Category: Writing (and) Theology

On Poetry

David Orr’s essay on the instrumentalization of poetry in Oprah’s magazine is worth a read for all kinds of reasons, but especially for the concluding paragraph where he rightly laments:

I wish, though, that they had found space for someone — not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest — to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember. Not what the people who write them are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person. If the chasm is to be ever so slightly narrowed, it seems to me this is how it will be done.

The best poems are not messages; they are lingual acrobatics, roiling heart and mind by setting them awash in words. In reading poetry, you don’t so much suspend disbelief as give yourself permission to be lost in language–to be carried along on a wave of words that cascades in delight or sorrow. You give yourself to the poem and ride this wave like a kind of emotional and intellectual body surfing, holding your breath the whole way, perhaps with a smirk or growing smile, perhaps with a squint and creeping frown, perhaps with a tear burbling up from inside your soul that finally drops at the poem’s heartbreaking end.

In a sense, a good poem doesn’t mean something, it does something. Or perhaps, following Wittgenstein, we could just say the poem means what it does.

I can think of no better example of this than the poem that showed up in my inbox this morning, thanks to Knopf’s Poem-A-Day for April, Poetry Month (what month isn’t poetry month?!). Give yourself over to the delight of Cynthia Zarin’s “Late Poem”:

Late Poem

“. . . a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern.”

I wish we were Indians and ate foie gras
and drove a gas-guzzler
and never wore seat belts

I’d have a baby, yours, cette fois,
and I’d smoke Parliaments
and we’d drink our way through the winter

in spring the baby would laugh at the moon
who is her father and her mother who is his pool
and we’d walk backwards and forwards

in lizard-skin cowboy boots
and read Gilgamesh and Tintin aloud
I’d wear only leather or feathers

plucked from endangered birds and silk
from exploited silkworms
we’d read The Economist

it would be before and after the internet
I’d send you letters by carrier pigeons
who would only fly from one window

to another in our drafty, gigantic house
with twenty-three uninsulated windows
and the dog would be always be

off his leash and always
find his way home as we will one day
and we’d feed small children

peanut butter and coffee in their milk
and I’d keep my hand glued under your belt
even while driving and cooking

and no one would have our number
except I would have yours where I’ve kept it
carved on the sole of my stiletto

which I would always wear when we walked
in the frozen and dusty wood
and we would keep warm by bickering

and falling into bed perpetually and
entirely unsafely as all the best things are
—your skin and my breath on it.

Attention to Craft: Towards being a “Writer”

For a long time–even after I had published several books–I kept telling people that I wanted to be a writer. What I generally meant was that I wanted to be a novelist (and that’s still true) or write for Harper’s. But I also think I was working with a latent distinction I still want to affirm: being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.

But it’s just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
You will know you’re on your way to being a writer when you have a love/hate relationship with language: when you can be either thrilled or vexed by the cadence of a sentence or turn of phrase–when you can’t quite leave the paragraph on which you’re laboring because there’s a tic of timing that’s driving you mad. Or when you begin to consider the force of a sentence in terms of its ability to move rather than prove. In sum, you’ll know you’ve become a writer when you consider the sheer play of language to be a country to which you’d gladly emigrate.
You will also know you’re on your way to being a writer when you find yourself a different reader: when you find yourself gratefully lingering on a sentence you’ve just read because it has brought an unexpected delight, and you have a deep appreciation for the writer’s attention to craft–that she’s forged something anew, just for the sheer delight of putting it that way. Or when you find yourself angrily scribbling in the margins because of some hack’s laziness and tired, derivative style.

So how does one make that transition from being an author to being a writer? Unfortunately, I have no easily formula. Instead, what comes to mind is Pascal’s advice after his infamous wager: “Can’t find yourself able to believe?,” Pascal asks. “That’s OK. Just fake it for a while. Go to Mass. Try on the rhythms of a believer. Practice your way into faith.” Something similar holds for becoming a writer, I think: act as if. You’re working on a book, for goodness’ sake–give yourself permission to imagine yourself as a writer.
And then consider some of these as new habits:

1. Immerse yourself in fiction and poetry. If you don’t love fiction, I can’t imagine how you’ll ever be a solid writer. The imaginative worlds of novels and the linguistic intensity of poetry should be your daily bread. Central to your apprenticeship should be mimesis, learning to imitate good writing. To familiarize yourself with that, you need to be regularly swimming laps in the deep pool of literature. If you can’t imagine this being true for you, then stick to being an “author.”
2. Apprentice yourself to the craft of writing. Granted, there’s an entire industry of wannabe writers out there that keeps Poets & Writers afloat. But there are also some very helpful books that are themselves examples of engaging writing. I’d recommend starting with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
3. Become a formalist. You will need to train yourself to appreciate form in fiction–to not just be carried along by the narrative force of the story, but to also be attentive to the gritty conditions of that–the minute particularities of how sentences and paragraphs work, the careful, world-changing choices an author makes. To that end, I constantly commend James Wood’s How Fiction Works.
4. Be patient. Recall Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (in Outliers): What looks like overnight “genius” exploding onto the scene is usually the product of about 10,000 hours of practice. This is the (admittedly discouraging) math of expertise. Now, I think you can log credit for all the hours you spend reading fiction and poetry as hours of practice. But you also just need to write. And write. And write. Write stuff that will never see the light of day. Write blogs. Take form seriously in your emails. Never miss an opportunity to make language dance and play. Embrace the craft at every turn. You might just become a writer.

(Unsolicited) Advice for Young (Theological) Authors

I don’t envy young theologians and Christian scholars today. Fewer and fewer tenure-track positions only ramps up the expectations for landing a job. What might have earned someone tenure a generation ago is now almost needed just to land an interview. The pressure to publish begins in doctoral programs, especially for those outside of elite departments.
At the same time, the proliferation of journals and even publishers has made it easier and easier to “get published.” The old gatekeepers have lost their monopoly. There was a day when publishing books in theology required passing through the portals guarded by the publishing establishment: Cambridge University Press or Oxford University Press for one kind of theological publishing; Eerdmans, T & T Clark, Fortress, Baker or InterVarsity Press for another sort. In any case, there were established channels that made “getting published” more difficult. But over the past decade, with easy access to publishing technologies, we keep seeing more and more publishers springing up. Granted, even “back then” there was always the University Press of America, but now we have a proliferation of publishing outlets for theology–not to mention a growing cadre of niche and online journals. The result is that if you have a manuscript for a reasonably coherent book, it’s now easier than ever to see it in print, to “get published.”
And so my unsolicited advice to young theological writers: Just because you can publish it doesn’t mean you should. In other words, don’t confuse printability with publishability. If you shop a manuscript to some of the old stand-bys in theological publishing, and you consistently get turned down–then, sure, it’s true that I can name three publishers off the top of my head who would probably be willing to publish your book. But I wonder if you would have just missed a teachable moment:
Was there something to learn in those rejections? Was there some feedback in those difficult emails–hard as they were to receive–that might have made you a better writer? Could it just be the case that your project is not worth publishing? Could your manuscript be like that unpublished novel that every great novelist had to write, just to learn how to do it, only to have it end up in the drawer in their desk? (I can still remember Donald Hall, in Unpacking the Boxes, talking about the thousands of poems he wrote that never saw the light of day.) What if it turns out that those editors and referees actually knew a thing or two?
I can already imagine the response: “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Mr. Tenured Professor–Mr. Protector-of-the-Establishment-and-Status-Quo. Worried about people hounding in on your turf?”
You’re welcome to that retort. Nobody’s stopping you. Maybe you’re right. However, if I’m suggesting that not everything that gets published in theology today deserves to be published, I’m not thereby claiming that everything that does get published by the “old stand-bys” necessarily deserves to be published either. The established houses are not perfect. But they do keep the bar a little higher.
I just wonder if there might be a few young theologians out there who are willing to at least pause and consider the possibility that there remains some wisdom in the establishment–and so might, for the sake of their work, submit to the disciplines of the process, even find the gifts hidden in rejections, rather than scurrying to find what upstart press will get their book into print. They might be grateful later, and theology might be better for it.

Writing (and) Theology

There’s no dearth of publishing in Christian theology. To the contrary, there has been an expanding universe of theological publishers churning out more and more books, now supplemented by the oft-hailed (and over-hailed, I’d say) blogosphere. So at this moment there are countless theologians writing–sketching outlines and plans, whiling away at manuscripts, passionate about their ideas, all with the aim of reaching an audience via the still-exhilirating technology bequeathed to us by Gutenberg.

But there surely is a dearth of good writing in theology. For a discipline indebted (one hopes) to the Word become flesh, theologians seem rather docetic about publishing–didactically focused on concepts and ideas and argument with little attention to the “flesh” of writing. Fixated on “content,” they are remarkably unconcerned about form. The result is a strange paradox: by basically not thinking about language, form, and writing, the theologian treats language as if it were transparent; yet it is precisely when language and form are invisible in the writing process that we get the most obfuscating prose. Some of the most important books in theology over the past twenty years have bordered on being unreadable (and the “bordered on” is a generous qualifier!). Granted, some of this is the product of the weird dynamics of academese and the desire to appear “rigorous.” But surely some of this is also the product of a widespread lack of attention to form, to the process and dynamics of writing (well).
There are, of course, some exceptions. Rowan Williams is a model of winsome clarity and accessible profundity; Stanley Hauerwas’ writing reached a new level in his recent memoir; Janet Martin Soskice’s work is exemplary. And there are others. But for every decent writer in theology, it would be easy to line up 20 examples of boring, plodding, didactic clunkiness.
There have also been some efforts to address this. The recent seminar led by Marilynne Robinson at Princeton’s Center of Theological Inquiry was an encouraging and enticing sign. But we need more apprenticeships in writing–or at least need more theologians willing to learn the craft of writing, attentive to form.
I was prompted to think about this while reading the recent Paris Review interview with Jonathan Franzen. The expansive conversation covers the span of Franzen’s career and is an occasion for him to reflect on his maturation as a writer. Commenting on the gut-wrenching cuts he had to make to the manuscript of The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen describes an epiphany. After being pressed by the novelist Hugh Nissenson, Franzen recalls,

I set down the phone and picked up the manuscript, which I hadn’t looked at in eight months, and I said, “My God, there’s two hundred pages that I can cut in half an hour.” I just suddenly saw it. I suddenly made the connection between my needs as a reader and what I was doing as a writer, which I had never made before. That in fact I was not interested in punishing the reader, because I didn’t enjoy being punished myself. If I wanted the book to be read, it needed to move, and so I had to make the cuts to make it move (p. 57).

How different would theological writing look if more theologians could make the connection between their needs as a reader and what they’re doing as writers?