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.

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