Style and Grace

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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.

Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

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.


5 Comments

  1. Joy C.

    It’s similar to the difference between the “Top- down, Father knows best, silent shame/blame, get back in line” type of Christian culture and Reality. And only the Reality nourishes.

  2. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Thanks for these good words, Jonathan. I need to learn this. I’ve often said that I don’t know something until I write it down, that since my mind is so scattered and windblown I can’t easily follow an idea to its end without pinning it to the paper (pun intended).

    But I think, after reading your thoughts, that I need to relax and let the story find its own idea at times. I just read a great interview with James Taylor in American Songwriter magazine in which he describes his songwriting in just this way. That he doesn’t know what he’s writing about until the song is finished, which allows for mystery and serendipity. I’ve experienced similar things, but rarely.

    Randall Goodgame is a great example of this kind of writing.

  3. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I enjoyed this piece a lot, Jonathan. As a rather compulsive guy, my natural tendency–in writing and in life–is to tie things down. If pieces are “flapping in the wind,” I have a vague sense of unease. As I slide into these middle-aged years, I’ve come to accept that mystery is not only okay, but something to be embraced. That’s not to say that I ought to ignore avenues of ignorance, only that when I’m blocked, to embrace the mystery and ambiguity as part of God’s plan. Unlocking the mystery will come when and if God sees fit.

    While reading your words, I couldn’t help but think of David Wilcox’s song, “Out of the Question.”

    Out of the Question
    from the album Into the Mystery by David Wilcox

    Case closed. I was certain in my youth
    God knows, I had my scientific proof
    In my mind, I thought I saw the truth
    Never looked beyond my lenses; never saw that it was you

    Out of the question
    So the answer I could never see
    Out of the question
    I look for you and you find me
    Out of the question
    You’re closer than the air I breathe
    But out of the question
    And into the mystery

    My heart – brings me to my knees
    There’s God: the forest for the trees
    Move me, like the wind will stir the leaves
    I give way to the mystery like the branches in the breeze and I’m…

    Out of the question
    Catch the wind inside my fist? No it’s
    Out of the question
    Try to trap you and I know I’ve missed
    Out of the question
    The place you will always be, is
    Out of the question
    And into the mystery

    Truth is there for finding, but the logic that’s involved
    is a mystery unwinding, not a problem to be solved

    Out of the question
    I look for You, and You find me
    Out of the question
    In truth you will always be
    Out of the question
    You’re closer than the air I breathe
    Out of the question… and Into the mystery!

  4. Chris R

    Thanks for the advice… as an aspiring writer, this is fascinating… and hopefully helpful. Thanks for all you guys in the Rabbit Room, by the way. I enjoy the writing, get way to many book suggestions, and wish I could hang out with you guys in person.

  5. Matthew Clark

    Jonathan, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry only for a short while. I loved Hannah Coulter and am only a short way into the Memory of Old Jack. Writing has been such a funny thing over time. I struggle with wanting to write and not being able to at times. Other times it just comes out so easily. I can never force it. What has been your experience? You talked about “mastery” in a way that makes me wonder.

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