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Good Letters

9301874154_2571798618_zWhat is it about words that so moves those of us who are writers? We take the most common of media—language—and can’t resist caressing it, playing with it, taking it apart and putting it together again in some new shape.

Why do I love to write, even need to write? I’ve been pondering this question for decades, in various ways, various words.

Today I’ll start the pondering with some personal history: how I discovered my passion for words.

I was in my early twenties and had just started graduate school in literature—which I chose just because I knew I loved reading. But I’d barely started grad school when my husband got a year’s job in London. So we moved there, and suddenly I had my days free while he went to work. One day I went to the University of London to ask about taking some literature courses there.

Strolling through the University campus, I noticed the library and walked into it—and instantly I felt an excited, giddy sensation. It actually affected my whole body: my heart beat faster, I felt tingly all over, with a rush of energy—as if I’d just gobbled my entire stash of Halloween candies.

That rush of energy: that’s how I knew that books were what I needed to be surrounded by. My whole body was shouting happily at me: books, books, yes, stay with the books, gobble them up, take them home, open them up, let their words enter your being, let your own words come out of and weave back into their words!

That’s how I knew that words were my passion.

I started keeping a journal…just to be writing every day. And I discovered that the reason I needed to write was to explore what I was thinking. I say “explore” because for me the process of writing—the kind of writing that engages my whole being—always tries to answer a question that I’m curious about.

I don’t usually like to write about things that I already know the answer to. What stimulates me is writing in order to explore, ponder, discover. Writing is my way of meditating about something that matters to me.

I’ve been told by writers of fiction that their process isn’t very different from this. They create characters, give them a setting and relationships, then keep on writing to find out what will happen to them.

Novelist Anne Tyler was asked in an interview why Denny, the troubled son in her latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread, gravitates to other families rather than his own. “What’s he looking for?” the interviewer asked.

Tyler paused, then replied with a sort of smiling shrug: “Probably a sense that one of those other families will really love him as he thinks he ought to be loved.” Probably…many of Tyler’s replies in this interview begin with this word. It’s as if she writes in order to see what her characters will do, and she can only guess at their motivations.

Then there’s E.M. Forster’s famous comment in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

Of course there are many other reasons why people write. One is to impart information, and I did eventually do that in a few books. But even there, what I loved about doing the research and pulling it together into coherent categories (chapters, sub-sections) was finding language that might excite the reader about whatever was animating me about this information.

Which metaphor, exactly, could bring alive this handful of facts? Might the metaphor then expand and maybe transform itself in the following chapter, to connect this next handful of facts with the first?

Another reason people write is to make an argument: to persuade others to share their opinion. Years ago I clipped a reflection on this by theologian Martin Marty in his America column of April 13, 2009. Marty writes:

My colleague and office-neighbor, the Rev. David Tracy, for decades taught us the difference between conversation and argument. Argument, valuable and necessary in many contexts, such as in the courtroom, the legislature, the classroom or the scientific labs, is guided by the answer. One possesses an answer to publicize, defend, and use to defeat the other. Conversation, on the other hand, is guided by the question and includes an element of play.

I do admire writers adept at argument. But, oh, give me “conversation” any time!

Give me a question and let me play with it. Let me hear my words start to play with each other: echo each other’s sounds, beat out a recurring rhythm, take up an image and toss it around like a multi-colored beach ball. Let me hang from the metaphor as the beach ball turns into a parachute, carrying me across the hills and setting me down in some unexpected place. I look around: how exhilarating to have arrived here, I think.

This is the writing that engages my whole being: body, intellect, and spirit. If I don’t devote some hours every morning to this kind of writing, I feel restless, unfinished— as if there’s an empty hole in my day.

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Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Image above by Ventsislava Bonina, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

1 Comment

  1. kw on July 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

    While I taught freshman composition at a university for two years, I wrestled with and sought to stretch the students’ notion that writing is only for “imparting information” or “making an argument.” So many of us, as you say, have lost the value of writing as exploration, discovery, critical thinking, and play. Instead we are either for or against, or a parrot of “facts” unfiltered through our own reason or imagination. We decide what we think before we research or write, instead of the other way around. We position ourselves on opposite walls of false binaries, ignoring the full range of possibilities, overlap, and nuance. And we forget to listen to the sound of words and see where they take us. Thank you for your reminder and call to “conversation.”

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