As Americans, we’ve become accustomed to quick fixes. In his latest “From the Chapel” post,…
From the Chapel — June 18: ‘That’s my job’
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
“I make my living with words and rhymes / and all this tragedy / must go into my head and out instead / as bits of poetry.”
— Conway Twitty, “That’s My Job”
The distinctions between poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, are at best artificial, and often deliberately misleading. For the Christian, the only legitimate purpose of any kind of writing is to express truth. There are many ways of doing so, and even satire or sarcasm, which may seem on the surface to lead away from the truth, only work to the extent that they prompt the reader to examine his preconceptions and open his mind and his heart to a truth that he has, until now, resisted.
Even the smallest element of the truth, though, is always bigger than any particular expression of it. One difference between a good writer and a bad one — perhaps the most important difference — is the ability of the former to grasp the truth as fully as possible and to see how it can be distilled in a way that both does it justice and resonates with the reader.
That task is not easy, and as you can see from my description, coming to grips with the truth is necessarily prior to expressing it. The less interested a writer is in wrestling with the truth before setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the less likely it is that what he can produce will be faithful to the truth.
Writing is an iterative process as well, which means that, as the words begin to flow, the writer brings clarity to his own understanding of the truth — in part by recognizing the insufficiency of his words in expressing that truth. Over the last few days, I have been rereading “The Hidden Wound,” Wendell Berry’s examination of race and race relations from within the history of his own life, his people (white farmers and townspeople) and his place (Henry County, Kentucky) from the days of his earliest memories at the start of World War II through the time of his writing, in 1968-69. (“The Hidden Wound” was first published in 1970 and updated in 1989 with a new Afterword.)
Two people from Berry’s childhood loom large in the book: Nick Watkins, a black man who lived and worked on Berry’s grandfather’s farm, and Aunt Georgie, who came to live with Nick and remained on the farm until Nick’s death in 1945, when Berry was 11. A little over a third of the way into the book, Berry begins to reflect on the purpose and the process of writing, and offers a few lines concerning the enormity of the task of writing about Nick and Aunt Georgie that sum up perhaps better than anything else I have ever read the challenge that writers face in capturing the truth about real people: “[T]hough I can write about Nick and Aunt Georgie as two of the significant ancestors of my mind, I must also deal with their memory as a live resource, a power that will live and change in me as long as I live. … To attempt to tell the ‘truth’ about them as they really were is to resign oneself to enacting a small fragment of an endless process. Their truth is inexhaustible both in their lives as they were, and in my life as I think they were.”
We can never capture in words the full truth of any person, much less the reality of a living community. But the more honest we are about our own limitations and lack of understanding, the closer we can get to that truth.
In a world in which the internet, and especially social media, has made nearly everyone a writer of some sort, recognizing the purpose of writing, and the effort involved in the task, is more essential than ever. That’s my job — and yours, too.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.