I have been wrestling for a very long time now with the craft of writing. Sadly, this rarely means that I wrestle to put down words on paper or my computer, crafting sentences and paragraphs (though that of course happens at times) but most of my wrestling is trying to figure out the reasons for and dynamics of writing, my own writing. There is a lot wrapped up in this, and it may take me a while to process. If you are not an artist, you might not want to read this lengthy diatribe. But if you pursue anything artistic -- whether your craft is words or woodwork or stroganoff or photos or the art of excellent conversation -- I hope you will find something of value in these reflections.
I used to believe that writing something down for public consumption -- having a work published, really -- meant that the work must be in a sense permanent. If you didn't have a corner on some unchanging truth, why publish it? Books, after all, are eternal. Exhibit A, I just finished rereading Homer's Odyssey. And I am currently reading a little book written down by a guy named Matthew in the first century A.D. in Syrian Antioch. How can I not believe that writing needs to be permanently true?
That lie -- for I have come to believe it is absolutely a lie -- is debilitating. It paralyzes the writer and creates a block that is difficult to overcome. It is the lie of pragmatism, that says something must be useful to be beautiful, and that the cost / benefit analysis trumps all. Why build a table when you can buy it at Ikea?
I've shifted my thinking on this. I have come to believe that writing need not be pragmatic or permanent -- the vast majority of the Odyssey no longer connects contextually with my current world as a reader in the 21st century -- but to be good writing, it must be a signpost, however temporary, pointing to something transcendent. And the Odyssey certainly meets that challenge. That is not to say all writing needs to be overtly philosophical or literarily sophisticated, not at all. Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are and A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh are some of the most transcendent works I know, though they are often dismissed as "cute" by those who should know better. (It is a very blustery day outside as I write this and I am smiling to think how many layers of meaning are wrapped up in Roo's joyful, plaintive request, "Can I fly Piglet next?") That statement (not the one about flying Piglet) has become incredibly important in my own thinking about writing -- that a work of crafted words, whether it be an essay, a poem, a short story, a novel, a book-length argument, or a worthwhile magazine article -- or even a blog post -- is well written and valuable to the extent that it functions as a signpost, however temporary, pointing to something transcendent. (NOTE: This is not to exclude the goofy, the humorous, the lighthearted. There is as much transcendence in our laughter and our delight as there is in any of our ponderous tomes.)
This is why reading things from a context other than your own is especially valuable. There's a cross-cultural move in reading the words of another writer, of delving into the soul of another person, especially if they live in a context or time other than your own. Though I have never been to Afghanistan, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner had a powerful impact on me. And though I was not alive in the 1800's (though my daughters might believe differently) Tennyson's "Ulysses" stirs my soul to its depths every time I read it.
These ideas are fairly straightforward. Most of us can point to writers whose works have stirred us deeply, and we might not be embarrassed to use words like "transcendent" to describe their writing. But I said at the outset I was struggling not with reading but with writing. What does one do with one's own writing? And how does one stay motivated to write, and is that even the right question? There is a sense in which writing something down, especially if you have the audacity to let another read it, is like firing a bullet from a gun. Once fired, the bullet just goes -- it has no brain and no conscience, and the written word is a little like that. It just flies out into the void and impacts where and as it will. The strange -- and often uncomfortable -- change in metaphor is that one's own written words often function like a boomerang that circles back and hits you in the back of the head. Or the heart. This is not a bad thing.
The closer your writing comes to expressing your heart's own encounter with the transcendent -- with the deepest meanings in life, with encountering God, with death and guilt and suffering and love and joy and discovery and significance and brokenness -- the closer your writing comes to tapping any of these transcendent elements, the more likely that it has the power to come back and impact you, yourself, in powerful ways. Of course, most of us who write struggle to read our own writing. Like a carpenter looking at his own work, we see only the imperfections. We encounter our own words like someone who first hears their own voice in a recording and blurts, "That's not me, is it?" There's a shame and sense of inadequacy that we have to get past. If we can set this aside, however, if we can be gracious with our own imperfection and finitude, we may be enriched by the beauty of our own writing -- not least because reading your own writing, especially at a bit of a distance in time or context lays your own soul bare. It's a journey of self-discovery not for the faint of heart, because you feel the crooked knife of your words sliding between your own ribs, and you know it's also out there for everyone to see. Like Anna Nalick sings, "And I feel like I'm naked in front of a crowd / 'cause these words are my diary screaming out loud / and I know that you'll use them however you want to." And yet, there is also a joy, a pure and thorough joy in reading our own words when they capture something exquisite, if we can suspend self-condemnation and fear.
For me -- and I can't say if this is true for other writers -- the fear is less about being judged (though that is a tremendous and debilitating fear) as it is of being ignored, of being irrelevant, of not so much being shelved for later as just of being forgotten. (Note: There is also, of course, the danger of being entirely too captivated with one's own writing. That's a topic for another post.) So I have written pieces that encapsulate as much of my soul as I can pour onto paper in one time, carefully crafted and thematically arranged (the example I'm thinking of at the moment is a series of reflections primarily about hunting and Jesus, imagine that!) and I've timidly test-marketed it to a couple dozen people. The trouble is I don't know what to do with this piece of writing, yet it feels tremendously important to me. I keep hoping someone will read it and say (like Tolkien's Niggle hoped someone would say of his painting) "Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at! Do get on with it, and don't bother about anything else!" Just like I'm uncertain of the value of my own soul, I put this piece of writing (or any piece of writing more significant than a grocery list, and by the way now that I think about it I'm a little careful about sharing my grocery list publicly as well -- writers can be a little neurotic about words) out for an audience, even a carefully chosen audience, and I hope people will approve. I knew an author years ago who said writing a book is a little like walking naked on stage and saying, "Well? What do you think?" I probably would have shelved this manuscript myself except for the one person who read it and really seemed to get it. To value it. And now what? At that point I have to think maybe this piece just needs a little more work, like I need a little more work, but I still have doubts about the manuscript and about myself and about the universe.
So one just has to learn to write in the face of doubt. And then to read one's own writing boldly in the face of doubt. Or, perhaps, not to write at all, to dismiss it as a particularly self-indulgent bad habit. That's really the discernment required, and it comes back to Oswald Chambers' writing this morning -- is this a call from God? Is this the particular niche for which I am created? Or is it just something narcissistic to be dismissed on the grounds that, as one person said after reading the manuscript cited above, "You think too much!" And even that response was far, far better than a few people closest to me who completely forgot to read it after I'd shared a copy with them.
Having tried, I don't think I can not write. The growing collection of partially finished manuscripts that clog my notebooks and my computers and my file folders -- fragments of poems and stories and essays and sermons and much, much more -- are like a tremendous reservoir of myself, and like I don't quite know what to do with myself most days, I'm not sure how to steward these words. I've burdened others with my words, giving stories and poems as gifts, turning them loose and letting them go. Occasionally I wish they'd come back because a narrative won't let me go and it seems to be trying to teach me something, so I wish I had it in hand to work through more completely. There's a story that had its spark in my mind fifteen years ago on an island in the Boundary Waters about a man whose life gets turned upside down and he ends up wintering there in the unforgiving northern wilderness. These days that story seems prescient at the very least, and I have been toying with the idea of working it beyond the short story I actually wrote down once but have since lost, and into a novel. It hasn't gone past the toying stage as yet, but it doesn't seem to want to let me go. Maybe one of these days it will come to fruition as well.
There is a deep, deep hope in all this. It is a hope that Tolkien developed in his essay, "On Fairy Stories," and N. T. Wright has written extensively about in Surprised By Hope and other places. It's rooted in the biblical promise of 1 Corinthians 15:58 where, after a lengthy exposition about Jesus rising from the dead and what it means, Paul seems to turn a sharp corner and concludes, "So then, my brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for you know that in the Lord your work is not in vain." Tolkien says that our calling as humans is to be sub-creators, created in the image of the Creator God, putting all our gifts to work in imitation of his creativity and glory. In some sense, our artistry, our craft, will become part of the new heavens and the new earth promised in Jesus' resurrection. In this context, in this broken reality, our artistic pursuits serve as signposts pointing toward transcendence, toward truth and beauty and goodness, toward God, however implicitly or explicitly. And as a writer, you may find yourself preaching to yourself as often as not. The preacher always preaches the sermon that the preacher needs to hear.
Yet there is a promise of fulfillment -- a promise that God stewards these words, that he gathers up the bedtime stories and the manuscript fragments and the forgotten old poems and the carefully crafted social media posts that are done out of a sincere heart that pursues truth and longs for the glory of God. There is a promise that God will keep these words and, like Niggle's painting, he will someday incorporate them into a greater new creation that is richer because of your art. In the meantime, in this broken world and in our broken souls, our words -- in all their incompleteness and imperfection -- can read us and point us toward transcendence.
And that in itself may be reason enough to keep writing.