Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute on writing. The audio, including Q&A and a section of my new book, is here. Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of the talk.
This is the worst season in history to feel the burden of writing, just like every other such season. It is a peculiar habit of those who love words to use them to complain about them: if it’s not the writing process that we lament, it’s a public who obviously missed the point or who refuses to pay what the words are so clearly worth. It is tempting to think that the mark of one who calls himself a writer is not what they produce, but the volume of their griping about it all.
Still, there is something new. Contrary to reports, the explosion in the volume of words preceded the digital revolution and blogs—but it has happened nonetheless. The value of words as a raw material—or rather, of sentences—has clearly dropped. We might comfort ourselves with the notion that the value of thinking has increased, but if we asked that other class of professional complainers—academics—they’ll doubtlessly have a different story to tell.
I’ve no interest in regaling you with stories of the difficulties of the trade. It may be harder than ever to earn a sustainable income from arranging thoughts with some modicum of style. But it is as easy as eve to learn write, and to learn to do so well., and that is what interests me. The future for prose that skips along effortlessly is as bright, if not brighter, than ever. We might say that it is the best of times to write, even while being the worst.
The peculiar pressure that “free” places on words may itself be the lover of words’ best hope for purifying his prose—if, that is, we can also resist the more deadly temptation of pursuing not simply an audience, but fame and the benefits that accrue with it.
The notion that I deserve payment for this particular arrangement of thoughts seems to be tied to some conception of ownership and labor. I have brought them together in just this way and by virtue of that shaping I am entitled to make the claim that the work is “mine,” such that I would deserve or merit compensation for it when others take it up and find it useful.
I am not prepared to repudiate this way of approaching things entirely. But it has problems. In formulating thoughts into sentences, I grasp something that is, first and foremost, not mine. The truth is not a domain over which we can establish mastery or possession; it precedes us, stands outside of us, and we recognize and discover it. The peculiar formulation of truths—or half-truths, or fictional accounts, or thoughts—doubtlessly has some expressivist dimension to it, such that the writing indicates the thought as it was grasped by the writer. But that is not what is most interesting abou the process. In the attempt to say the thing as we have seen it, the writer points outward toward something that is not of ourselves. This is true even in memoirs, where the writer must distance themselves from their own life in order to narrate their past to another.
When setting out thoughts, then, in prose or fiction, there is a sense in which we inevitably and necessarily release them into the “public domain.” They are set free in the act of speaking or writing, and the audience is free to interpret them as they wish.* The arbitrary convention of copyrights for however long is a fiction meant to protect the livelihoods and lifestyles of those whose words do receive compensation. It may be a useful fiction, but that ownership is necessarily removed from an author’s heirs after a length of time suggests that its foundation was perhaps never very stable to begin with.
My worry, though, is that the emphasis on ownership and compensation is bad for prose, or perhaps simply bad for us. It ties us together with our words in ways that potentially fuel an unhealthy psychologization of them, and that necessarily forces us to seek out a form of novelty that we otherwise might not pursue. We might love our words for a while simply because they are “ours,” and we might feel for them an instinctive protectiveness against the marauding misinterpretations of uncharitable readers. That is a decent starting place, but we cannot stay there. Eventually we must subject them to an evaluative scrutiny that tests their merits relative to the truth and to apt ways of articulating it.
I am not convinced yet that my generation is willing to do this or has the requisite skills and training—including, I should note, myself. On the one hand, we place the emphasis in our writing almost entirely on the writer, while the thing written is of secondary importance (if that). The clichés that currently dominate an entire wing of the younger evangelical writing world bear this out. We are told that story matters, which is true, but also that we cannot tell a good story unless we live one out first. I am a fan of living, and no one wants to be a dullard, but this peculiar bit of advice seems entirely wrongheaded. For those with eyes to see, there is enough substance in good literature, normal folks, and the mundane affairs of daily life to generate an endless number of tales. It is often hard enough for us to cultivate the courage and fortitude to face up to an overly demanding boss. Ensuring that our own lives are worth writing about may actually destroy the space it takes to write memorable prose. More often than not, we remember writers first and foremost for what they wrote rather than the shape of their unique lives. The pressure to live a compelling story ourselves may have more to do with a vain desire to ensure our stories can be self-referential, which ironically would be the sort of vanity that would blind our eyes from seeing.
Or consider one other cliché, that it is your “voice” that we cherish. On one level, this is unquestionably true. The voice endures after the words have perished, at least if we retain our Christian conviction about the resurrection of the body. But the authority of the voice stems from what it points to and whether it accurately and truthfully depicts the world. A pronouncement that is not truthful can only bind—it cannot liberate. And it is that truthful telling to which anyone who wishes to speak must subordinate themselves. As someone with a “voice,” I confess myself to be wholly sympathetic with the impulse to prize and privilege it, but hopeful for better. We should meet elsewhere as writers, on the equal plane of reality and the self-forgetfulness and self-abnegation that is demanded of us to remain there.
But the evaluative test for our words demands history, and here is where we will all come to nothing. We read Lewis and are impressed by his style, but Lewis knew the forms and could fit his words within them. His training in prose was not ours, for many of us who write have never had one. As someone whose own style came of age while writing publicly on a blog, I find it ironic that the prose style now prized so highly–the snappy, Hitchenseque essays that belong to Vanity Fair or The New Yorker–is for most of us unattainable. A generation of writing that depends upon bullet points, bold headlines, and gimmicks like adjusting the font size (not to mention the one-sentence paragraph) will leave us ill-equipped to unwind a subject with the depth, clarity, and grace that it deserves. (And if the subject deserves not those, then are we pointing toward a more excellent way?) That form of writing will be good for building an audience, and for demonstrating one’s zeal and publicly displaying our emotional lives—or a faux version of them, at least, as the public performance of our emotions inescapably alters their texture. But it will not last, for it forms us badly. It is one thing to turn a phrase, as Chesterton could. It is another to see the turn of an argument while doing so, which is in considerably shorter supply these days. These two skills are not so disconnected as we might presume.
I camnot deny that the form of prose currently popular on blogs “works,” if by that we mean that the crowds come running (and shout either “Hosanna” or “crucify”–there is nothing in between). Or perhaps we should say it builds a “platform,” the term that has become the litmus test for influence among the guild of those who wish to write for profit. We have often been reminded that the path to an audience is to write consistently and accessibly, to meet readers “where they are.” All true enough.
Yet this too may destroy prose. For the point of writing is to say the thing as well as it can be said, an aim which sometimes conflicts directly with the felt needs and abilities of an audience. The word will doubtlessly be said for someone. And sometimes we may feel for others’ sake a desire to say just this thing, such that it is not merely one sentence out of a thousand possibilities that we utter but the only sentence that fits, a truth necessary for the moment. But that word has no room for profit, and sets the listener free to respond or not. It is the word that must be written in this place and time: those with ears to hear will hear it, while those who have not will continue on.
In a world where words are cheap and abundant, then, those who love to write might return to loving the craft as a craft, and saying things for the joy of saying them while paying no heed to whether anyone is listening. To withdraw ourselves, to hide in the recesses and remain absent from the world even while we give words to it, words that the world may not receive regardless of how true or good or beautiful they might be—the vocation of writing when words are cheap may not itself be the same as the vocation of publicly announcing ourselves as writers.
Of course, learning to write well takes practice, and practice can happen in public. It is the gift of blogs and other media, we were told, to open pathways of influence for anyone to walk down. And for those like me who began with almost no discernible writing skills whatsoever, the prospect of a comment or feedback fed our vanity but also kept us practicing. Writing well demands writing often and the hopes of an audience can motivate those of us who are not yet pure at heart.
But to turn to the internet for feedback and accountability also removes us one step from the joys of friendship, joys which should be central to the life of writing. We are not the first generation whose words need the approval and criticism of others, who need editors who know us and our work and can call our bluffs accordingly. The good of saying a thing as it should be said is a good that deserves sharing and being given away, a sharing that happens primarily within the form of a life where those we know and love utter words that matter to us.
Fame and money are poor substitutes for the praise or rebuke of a knowing and loving friend who loves our work along with us and helps us love it better. And somewhat ironically, removing the development of our skills from the context of face-to-face friendships subverts the opportunities we have to be present with and attend to other people—to learn to see—that we might have better stories to tell.
Our words do more than create worlds for others to inhabit: they search out the world as well, and in putting them together we go looking for the right combination of phrase and thought. We write not because we are writers, but because the world is good and worth writing about. But we write under the shadow of death: the meaning of the thing said goes beyond the powers of those who say it, calling into question and placing under judgment the sentences of those who put them together. Yet in the face of death, we eat, drink, are merry, and we write, badly and well, always getting better and nearer the things themselves. But it is those things and the person of Jesus in whom they all hold together that makes truthful, beautiful prose possible. It is not in ourselves or from ourselves that interesting words come—which is why young writers were once taught to extricate the first person pronoun from their prose, and why we should all eliminate the narcissistic self-reflexivity of “it seems to me” and the myriad of personal anecdotes that we lead our prose with. The good words come to us, are beyond us out there in the things that exist well beyond our grasp but that we are invited to participate in and observe.