Despite being the more primeval way of viewing the universe, the forum for action offers authors and orators a friendlier foundation for expressing oneself and connecting with audiences. It represents the world of myth, meaning, and narrative — a primordial existence where desires and fears, values and symbols, emotions and activity, ground all things seen and unseen. If, say, we survey ancient creation stories, the dominance of this forum stands out. In these narratives, the cosmos was created because powerful sentient beings — gods — desired it. (Later ancient stories, particularly those springing from the Judeo-Christian tradition, would introduce a creator God, not gods.) These gods wanted to forge the world and create self-conscious beings to experience it. So the gods acted. Nothing unfolded randomly; everything had a motivational reason. According to this worldview, mindless matter exists because of mind. Hence, the forum for ACTION.
Now, contrast this with our modern creation story. We've embraced the other worldview — the place of things — and reversed the creation process of the universe. From our modern vantage, the cosmos exists because of the random movement of matter, directed by impersonal forces. No powerful sentient being, or beings, wanted to forge the world and create self-conscious creatures to inhabit it. So no purposeful action lies at the heart of creation or the foundation of reality. Instead, everything unfolded randomly, and existence lacks a motivational reason. According to this worldview, mind evolved randomly from mindless matter, like a rabbit magically emerging by itself, without any magician, from a magician's empty hat. Hence, the place of THINGS.
In the ancient narrative, meaning and action shape reality; in the modern one, random and meaningless material processes mold reality.
Professor Jordan B Peterson, in his chunky tome Maps of Meaning, fleshes out these concepts in much greater detail. He writes, when we ask why questions, we are dwelling in the forum for action. When we need or desire something, we are dwelling in the forum for action. When we want to transform the unbearable present into the ideal future, we are dwelling in the forum for action. For instance, why is this caramel cheesecake sitting on my desk? Because I yearned for caramel cheesecake, so I bought one earlier in the day from my local baker. Desire prompted me to act, to change the unbearable present, lacking cheesecake, into the ideal future, full of glorious cheesecake. This illustrates what it means to live life in the forum for action: the world of needs and values, meaning and movement.
But the place-of-things worldview — having emerged around the mid 1600s, with the birth of Sir Isaac Newton, the scientific method, and the enlightenment — emphasizes all things material, reducing reality to the motion of molecules. It highlights the "truth" of matter, while degrading any emergent properties, such as mind, by labeling them an illusion, an epiphenomenon, a secondary side effect of the underlying material process. So it presents an abstract and apathetic outlook where values and meaning fail to exist at a foundational level.
To return to the caramel cheesecake, and embracing a place-of-things perspective, we would say that the cheesecake exists because specific ingredients were mixed together in amounts x, y, and z, causing certain chemical reactions to form molecular bonds between trillions of atoms and thereby resulting in what is expediently labeled a cheesecake. The passive voice were mixed, where no human agent engages in any action, even hints at the impersonal nature of this worldview, as though things just happen automatically, mindlessly, since we can trace the physical cause-and-effect chain back to its beginning. So the cheesecake isn't sitting on my desk because I desired it and because a baker baked it, wanting to sell it and pocket some cash. No, from the place-of-things point of view, the cheesecake really exists because of specific chemical reactions and the cause-and-effect nature of the material world. Narrative — the reason for acting, the motivation for movement — forms a convenient untruth, a helpful lie concocted to make sense of our own senseless existence.
An observant observer can, though, distinguish another impersonal feature of the place-of-things perspective. All claims are user independent, being reached by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Calculating the speed of light, say, experimenters situated in China, Russia, or India will arrive at the same answer. And this answer will remain identical yesterday, today, or tomorrow. We can therefore expunge the agent or experimenter from this worldview since nothing will fundamentally change. The speed of light is the speed of light regardless of whom conducts the experiment to calculate it, or where they conduct the experiment, or when they conduct the experiment.
But this story doesn't apply to the forum-for-action worldview. Each individual possesses different and distinct motives for acting, with motives and values changing constantly. For instance, what would a person lost in the scorching Sahara Desert value more: a 10-ounce bottle brimming with fresh water or a 10-ounce gold bullion bar? Now, what would the same person value more in New York: a 10-ounce bottle brimming with fresh water or a 10-ounce gold bullion bar? In the Sahara Desert, the water is priceless and the gold worthless — while, in New York, only a deranged lunatic would value the water more than the gold bar. So the forum for action exhibits indefinite values and infinite meaning, even for the same objects. Reality depends on context. Life brims with richness and countless possibilities.
As writers, we need to adopt ancient wisdom; we need to embrace the sumptuous abundance found in the forum for action. Editors have even coined a popular aphorism for this advice: Show — don't tell. And having taught writing classes for several years, I find the following exercise useful when I want to show the meaning of Show — don't tell.
I start by displaying a slide with three different pictures to my class. The first picture contains grass. The second, the color blue. And the third, a stick-and-ball representation of a molecule. I then ask the class to pen a sentence describing each picture. Despite experimenting with many classes, I usually get these three sentences, or a close variation, to describe each picture: "Grass is green. This is blue. This is a molecule."
Next, I display a slide with three more pictures. The first picture contains a semi-naked man playing a musical instrument. The second, an athlete jogging in a race. And the third, a goldfish jumping from one fishbowl and landing in another. Once again, I ask the class to pen a sentence describing each picture. And like before, I usually get the following sentences or some other closely related construction: "The weird man played a musical instrument. The athlete ran in a race. The fish jumped out of its fishbowl."
After writing all six sentences (three describing each slide) on a whiteboard, I finally ask the class to spot any common feature shared in their sentences. What word, in particular, stands out? Few classes have failed my test. Can you spot any common feature shared in the first or second batch of sentences?
Since you've read this far, I know you've been greedily soaking up every detail like a thirsty towel on a wet body. So you will have probably noticed this peculiarity: although the initial three sentences all house the verb is, the latter three sentences lack this verb. This observation, for many of my students, presents an ah-ha! moment, a valuable insight.
In English, all complete sentences are based on one of two types of verb: a linking verb or an action verb. (A person can, of course, pluck a verb from a complete sentence to shape a sentence fragment, lacking a verb, such as the proverb "New lords, new laws.") Although English boasts thousands of action verbs, only three true linking verbs exist: be, become, and seem. And people use the linking verb be or one of its conjugated forms — am, are, is, was, were, being, been — more than any other linking verb or action verb. Returning to our previous illustration, we witness this verb's overuse in the first three sentences: "Grass is green. This is blue. This is a molecule."
Yet compared to the three true linking verbs, thousands of vivid and versatile action verbs flood our language. In the exercise above, we can spot three distinct examples -- play (played), run (ran), jump (jumped): "The weird man played a musical instrument. The athlete ran in a race. The fish jumped out of its fishbowl." Now, to demonstrate their limitless powers of nuanced expression, I want you to brainstorm just one action verb — let's choose the action verb run — listing as many similar variations as you can in 15 seconds.
Okay, you should have discovered several related action verbs, each offering a subtle yet useful distinction in meaning. Here's my list for those passive members of my audience: hurry, dash, scurry, rush, bolt, chase, jog, trot, and sprint. And toying with other action verbs, we can unearth thousands of literary gems, as rich and plentiful as the treasures hoarded in the Vatican. Go for it. Start jotting down any vibrant action verb that irrupts into your mind: laugh, giggle, chuckle, snigger, chortle, smile, scowl, jump, hurtle, amble, scorch, score, flatter, frisk, burn, singe, nip, maul, lacerate, tickle, titillate, stir, thrill, excite, whip, ad infinitum.
Action verbs energize and electrify a sentence. Action verbs add verve and vitality to prose. Action verbs invite precise details into one's work, forcing an author to create and narrate a story. And humans relate to stories, for we evolved in the ancient forum for action: the sphere of narrative, ritual, drama, myth, and action verbs!
Action verbs show — don't tell.
But linking verbs represent everything that action verbs do not. Linking verbs express existence or describe a quality, without imparting any energy or animation to a sentence. Linking verbs typify the modern place of things. Amateur and bureaucratized writers adore the linking verb be, inundating their prose with it, or one of its related forms, because it requires no effort, no ingenuity, no imagination, to fashion sentences using this boringly brainless and actionless verb.
Linking verbs tell — don't show.
To illustrate, the following sentence tells us a fact by embracing the linking verb be (was): The man was happy because he was rich. Yet action this sentence lacks. Details it expunges. Narrative it ignores.
We can, nonetheless, reshape this banal statement into something fresh and engaging, by basing our sentences on action verbs. This simple trick promotes action; action fosters story; story engages audiences. For example: Winning the lottery, the newly minted multimillionaire lavished in a previously unimaginable lifestyle, full of fast cars, luxurious yachts, and the finest cuisine. But to his horror, he soon discovered that each new purchase failed to make him happier. His epicurean existence had transformed into a living hell — empty, nihilistic, meaningless.
A writer who dwells in the modern place of things, weaving linking verbs into most sentences, resembles a painter who paints using only white paint. Although he or she gets the job done quickly, the finished product will bore you with its blandness and homogenized monotony. But a raconteur who lives in the ancient forum for action, welcoming the near-limitless colors of action verbs into most sentences, resembles a painter who paints using the full spectrum. Although he or she toils harder to complete the job, the finished product will attract and excite you with its brilliance and uniqueness and primordial power.
Ramy Tadros teaches writing classes at Sydney Community College and WEA Sydney. He has also published several books, including Brave New Word: A Layman's Guide to All Things Rhetorical and I, Necrosis, awarded the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Best E-Book Fiction 2017 and the Gold Medal for Horror 2017 by Next Generation Indie Book Awards.