A Writer in a World Without Written Language

Last week, I asked fellow writers what they would do if they weren’t writers. Which got me wondering what I would do if I wasn’t a writer—if that wasn’t an option in our world.

All other things being the same, I think my dream job would be as a genealogist. I love digging around in the past so much, that I get as excited when I help other people do their family lines as when I do mine! So I think that would be my job: professional genealogist. I have no idea how you get to be a professional, but I certainly have logged thousands of “in the field” hours doing my own research!

But, since I am a writer, I took my mental musings a bit farther. What if I lived in a world with no written language? Then what? Genealogy research is based on documentation, which of course would not exist with no written language.

I don’t think I could be an oral storyteller, mostly because I dislike being the center of attention. And I would love to be the keeper of a family history, but my brain turned to mush at age 40 and I would have had to pass it on to the next generation already. So what to do in my retirement?

Keep in mind that a society without a written language does not necessarily have to be a backwards, primitive society. I expect that we would have evolved a different method of preserving and passing on information—likely a visual medium. So our stories would be long, elaborate films or series instead of books. Our non-fiction would be preserved in pictures and videos of lectures and speeches and documentaries. Music would have more weight, as songs would likely convey information instead of simply being “pop culture.”

In a world like that, what would I be? I would still be what I am, a storyteller, only I would have to use the visual medium of the day to tell my stories. I would have to learn to interweave the visual and the aural and the symbolism into a work of art on the screen. Which shouldn’t be too hard—many authors are visual thinkers anyway and many use music to set the mood as they write.

So I would be a visual storyteller. Which is kind of ironic, because in a previous life—before full-time writer, before Mommy—I was an award-winning video editor.

Funny how you can never escape what you really are.

Alex Haley, Scottish Roots, and Genealogy as Story

Alex Haley, author of Roots, is Scottish! So am I, and maybe we’re related. Maybe it’s no surprise I’m embarking on a writing career—perhaps we share the same Scottish writing genes, somewhere a few generations back.


Of course, I’m not serious about Alex Haley and I being related. I have no clue if we are, and it would be an amazing coincidence. But I am deeply into genealogy, and I am currently immersed in my Scottish history. I’m quickly becoming an expert in Scottish history. I find my family history fascinating, and can lose myself in the research for hours. Ask my husband—he has spent many a Saturday watching me cruise the Internet on the genealogy websites. I also ask him to order strange books from the inter-library loan system. “Honey, this book was printed in 1713, I wonder if they can find it for me?” He is quick to tell the librarians that these are for his wife.


What I love about genealogy is the people. I’m not satisfied with the bare facts of their existence. I like to explore where they lived, and the era they lived in. I love seeing family traits that pop up from generation to generation. My cousins are carpenters, and my brother also is good with his hands. My great-grandfather was a carpenter and shipwright. My aunt is musically talented, as are many of my paternal relatives. My great-grandmother was a musician and composer. My mother is very good with languages, and one of her ancestors back in 1500 is known to have spoken eight languages. I’m a writer, and my great-grandmother also was a writer—which I did not know until long after she was gone.


The other great thing about genealogy, from a writer’s point of view, is the stories that come out of these people’s lives. My great-grandmother was 97 when she died. She had been born in 1899. Think of all she lived through! The harrowing tales of early immigrants make for great drama. The noble lineages provide political intrigue and wars. The Celtic clans bring their share of blood feuds and revenge. There is great fodder for books.


In fact, I have already outlined a book based on what I have learned from some of my research – The Cypher King.


Genealogy rocks!

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