer. We suddenly have an immense capacity to tap into the deepest recesses of our memory, of our mind’s storage, to pull out the very word, idea or plot point we need to employ in the specific story we are in the process of creating.

Writing changes lives. Writing does not just change the lives of writers. It changes the lives of millions of readers around the world as well. In Buddhist philosophy, we are not just ourselves. As the song says, “We Are the World.” Nothing has a more powerful impact on the entire world than the act of writing when employed to show those in darkness the light that is always there, within them.

For the frightened child in all of us, writing is a balm and a safe harbor we can retreat to when we are stressed by our life circumstances. Nothing is as consoling and comforting in times of distress as to see a powerful play, watch an absorbing movie or television show, study the content of a well-researched informational book, or read a great story in a book of fiction.

What all of these encounters with the written word have in common is just that—they are all forms of writing that rely on the skills of a good writer to convey to all mankind the meaning of the words being read on the written page or heard in a song, a play, a lecture, a newscast, or any other spoken form of writing.

Popular culture is made up of many things. But I would venture to conclude that not a single thing in all popular culture could ever be adequately conveyed by those contributing to popular culture through their creative efforts, without writing.  Nor could popular culture be properly absorbed by all people the popular cultural items are intended to reach, without the aid of writing. In that sense, writing has enormous importance to the whole of popular culture.