I’ve greatly enjoyed David Malouf’s The Writing Life, a collection of his reflections and talks about writing, many of them offering insights not only into his own experience but the lives of other great writers as well. One really superb essay discusses the very idea of experience and the many ways we can be said to ‘have’ experiences. Malouf argues that to read something can in fact be a special form of experience. So too the writer can experience things she or he has never seen, through writing.
My interest just now is in the essay ‘When the writer speaks’, which begins with the stunning sentence, The real enemy of writing is talk.
Malouf explains that there is a real difference in the degree and the nature of thought necessary for writing and for speaking. In many respects it is easier to talk. To write requires a much more concentrated focus on what we want to say and how to say it. In most regards it is a lonely task, whereas to communicate through speaking is usually a social event allowing at last some level of feed-back or response while we are speaking.
There are a few reflections that occur to me as I have explored these ideas. First, it is perhaps easy to distinguish ‘talk’ from writing, but not so easy to distinguish such things as teaching, or great oratory, or perhaps good preaching. These may be allowed some level of feedback, but they too require profound preparation, disciplined consideration of the best words to place in a sentence and how best to shape ideas for the most effective impact. The goals and processes of all these activities are so different from one another that the comparisons are in some ways not very meaningful at all.
Actually Malouf goes on the distinguish two kinds of writing: the creative task of producing writing as art, literature at its ‘highest’, compared with the kind of writing that seeks to persuade. Many great writers he notes engage in both kinds of work, sometimes drawn into public debates and the like by political circumstances. It is the former kind of writing that Malouf thinks can be undermined by talk: we rush too easily to expression.
I am not fully convinced. Maybe there are those who think and write and those who think and talk. It is true that many great teachers write little, while there are some great thinkers who really do not have much ability to communicate their brilliance to the rest of us.
Having said that, though, I am interested to relate Malouf’s idea to a comment by the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard. In his journal for July 11th, 1838 Kierkegaard wrote:
“Would-be theologians … must be on their guard lest by beginning too soon to preach they rather chatter themselves into Christianity than live themselves into it and find themselves at home there.”
We note Kierkegaard’s frequent disparaging of chatter. He was aghast at how easily people could talk about things of faith, once remarking that it was amazing that people did not realise that God hears what they say (about God!).
But then we note too Kierkegaard’s idea that it should not be so easy to ‘become’ a Christian and in his view we would be in danger if we felt ‘at home’ in such a state. For him, faith is a profound challenge: he once described it as treading water over 30, 000 fathoms. Faith is a risk, not to be entered into lightly. It is not about chatter. That’s the business of religion, for which Kierkegaard had no time at all.
So whether we are called to the discipline of writing or teaching or speaking, from both of these sources comes the challenge not to rush into words or print, or any kind of easy expression. Rather, it is vital that we spend time such as we do in Advent, to reflect on what might and perhaps should be said or written, on what might have been said or written and perhaps should not have been; on what is needed, whether through writing or speaking—and how best we are now to live and relate to one another in this next period, in view of these things.
And for those times when it is right to remain silent, or when we are forced into silence, or perhaps unable to say or write what is necessary, the words of Jesus continue as our comfort: “There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true.” (John 5. 32)
David Malouf, The Writing Life, (North Sydney: Random House, 2014).