I often hear people talk about how the act of writing helps you understand the thing you’re writing about. That’s true as far as it goes. Sometimes, however, writing isn’t about mastering subject matter, but entering into a mystery that neither the writer nor the reader understands. Wendell Berry speaks of “the storyteller’s need to speak wholeheartedly however partial his understanding.” That’s a remarkable thing to think about: how do you tell the truth about a thing you don’t fully understand?
In an essay called “Style and Grace” (it’s in the collection What are People For?) Berry contrasts two fishing stories–Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Berry describes Hemingway’s story as “a triumph of style in its pure or purifying sense: the ability to isolate those parts of experience of which one can confidently take charge.” Hemingway’s descriptions of the open river are truly beautiful. The story mentions that the open river gives way to a dark swamp a few miles downstream; but Hemingway never goes there. According to Berry, it is a “craftsmanly fastidiousness” that keeps the story from going into the swamp. The story “will not relinquish the clarity of its realization of the light and the river and the open-water fishing. It is a fine story, on its terms, but its terms are strait and limiting.” Berry goes on to say, “It deals with what it cannot understand by leaving it out.”
A River Runs Through It, on the other hand, is “not so neat and self-contained” as Hemingway’s story. Maclean’s style, as Berry argues, “is a style vulnerable to bewilderment, mystery, and tragedy–and a style, therefore, that is open to grace.” As beautiful as Hemingway’s story is, it represents an attempt to create a world where grace isn’t necessary. It only asks questions to which it has the answers. Maclean’s story is comparatively messy; the narrator doesn’t claim to understand the other characters, or what happens to them. He leaves room for grace to exert itself. To quote Berry again,
The story’s fierce triumph of grace over tragedy is possible, the story “springs and sings,” because of what I earlier called its vulnerability. Another way of saying this is that it does not achieve–because it does not attempt–literary purity. Nor does one feel, as one reads, that Mr. Maclean is telling the story out of literary ambition; he tells it, rather, because he takes an unutterable joy in telling it and therefore has to tell it. The story admits grace because it admits mystery. It admits mystery by admitting the artistically unaccountable. It could not have been written if it had demanded to consist only of what was understood or understandable, or what was entirely comprehensible in its terms.
There is little room for grace in a story–or a life–that is devoted to mastering the subject matter. Especially when you consider the fact that “mastery,” in our lived experience, is largely a matter of simply leaving out those things we don’t understand. Or to put it in other terms, “mastery” mostly means simplifying the complexities of our experience down to something we can master–but which may not look very much like the world we actually experience.
I have always understood writing as a kind of distillation–boiling experience down, simplifying it to something that can be grasped. As I said before, that’s true as far as it goes. But as we create, we’d better not lose touch with the value of the mysterious, the unaccountable.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.