No Writing on the Wall: Why Writers Avoid Word Art in Their Living Spaces
If you read online chats about interior decorating, you know that some people absolutely love word art and others hate it. Let’s leave aside the debate about whether word art is really art, and instead call it “word décor.” Word décor includes things such as wooden or metal plaques inscribed with popular commands (“Dare to Dream”), pillows embroidered with personal mottoes (“Keep Calm and Drink Coffee”), six-inch block letters strategically hung on the wall of each room to remind you of what the room is for (“Eat” for the kitchen, “Sleep” for the bedroom . . . I’ll let you decide what goes in the bathroom.)
If you love word décor, if it helps you stay on the right path, then by all means proudly display it. It’s your house. Surround yourself with things that bring you joy and vitality.
One woman reported that the word “faith” on her bedroom wall gave her strength to get through chemotherapy. Another woman framed her declaration of love for her husband, which he keeps in his office. It’s your living space, so you get to decide what goes there.
As a writer, I have to admit that word décor is not my thing. Especially the large posters of what I call the Family Manifesto: “In this house we believe . . .” with a list of things that household believes. Usually these are set in a mish-mash of typefaces and fonts, at juxtaposed angles. Aside from the challenging graphic layout, there are sometimes other problems.
For example, a particularly grating version of the Family Manifesto is the one in which the auxiliary verb “do” isn’t really auxiliary – it’s pretending to be a normal lexical verb. It’s not grammatical because there’s no actual noun object: “In this house we do real, we do love, we do fun, we do sorry, we do really loud . . . etc. ”
My editor’s pen comes out when I read stuff like this. We do what really loud? (And for the record, it’s loudly.) Can we please add in the missing noun objects? “In this house, we do have real emotions, we do love our dogs, we do fun projects, we do sorry sentence constructions, we do display really loud wall décor . . .” Ah. Now it’s at least somewhat grammatical, although the rhythm is way off and it still sounds awkward.
Writers can’t easily tune out words and sentences
Those of us who “do” words for a living have an abnormally intimate relationship to words and sentences and paragraphs. We can’t not see them and we can’t not correct them if they’re staring us in the face. Tuning them out takes energy, and sometimes it’s impossible to tune them out if they’re really invasive. Words attract my gaze like magnets attract metal filings. Once I catch sight of them, they talk to me, just as a person who is standing in front of me, uttering words, talks to me. I can’t decide not to understand the words I’m hearing, just as I can’t decide to not understand the words I’m reading. If word décor is staring at me during visit to someone’s house, it is as if there is a loud radio or television playing the same loop over and over again. I have to force myself not to look at it, which is exhausting.
We writers approach the written word as a problem to be solved. During our work hours, we spend a lot of our mental energy trying to construct a series of decent sentences and paragraphs. Heck, we spend a lot of energy just tracking down a single right word. The last thing I want on my walls is a big poster with banal sentences that I will read and re-read every single day. And if the grammar or rhythm is off, or the graphic design is jarring, that’s torture. The writer will think: How can I re-word it? How can I improve the typography and layout? The writer will want to fix the problem, much like a neat-freak wants to tidy up a disordered room.
Here is an interesting anecdote: I had a friend who was an architect. He once told me that he kept his white bedroom walls completely bare. There was hardly any furniture in the room, beyond the essentials. I was surprised, because the man lived and breathed design, his living room was tastefully decorated, and he was a good artist. He said his bedroom was sparse because he needed a refuge where he didn’t have to think about what he did for a living. If he allowed design elements into his bedroom, whether in the form of wall art, architectural details, textile patterns, or intricate furniture, his mind would be in work mode as he looked at each object and analyzed it, and he’d have a harder time falling asleep.
I’m the same way about words. I don’t want to have huge words shouting at me in my living space. I can’t even stand to see warning labels displayed on appliances, or stickers on fruit. I will take the time to remove this kind of clutter in order to make my environment quieter.
In her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo talks about a woman who had the kind of well-organized house that could handle surprise visitors without embarrassment. Still, something didn’t feel right. Kondo explains:
When I opened the closet, I found what I had been expecting. Labels proclaiming “Great Storage Solutions!” were stuck to clear plastic drawers, packages of room deodorizers were emblazoned with “Freshens Air Instantly!” and the cardboard boxes announced “Iyo Oranges.” Everywhere I looked, words, and more words leaped out at me . . . . A deluge of information whenever you open a closet door makes a room feel “noisy.” Particularly if the words are in your own language, they jump into your line of vision, and your brain treats them as information to be sorted. This creates commotion in your mind. . . . Strangely, just closing the cupboard doors does not conceal the flood of information. The words become static that fills the air (pp. 167-168).
I followed Kondo’s advice and transferred Dr. Bronner’s soap out of its original container to a blessedly word-free container. If you’ve ever seen a Bronner’s label, you know the word count of his philosophical musings must be somewhere around that of a short novel. Even though I could ignore the stuff set in 2-point, I was driving myself crazy reading the larger typefaces that scream from the label: “ALL-ONE!” Warning! Keep out of Eyes! Wash out with Water! Don’t Drink Soap! Dilute! Dilute! Or Wet Skin Well! OK!
What Kondo is talking about is, of course, not word décor. Neither is a Bronner’s bottle. But to a writer, Family Manifesto posters and big wooden plaques with mottoes are pretty much the same thing as Bronner's bottles, plastic bin labels and air freshener packages. It’s all distracting chatter. Kondo’s observation about how unnecessary words can create static is how a lot of us wordsmiths feel when we’re confronted with words, words everywhere in our living spaces.
Having said that, not everyone in the writing business is adverse to word décor. Some writers can’t get enough of it. They love the intersection of words and art in all its permutations, from posters to quotes from famous writers, to big replicas of QWERTY keyboards on the wall over the living room sofa.
In fact, I have a few pieces of word décor in my living space, and I love them -- but they don’t make a spectacle of themselves.
How loud is it?
As a writer -- and I am speaking only for myself here (although I suspect I have company) -- my rule of thumb for when it’s okay to use words as décor and when it is not boils down to one thing: How loud is it?
If there is an 8 x 11 page of household rules, beautifully written in calligraphy, framed and placed on a shelf, no problem. Even a whole wall of writing in relatively small point is fine, because in order to “hear” what it’s saying, you have to get close and actually read it. The same goes for matted-and-framed pages from an antique book, illuminated manuscripts, and other written artifacts. Those things don’t shout at you from across the room as 6-inch tall words do.
In my house, I have two throw pillows printed with a writer-friendly motto in French, some framed pages from a Shakespeare play, and a fragment of a Torah scroll in Hebrew. In the garden, I have a framed motto about flowers (also in French) hanging on an exterior wall. Each of these gives me joy. The fact that some of these word décor items are in languages I can barely read (French) or not at all (Hebrew) means that they are far quieter than if they were in English. Still, I would not want any Latinate phrases in large letters on my walls, because it would be as if a parrot were in my house, repeating over and over the same dimly familiar cognates.
Some word décor crosses the barrier from communicative into entirely aesthetic -- especially if you don’t know the orthography (that is, the writing system used to record the language). Japanese and Chinese calligraphy scrolls are an example. The fact that I’m not literate in those writing systems enhances their visual beauty. They are quiet and beautiful, just as a painting is quiet and beautiful. If I were literate in them, I might find those calligraphy scrolls distracting the way I find English word décor distracting. But I’m not, so I can react to them as art, not as written communication.
The bottom line is, we writers often have an acutely sensitive relationship to the written word, which in turn influences how we react to word décor. We may come across as unfashionable nerds who just don’t understand the latest trends in interior decorating. We’re not trying to be ungrateful jerks when quietly retire a housewarming gift of a 3-foot-long rendition of “Live Laugh Love” to the garage. We’re just trying to create a quiet living space. As Marie Kondo observes: “By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space much more peaceful and comfortable.” And, as all writers know, peaceful, comfortable spaces -- without loud distractions -- help writers stay focused on their latest project.