Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt.
Last week one of the dearest saints of our era stepped into the Long Hello. Eugene Peterson, a pastor, teacher, theologian, and writer died after a long illness. Here’s the story from Christianity Today. It draws on a beautiful account by the Peterson family, which reads, in part:
The great thing about Google is that it takes you straight to the information you want to find (or, in any case, straight to the information that the Keeper of the Algorithm wants you to find). The great thing about every other method of organizing and/or delivering information is that it doesn’t take you straight to the information you want to find.
Think of every barnyard animal you know. Cow. Pig. Chicken. Sheep. Horse. Duck. Goose. Every one of those words derives from Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). If you were to kick around the farm with the poet who wrote Beowulf, the two of you would use the same words (or, in any case, very similar words) for all the animals you saw (except turkeys; turkeys didn’t come to England until five or eight centuries after the Beowulf poet died). And, by the way, you would even use all the same words for the male and female variations for each animal. Bull, boar, sow, rooster, hen, ram, ewe, mare, drake, and gander are all Old English words. The one exception is stallion, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
When I was a boy, I read a comic book about which I remember only one scene: the protagonists are being menaced by a bad guy with a gun. They get backed into a corner (literally, if memory serves, not figuratively), and just when it is obvious that there is no way they could possibly escape, the bad guy bursts into flames right before their eyes. One protagonist turns to the other and says, “Spontaneous human combustion: what a stroke of luck!”
I often tell people that Flannery O’Connor once wrote “the eye is an organ of judgment.” Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed “the eye is an organ of judgment” into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O’Connor. Sorry about that.
When I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, a friend got to telling about the neighbors along her block, just off Magazine Street. One of the more memorable characters was a woman who invited the whole street to her sixtieth birthday party—a party that started at 11pm. Another of her neighbors was a young woman who had late-stage cancer. When she was finally done with hospitals and went home to die, her family came down from whatever northern state they lived in and painted her house for her—blue and purple and white with gold trim. “It was so beautiful,” my friend said. “There is a beauty that goes beyond taste.”
Every time I start a new online class, I send my students an introductory email that includes the following “Word About Feedback”:
In a recent interview with Terri Gross, the writer David Sedaris remarked, “I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them.”
David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I’ve been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from “searing intelligence.”
“If you want to be a writer, be a reader.” This may be the most commonly-offered writing advice of all. And it’s good advice as far as it goes. But encouraging writers to read has always felt to me like encouraging teenage boys to eat three meals a day and maybe a couple of snacks. People who want to write tend to be people who are already reading. I think. Right?
Begin with the end in mind. That’s Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In most human endeavors, this is excellent advice. In large matters and small, beginning with the end in mind helps ensure that the steps you take move you in the right direction. I heartily commend this advice to you…in all areas of your life besides writing.
I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?
There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems.