The Persistent Power of the Written Word

When people think of universities, there must be those who think of words, not buildings, grassy malls or big games. Words are everywhere: quietly living long lives in books on library shelves, or flying madly through the air in lecture halls and seminar conversations. Yet, at universities words are so omnipresent that they may be taken for granted because they are the sea in which the fish — faculty, students and even staff — swim. At the same time, there may be no place where faith in the enduring power of the written word is stronger than at a university. Here, Dante may converse with Dostoevsky any day, and it matters little that they are dead, because their words, still vital, are eternal.

When we asked six alumni writers to contribute an essay about the persistent power of the written word, we encouraged them to think broadly. Other than a word limit and a deadline, they were provided minimal direction — little more than the observation that even in the midst of continuous innovation of communications technology, humans are still engaged in the activity of exchanging words. We invited an established novelist and a journalist, as well as an emerging novelist and a writer who pens a spiritual reflection column. We also sought a blogger and screenwriter: In today’s world, electronic words — on the Web — and invisible ones — the screenplay of a film — have an impact that almost any writer in any age could desire. Some of our writers reflect on the power of the word within their chosen field of expertise, others on the pull that writing has in their life. Crafting words is described as an irresistible urge, a disease, a thrill, a commitment and a way of sharing the answers to life’s most profound questions. But all of our contributors testify to how the written word can change lives. These essays first appeared in the fall 2007 issue of Vistas magazine, which was LMU’s institutional publication that preceded LMU Magazine.—Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

Lonely Cubby Holes
by Brian Helgeland ’87

“Action!” That is the glamour word, the bang-pow word that most people associate with filmmaking. It is not written down. It is spoken (often loudly) by motion picture directors. It’s a pretty cool word to say. I’ve bellowed it myself; I know. It’s the word that literally gets things rolling. A close second in the glamour department is: “Cut!” It’s over. Done. “I am ending this here.”

“Action” and “cut” are the alpha and omega of Hollywood. They are black and white words in a very gray world. They are the commands that seem to give directors that intangible power and mystique that they possess. They evoke control and imply mastery.

There are two other words in filmmaking. They are also well known, but not nearly as sexy. They show up only once during the making of a film. They are not shouted on a soundstage. They are not related over the radio at the start of elaborate stunts. They are not words uttered in the heat of battle. Indeed they are two words that signify the start of an endeavor, the beginning of a long journey. They are “Fade In,” and they are found at the beginning of practically every screenplay ever set to page. They are the words of a writer. Because movies are written. Good ones are at least. Actually, bad ones are as well; they’re just badly written. It’s an amazingly simple equation, to be honest.

“It may seem like artistic madness, but I would argue that “Fade In” are the words of an anonymous god.”

“Fade In” are words written down in lonely offices and cubby holes and mental cellblocks. They are between the writer and the page. In fact, these words will never be read by the audience for whom they are intended. While a novelist enters into an agreement with the reader the moment the spine is cracked open to page one, the screenwriter enters into an agreement with the audience that the audience is not even aware of. In fact, in the best movies you shouldn’t be aware of the writer at all. You should simply believe what you are seeing and accept the truth of what you are feeling. If the script is well done, this is as true for the audience who experience it as it is for the director and the actors who have to read and convey it. You see and feel and you do not question the source. It may seem like artistic madness, but I would argue that “Fade In” are the words of an anonymous god. They are his “let there be light.” “Action!” and “Cut!” are for the mortals who come after.

Brian Helgeland ’87 wrote the original screenplays for the films “Conspiracy Theory” and “A Knight’s Tale” and the adapted screenplays for “Man On Fire,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River.”

Brick and Mortar
by Lynell George ’84

Being a writer wasn’t something I dreamed of. There wasn’t “a plan.” It was something that I simply found myself doing. Or, more accurately, something I couldn’t imagine not doing. It just was. Like breathing, like walking: one step, next step.

For as long as I remember, the page was never a surface I skimmed; it was something I always leapt into; one complex sentence — a revelatory side trip; a digressive paragraph — perfect serendipity. With teachers for parents, I was never wanting for storybook adventure. Books were duly in evidence: they might as well have been wallpaper. There were a ticket that could take you zipping from Brooklyn brownstones to the frosts of Victorian England, then deep into the American South and its humid mysteries, and a taste of yesterday’s tomorrows. These stories hung in my consciousness, both the magic and the mechanics of them.

At some point, I wanted to tell stories, not just absorb them. I wanted to write my world into being. My little sketches evolved into semi-fictions — a 12-year-old growing up in a sun-bleached, shifting Los Angeles — a place so stubbornly unlike the rest of the country. They were stories that were like working a big jigsaw puzzle I’d yet to find all the pieces for.

“For as long as I remember, the page was never a surface I skimmed; it was something I always leapt into.”

But I was picking up pieces — signals — from everywhere: It wasn’t just the cadences of J.D. Salinger’s cracking-wise Holden Caulfield, but the journalism of Cameron Crowe, who seemed more like a just-graduated classmate filing sweeping feature stories that ended up in the pages of “Rolling Stone.” Those stories were my first glimpse of long narrative “New Journalism” — telling weighty, true stories with the tools and devices of literature. I began to understand the nature of “voice” — how words are paint, or brick and mortar, or notes on the scale. They are magic.

I began to slowly understand that journalism allowed me to continue on a path of evoking the particulars of hidden or marginal worlds. It was a way to give voice to people who seldom had access. I could be their eyes, their voices. There is something both daunting and exhilarating about not just bearing witness but conveying crisis, dilemma or simply “the state of things” with enough potency and immediacy to leave reader, if not changed, at least open to a new way of considering the world. And words — the right ones, lined up end to end — can do that.

Lynell George is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where she covers arts and culture. Her work has appeared in various magazines and essay collections. She is the author of “No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels.”

The Bottom Drawer
by Denise Hamilton ’81

I only took two English classes while at LMU. Instead, I majored in economics, a practical discipline that I believed would land me a job after graduation. While I had scribbled short stories and poems all my life, creative writing seemed more like an indulgence than a vocation. How many people actually make their living at it? I figured I could always pursue my little vice in my spare time, for the bottom drawer.

But the written word was persistent, drawing me in despite myself. I gravitated to the Loyolan, where I hung out with the reporters and “fotogs.” I went to campus poetry readings and author talks. And I read and wrote voraciously, in private, after I’d finished my term papers on Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Kenneth Galbraith and Amartya Sen.

I loved the interplay of politics, history, philosophy and finance that is economic theory, and I had wonderful teachers like Professor Renata Thimester. But I still rue that I never took a class from the great Carolyn See. And it took a year of floundering after graduation before I came to my senses and enrolled in a master’s program in journalism, eventually landing a staff job at the L.A. Times.

After 10 years though, I began feeling hemmed in by the facts and turned to fiction. Six novels later, I have the career I probably hadn’t been ready for at 21. In retrospect, I needed to travel the world, have adventures, interview thousands of people and write hundreds of journalism stories before embarking on my own.

“There’s a hunger for storytelling that is so powerful that it seems hard-wired into our humanity. It isn’t going away, until we as a species do.”

People say a lot about how the written word is doomed. They’re usually writing those words — in newspapers and magazines, in blog postings, on Web sites. The destroyers of the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt — one of the wonders of the ancient world — probably said that too. They were wrong.

The written word is merely the transcription of the stories we once told, sitting around the cave fire. There’s a hunger for storytelling that is so powerful that it seems hard-wired into our humanity. It isn’t going away, until we as a species do. And even then, one hopes it will persist somehow, a spectral impulse hovering patiently until the next blinking creatures crawl out of the primordial swamp or arrive from a distant star and start telling each other stories again.

Denise Hamilton ’81 is a crime novelist and editor of “Los Angeles Noir,” an anthology. Visit her at

Loving Speech
by Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80

If I had to marshal an argument for the power of the written word, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than this. The Gospel of John begins breathlessly and poetically, it captures us, holding us transfixed in the complexity of these 17 little words. We sense that there is so much here. Invited into the Gospel in a way that tells us that what we are about to read is not “about” something, it “is” something. Holy Scriptures constitute a moment repeating itself, generation after generation, as the ancient words give us the power to experience something that will change our lives. The Gospel of John chooses the Word, God’s inordinately loving speech, to help our imagination wrap itself around the reality of Christ. Christ comes in God’s very act of forming words so God may communicate with us. Christ is the Word that God keeps speaking to us so we may answer from our particular time in human history.

“Our written words, ancient and new, embody experience, tradition, connection and loving community. Just at that original Word God sent to us taught us.”

The written word is about tradition, and it defies time. The new Christians who speak in the Gospel of John bring us into the astounding newness of their moment. The written word helps us create connections, subverting boundaries between their time and ours. Today’s questions are answered by those who came before us. “In the beginning was the Word” is a description of wholeness made up of many parts, of the individuality of letters that when joined create an utterance and meaning, reminders of the indispensable quality of each life as parts of that very Word God speaks.

The written word — whose very disappearance seemed an inevitable result of the popularity of modern visual media — has taken on new power in this 21st century. Unexpectedly the written word has become more immediate than ever before; words that form in one continent immediately appear in another, informing, dissenting, questioning and celebrating. Our written words, ancient and new, embody experience, tradition, connection and loving community. Just at that original Word God sent to us taught us.

You and I may never have shared a classroom or a late-night study group, but through the power of the written word and the kinship of God’s Word, today, this day, we know each other.

Born in Cuba and raised in Southern California, Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80, M.A. ’01 writes “De Todo Un Poco,” a column published in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that has been honored with awards from the Catholic Press Association and other organizations. She is a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Humble Testimony
by Patrick Furlong ’06

Not until college did I realize that the power of words is deeply personal. I’d like to believe it happened in the classroom, but one encounter with an English literature survey course was enough to confirm that I was not destined for a literary career. I left the ancient world of Chaucer and — thanks to the Center for Service and Action at LMU — entered a different world: Juan and Tata, two Dominicans I befriended during Alternative Spring Break, allowed me to live with them in their tiny village. They are just two of many people who opened my eyes to an entirely new reality: one of severe poverty and hardship, and immense love and companionship.

When I graduated, I committed myself to two years of service work in South America. I knew nothing more than what colorful, glossy brochures, well-designed Web sites and volunteer coordinators could tell me. But when reality set in, questions flooded my mind. I realized the need for volunteers to write candidly about their life and what it means to leave the familiar for the unknown. Nerves, excitement, fear, confusion, hesitation, freedom: Out of these varying and intense experiences, my blog was born.

“Words, however extravagant or modest, are nothing more than a tool to help people encounter their lives.”

I do not pretend to be a professional writer or to have more influence than I actually do. Yet, one year into my journey I see that my voice has become a humble testimony of the people and the stories I have encountered. The tragedy of the suffering, abused and unloved orphans I work with is one of many stories I have reflected on and tried to understand. My hope is that readers glimpse a world they don’t understand and are uncomfortable with, and that this glimpse inspires a search for a greater understanding of the devastating injustices that plague us.

The power of words lies less in our ability to turn words into magnificent prose and more in our ability to weave them into the hearts and experiences of those who seek profundity in their own lives. Words, however extravagant or modest, are nothing more than a tool to help people encounter their lives. I sincerely hope that blogs continue to grow in popularity. From accounts by soldiers in Iraq to volunteers in South America to soccer moms in Wisconsin, blogs get at the core of something many elitists have long forgotten: No matter who we are or what we do, each of us has a story to tell.

Patrick Furlong ’06 has worked in Bolivia and Chile for two years. He is now working in Quito, Ecuador, the Working Boys Center, a Jesuit organization. His blog can be found at

The Chicken Pox
by Jim Gavin ’88
Fiction Writer

In Joyce Cary’s “The Horse’s Mouth,” Gulley Jimson, painter and felon, counsels a young man who claims he wants to be an artist: “Of course you do. Everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles and the chickenpox.”

I guess you could say I caught the chickenpox at LMU. I had entered my freshman year as a communication studies major, but after a few classes I realized the strange and hermetic concepts of that discipline — situational dyads, belief congruency, adaptive structuration — were beyond the limits of my understanding. I spent most of my freshman year playing basketball and pingpong in the pungent hollows of the old Alumni Gymnasium.

I also met some great friends, members of that bright, lazy and morbidly curious apprentice class who graze in the shadows at every university. We traded books, records, movies; the more obscure the better. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself when I got to LMU, but whatever it was, I was drifting happily away from it. This type of “awakening,” I suspect, is all too common and probably represents a threat to the prosperity of our nation.

“Whether or not I ever become a writer, I am going to write. The condition is terminal.“

In any case, I eventually stumbled on a copy of “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon. I knew nothing of the author or the book, but it seemed to jump off the shelf, like it had been waiting for me. Pynchon’s grand and looping narrative was also beyond my understanding, but beautifully so, instilling the ordinary world with a vivid and enduring sense of mystery. In pursuit of this mystery, I finally retreated, like so many vain and romantic young men, to the English department.

Inspired by many excellent professors, my symptoms got worse. I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write. At this giddy stage, being a writer somehow means drinking rum in sultry foreign capitals and showing up for the occasional honorary banquet. The blank page, the empty room, the freighted hours — such horrors never cross the mind.

Thankfully, in the coming years, as my illusions faded, I still found myself carving out time to sit down and put together sentences. Whether or not I ever become a writer, I am going to write. The condition is terminal.

Jim Gavin has worked, in no particular order, as a sports writer, gas station attendant, bus boy, data entry specialist, plumbing salesman and production assistant. In April 2007, he received the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University.