A Writing Lesson from Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is one of the most engaging, illuminating and beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television, and I can’t recommend it enough. While listening to Neil deGrass Tyson’s delightful voice explain the universe to me, something he said made me smile even more than usual:

“[Fraunhofer’s] spectrum lines revealed that the visible cosmos is all made from the same elements. The planets, the stars, the galaxies; we ourselves and all of life, the same star-stuff.” ¹

My first thought was that this was also a very apt description of writing. The elements of writing are the letters of the alphabet, as well as any diacritical marks (depending on which alphabet is being used). From there, we can arrange them to create words, and we can then arrange the words in any way we want to form a piece of writing. And the combinations we can create are limitless.

The same words used to write a quick email to a colleague could also be found in a story about losing a pet. A dry report can be made more interesting by rearranging the ‘molecules’ to catch the reader’s eye. The events of the day could be summarised in a text message that uses the most basic building blocks of language, but still retains emotional impact. A non-fiction book uses the same words as a romance novel. There’s no point in being judgemental about what we write and read, because when you break it down, it all consists of the same elements.

We are creating new words all the time. We borrow words from other languages and from the latest trends of our teenagers (I don’t care what anyone says, the abbreviation ‘lol’ is fantastic). New inventions, scientific discoveries, and changes in our physical and social worlds all result in the creation of new words. We make new words by putting two existing words together (known as ‘portmanteaus’). We even take the names of fictional characters and incorporate them into our language – scrooge, milquetoast, yahoo and malapropism are just a few.

This is the magic of writing. From a small number of letters, we can create hundreds and thousands of words. We can then use those words to create billions of unique pieces of writing. So don’t worry. You will never run out of words. You will never run out of ways to use those words. And remember that once you make those words a physical reality, you give them life; a life that also consists of the same star-stuff.

¹Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: Episode Five, Hiding in the Light


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words.

1. The copper wiring curled…
2. Still, it really didn’t matter that…
3. My favourite dinosaur is…
4. It’s petty, but I really can’t stand…
5. A beam of light cut through…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

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