Monday, 11 October 2010

On writing: thirteen theses

1. Writing and the fall. Angels have no need of writing – though Goethe’s Mephistopheles is a writer. Jesus left behind no writings; nor did the Buddha. ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.’ Writing is for the fallen, for the soul cast out of paradise and lonely to return. When our first parents took the apple, God killed an animal and clothed them. Words are the bloody skins stitched together to cover our mysterious theological shame. In the shadows behind every book lie the skinned remains of some dead thing; its smell lingers in the library and in the writer’s study.

2. Kinds of writing. There are four kinds of writing: bad, mediocre, good, and great. The difference between bad writing and mediocre writing is discipline. The difference between mediocre writing and good writing is editing. The difference between good writing and great writing is miracle.

3. Writing and editing. T. S. Eliot once observed that good writers do not necessarily write better than others, but are better critics and editors. Good writers cull the overpopulated paragraphs of their work. Like a farmer protecting the livestock, the writer lovingly separates whatever is sickly and infirm – and then loads the gun.

4. Writing and discipline. The self has a tendency to leak and dribble. Left to itself, it loses all definition, becomes a shapeless puddle. Writing, like ritual, is a cast into which the self is poured. Writing is care of the self. ‘He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem’ (Milton). A book is a few seconds of inspiration plus a few years – or a lifetime – of discipline. You cannot have a campfire without the first spark, but the spark is useless without the slow labour of gathering wood, building the fire, and maintaining it when it begins to die.

5. Writing and patience. Annie Dillard notes that some people can write quickly – just as some people lift cars, eat cats, or enter weeklong sled-dog races: ‘There is no call to take human extremes as norms.’ A person who could write a page every day would be one of the most prolific writers in the world – even if half those pages had to be thrown away. Writing is slow because truth is shy. You can’t get close to truth all at once, but only by a protracted exchange of fumbling gestures, awkward silences, and tentative questions and replies. The patience of the writer is the moral complement to the shyness of truth.

6. Writing and jealousy. Like cleaning your ears or picking your nose, writing is something best done in private. All writing is solitary. Even collaborative efforts are stitched together from smaller, lonelier units. All sorts of things – in fact, most of the things that really matter – must be excluded in order to write. Like a drawn bowstring, the writer draws back from the world in order to pierce it more forcefully. The selfishness of the writer is jealousy for truth.

7. Writing and kenosis. To the extent that the writer is not merely selfish but jealous, writing becomes a practice of true selflessness. The novelist creates a character through generosity and kenosis: he withholds his own agenda, silencing his own voice to make room for the voice of the character. Writers erase themselves to let something else be.

8. Writing and death. The biggest difference between today's writing and the writing of the past is that writers are no longer put to death. Writers nowadays could never dream of having to die for what they have written. Even if writerly execution was not always common, the possibility of death was implicit in every act of writing. The zone within which writers worked was marked out by this juridical possibility. But in the West today there is no writing for which a person could conceivably be executed. This alters the whole nature of scholarly inquiry. It is also partly responsible for the bloodless mediocrity of most contemporary writing.

9. Writing and life. The widespread notion that life is more important than writing – as though writing were something I do when I’m not really living – owes much to this modern abrogation of the threat of death. To distinguish between writing and living betrays a deep misunderstanding not only of what it means to write but also of what it means to live. My happiest childhood memories are of sitting alone writing stories: was I writing, or living? The division is not only false but also heretical, since for Christians (as for others) the secret of life is disclosed in a canon of writings. Yet this heretical distinction is perpetrated whenever Christians expect their writers to leave aside their labour with words in order to do something more ‘practical’. St Paul describes his letter to the Galatians not as a secondary description of the reality of the gospel, but as gospel itself, God’s own personal speaking in the world. If there is any distinction between life and writing, it is only that writing is (or can be) a particularly intensified form of living. The same sunlight falls across the café window and the magnifying lens: the only difference is the smoke.

10. Writing and truth. The purpose of writing, says Wendell Berry, is ‘to keep our language capable of telling the truth’. All the daily problems, obstacles, and difficulties of writing – even the most pedantic labours over syntax and punctuation – are reducible to the problem of truth. All writing is lying, as Samuel Beckett often observed. But writers want to lie their way into the truth, to vaccinate themselves against falsehood by injecting it right into the bloodstream. The real business of writing is the identification of difficulties, problems, and falsehoods. This is why suicide is especially prevalent among writers: problem-detection is a disheartening line of work. Like a sad clown forced to go on smiling, the writer continues using words even in face of the immense unspoken sadness of truth.

11. Writing and thought. I write not because I know but because I want to know. Among scholars today, there is no error more pervasive than writerly Docetism. The Docetic heresy divides idea from style; it is the belief that one can have clear thoughts regardless of the clarity of their expression, or that one first has an idea which is subsequently communicated through the neutral medium of prose. But between idea and form there is a mystical union of natures; to write well is to think well. Language is not the external adornment of thought. It is thought itself, the blood and tissue of the idea.

12. Writing and God. Did the Hebrew prophets write in order to record their experiences of God? Did those experiences not rather occur in the act of writing itself? Would it have made any sense for them to distinguish the revelation of Yahweh from the stuff of language? Did they not find the face of Yahweh pressed suddenly against their outstretched fingertips as they groped their way blindly through the doorway into the dark house of language? The tightly knotted bond between God and language is the secret truth of all writing. According to the Zohar, one binds oneself to God by learning to write God’s Name, since the Name of God is the being of God. Writing and religion alike bubble up from this hidden primeval fountain of theological magic.

13. The end of writing. According to Gershom Scholem, some Jewish mystics taught that on the last day God will annul the Torah: all the letters will stay the same, but God will rearrange them into a completely different combination, a new-yet-identical script. This is the ecstatic telos of all writing. It is the promise for which writing waits: to be simultaneously deciphered and erased, transposed from human words into tongues of angels, burned up but not consumed in the violent conflagration of the Word.

29 Comments:

Karl Hand said...

Love it!! I'm pretty sure Thesis 13 is completely meaningless. The best mysticism always is?

Chris Tilling said...

Brilliant stuff. Thanks, Ben.

Steve Wright said...

Fantastic! Now when I delete paragraphs I'll be feeling sorry for sickly livestock.

pilgrimpathways said...

Wow. This mediocre writer now has more reason to aspire to being a good writer.

Randy Olds said...

Excellent! I am linking back to this just so that I can come back to it at a later date.

Peter said...

How sad. Writing becomes so limiting, so un-real, so useless after reading this.

All writing is lying in order to find the truth? So we can never use writing in order to proclaim truth?

Writing is thinking, therefor those who don't write, cannot think properly?

Jesus left behind no writings? Hello???

Editting makes mediocre writing into good writing? I have often seen the opposite; editting takes the life out of writing.

A book is a few seconds of inspiration and a few years of discipline? Aha, that is why so many books are so boring! The inspiration has gradually been taken out and replaced by reasoning...

Where do you get the idea that God revealed Himself just when the Hebrews were writing?

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed that, Ben. Thanks!
Isaac

kim fabricius said...

14. Writing and metaphor. See Ben Myers, "On Writing: Thirteen Theses".

A magnificent seduction, Ben, of the coy mistress (cf. #5).

Terry Wright said...

Quite possibly the best blog post I've ever read.

jobertil said...

Thanks, Ben.
#9 could be called ”Writing and life (and my wife)”, ”Writing and wife”, or something similar. She seems to be influenced by analytical philosophy – too much logic. The argument goes: Person X wants watch a movie with person Y. Person Y wants to read theology (again?!! she exclaims, when is it gonna rub off??). Ergo: Person Y loves theology more than he loves person Y…
Of course this touches on thesis #6 – Writing and jealousy, and – worst case scenario - #8 Writing and death – “Death to writing (and theology!!!).”
Greetings from Norway

PS: I do not dare to mention "happiness" and "sitting alone" in the same sentence. Bless your courage - and my compliments to your wife :) DS

steveharris.org said...

re #1: "Everything paper also belongs to the way that is wide." (von Balthasar)

funkmaster123 said...

Your blog is really excellent and a strong encouragement to me. I'm a new seminary student just starting out, and you're giving me encouragement :). Keep it up.

Ante Jeroncic said...

"The patience of the writer is the moral complement to the shyness of truth."

This is wonderfully put! Thanks for yet another wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

Parts of this looked insightful and meaningful. But...

Erin said...

Ben, this is marvelous.

djgrieser said...

On Thesis 1: Angels may not need writing, but they do read, as Augustine wrote in Confessions, Book XIII: "They 'ever see your face' and there, without syllables requiring time to pronounce, they read what your eternal will intends They read, they choose, they love. They ever read, and what they read never passes away. ... Their codex is never closed, nor is their book ever folded shut." (Chadwick translation)

Pamela said...

This was a joy to read Ben. Hope you like these words by David Mamet on writing:
'This is the genius of Bach and the overwhelming demand of dramaturgy - this understanding or its lack divides those who can write from those who can really write: how much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible. Chekhov removed the plot, Pinter, elaborating, removed the history; Beckett, the characterisation. We hear it anyway.'

Martyn J Smith said...

As a 45 year old secondary school teacher working part-time on a theology PhD I found this blog absolutely wonderful! It made me laugh out loud and then pulled me into moments of reflection and pathos.
It was, in itself, a perfect advertisement for the power and intrigue of writing as a medium.
So, however, redundant writing might be, one has to communicate this idea via writing - perfect!
Thank you SO much for encouraging a rather weary writer and inspiring me to go at the task afresh tonight with renewed vigour and discipline...

agapelife said...

I'm in seminary right now and I feel as though half my life is writing! Thanks for this, it was enlightening.

Dan Reid said...

Bravo! And here I thought your blog on librarians and libraries couldn't be surpassed!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for the comments.

Dan, it's true that I was competing against my post on librarians — I'm not convinced that I've managed to surpass that one, but I'm certainly grateful for the comparison!

John Hartley said...

14. Writing and Maths. Writing is what people do when the mathematical notation for doing it more precisely has not been formulated yet. It functions as a bulldozer, clearing the ground and levelling the misconceptions, so that the serious work of building theorems can begin.

byron smith said...

1. Angels have no need of writing, and yet God himself is a writer: Ex 31.18.

Christina said...

Dear Ben, I feel a strong kinship with much of this entry. Thank you.
Christina Baik

Bob MacDonald said...

These are all excellent notes - but each requires an answer as Winnie the Pooh read on Owl's doorstep. One short answer is here

Ben Myers said...

John, I love your additional thesis on mathematics — though I hope to God you're wrong.

Nazaroo said...

Room for Improvement:

Following your own advice in Thesis #2:


Thesis #1: "God killed an animal and clothed them" - missing the obvious Hebrew euphemistic children's explanation for pubic hair was fatal. As disturbing as the discovery and growth of such hair might temporarily be to preteens, we hardly need perpetuate erroneous fundamentalism as adults. There is no "animal" or "fur" in the Hebrew text.

Thesis #2: In order to bring your writing up to speed from mediocre to good, we might amend with the following: "The difference between good writing and great writing is content (subject matter)."

Thesis #3: could be shortened to "prewrite, write, rewrite."

Thesis #4: Something could be added about putting out a fire after use. It would save a lot of forests on many levels.

Thesis #5: Proper interrogation techniques would improve the performance of more than just lawyers. Truth-searching takes a scientific methodology.

Thesis #6: I stand back to draw on the observation here that good writing is being evaluated on success (piercing), while other orthogonal scales of measurement are ignored.

Thesis #7: More succinctly, self-check for bias.

Thesis #8: The author lives in an ivory tower. Over 500 newspaper reporters have been murdered next door in Mexico over the last 5 years.

Thesis #9: Writing is one activity among many. All done, and more accurately.

Thesis #10: Suicide can be traced rather in children and teens to emotional over-reaction, abuse and neglect. In adults it arises from alcoholism and recreational drug use. In the aged, from recognition that productive life is over and pain/imprisonment is no longer tolerable. In short, sin.

Thesis #11: Writing and thought are a wholistic inseparable pair. But not always. Some writing is thoughtless.

Thesis #12: Hebrew prophets groped blindly in the dark. But the Medieval Kabbalah's idea of creamy oneness rules. I read it in Playboy. And don't bogart that joint. Others want a toke.

Thesis #13: Steal this book. Thanks Abbie Hoffman.


peace
Nazaroo

Ian Packer said...

A little part of me died reading that last comment...

Daniel said...

Ben, reading this post on 13 Theses was a new blog experience for me. It was like walking through a fine art gallery, in mesmerized awe of some pieces, confused or doubtful of others, generally inspired, infused, and "pierced."

If everyone wrote their blogs as carefully the internet might actually be an advance for civilization. And I quote:

"We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true." -Robert Wilensky

And regarding Thesis 13: What thoughtful Christian writer hasn't thought of what will happen to our poor imperfect writings in the Golden Age to come? If they could be taken and translated as we will be it would be sheer grace.

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