Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art.” And anyone who’s been a writer, amateur or professional, knows what Mailer means.
There’s a mysterious alchemy that takes place when the writer begins putting words together into sentences. There was nothing; now, there is something. The chaos of existence — that swirling, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, storm of stimuli — is funneled down to the narrowest of straight lines. Tiny symbols, as regular in size as bricks or building stones but ever so small, are mortared across the page or screen or paper.
Sculpture mimics the body. Painting plays the same tricks on the eyes that the physical world does. Music tickles the mathematics of our ears. Writing, though, speaks directly to the brain.
The writing goes from one mind to another, from the writer to the reader. It doesn’t exist without a writer and a reader.
It is a kind of a prayer, an effort to find and transmit truth, to reach across the chasm that separates people and enable them to see, hear and experience each other. It is God’s work.
I am always the first reader of what I write. And I’m always surprised in some way at how the words have fit together.
Even if I’m working from a detailed outline, something I rarely do, there are twists in the argument or account that I didn’t anticipate, unexpected phrases and descriptions that, seeming to come out of nowhere, have the tang of aptness to them. I think, at the beginning of a paragraph, that I will say one thing, but, by the end, I’ve written something a bit different. Or quite different.
The thing written is something new. It’s been created. This essay is coming into being as I write it.
As I put them down, the words — my words — lead me in this or that direction. I’m interested in how the words are combining and, even more, in the ideas those words are communicating. I’m curious to find out what happens next.
I have, to a greater or lesser extent, some general idea of what I want to write whenever I begin writing. But the images and thoughts I expect to address are floating fairly free-form in my brain.
In snatching them out of that ether and giving them substance in grammatically correct sentences that relate to one another with a logic and move with rhythm and pace, I’m transforming them, just as a seamstress takes various segments of fabric and fashions a dress.
At this moment, as I’m writing, there’s an image that’s pushing its way into my consciousness that, I’m sure, is familiar to most writers who are Christian and many who aren’t.
It’s one of the gospel-writers, sitting at a rough-hewn desk in flowing robes, parchment before him, pen in hand, gazing up to heaven. He’s obviously waiting for inspiration. And, in some versions of the scene, sure enough, there’s an angel or the Holy Spirit hustling in to provide John or Matthew or whomever with just the right turn of phrase.
The nuns at St. Thomas Aquinas grammar school and the priests in the church across the alley taught me in those pre-Vatican II days that the gospels and all the rest of the books of the Bible were divinely inspired. I could understand that. It made a sort of sense.
But I was left with many questions that, instinctively, I knew wouldn’t be welcomed by Sister Mary Francesca or Father Fitzpatrick:
Did God sit there next to, say, Isaiah and whisper in his ear: “Write this”? Or did Isaiah become an automaton, allowing God to come down and inhabit his body, moving his arms and hands, to get the right words down for all future generations to read? Was Isaiah even aware of what was going on? Did he come to his senses once the Lord was finished and think he’d written all those prophesies and pronouncements?
And whose handwriting was it? God’s? Isaiah’s?
Like taking off in flight
By this time — by the time I was able to understand this idea of divine inspiration as it was taught — I was beginning to discover that I was a writer.
This was like going into the backyard one day and, on a whim, taking off in flight. It came that easy. I recognized that, through no agency of my own, I knew certain things. I knew how to couple words together in a train that made sense and went somewhere. Or, better put, the words that came into my mind went down on the paper easily and followed each other in ways that seemed apt. They rang true. And they made a bit of beauty: They had rhythm. They were clear. They were interesting enough to pull the reader along.
At the time, I did not think much about this. Life is a constant surprise for a child, and this surprise seemed as normal, or as normally unexpected, as discovering that one can run fast or is skilled at belching. I know now that this facility was a mystery I was entering, and it’s a mystery in which all writers exist. Which is to say, in which all people exist.
Every human being writes or speaks or communicates in some way. Often, this communication is rather imperfect. But it happens. We gesture. We grunt. We speak. We write. We get our point across.
That slippery, slidey term
The core of writing is beyond technique. It has to do with that slippery, slidey term “truth.”
Writing is where all the chaos of existence is refined, synthesized and translated into clear images and ideas. In typing words into paragraphs, I’m striving to find those most fitting for what I want to communicate. It’s an approximation, to be sure. It’s, by its nature, only a reflection of life, a lesser version to the real thing. And the mirror I hold up — that any writer holds up — is far from perfect.
But I can’t think of that.
I have to think, instead, of doing everything I can to make the reflection I’m providing as accurate, as truthful, as possible. Part of this is accomplished through logic; I know what I’ve said and I know, to some extent, what I want to say, and I’m looking for the phrases and concepts that will link the two.
The wow of writing
Even more important, though, I have to be open to the wow of writing.
I’m sure every writer has this experience. You’re thoughtfully, carefully, composing a sentence, and, as you come to the end of typing the words, another sentence or a series of sentences pop into your mind, and you just keep on typing. Then, you look back at what you’ve written, at your new creation, that came from…where?
Sometimes, these unexpected inspirations are junk. But, often, they’re the richest part of your writing. They’ve been percolating somewhere in your brain and, of a sudden, have forced themselves down on your page. Certainly, they’ve given a surprise jolt to your piece, and often open a new road down which you see you can travel. (These paragraphs, for example, resulted when the word “wow” forced itself into the first sentence instead of the clunky, inexact “movement of ideas.”)
These words that suddenly appear on the page are dispatches from deep inside the writer’s mind. They’re part of the dialogue that the writer is always having internally. It’s the same for any human being — the lifelong internal conversation between the conscious and the subconscious.
This internal communication is of a piece with all the other forms of communication that take place — pillow talk between lovers, a teacher lecturing a classroom, colleagues debating a business strategy, a mother helping her son learn how to ride a bike. In each case, there is a reaching out, an effort to link people across the abyss that separates them.
Of course, this process can be perverted. Think of the con-man who uses words and an implied trustworthiness to gyp. Think of Hitler using his extraordinary oratorical skills and an utter lack of conscience to gain power and carry out the Holocaust. Think of anyone who tells a lie.
That’s why a lie is so evil. It goes to the heart of our separateness as humans, our thirst for connection, our need of the other — the talker and the listener — for fulfillment.
Norman Mailer once said something to the effect that he never knew what he thought about something until he tried to put his ideas in writing.
By writing, I find out what I think, what I know, what I feel. I discover the truth as I know it and can discern it. I reach inside myself and come up with who I am. And, in putting words on paper, I’m taking myself and handing it over to the reader. Here I am, for better or worse.
It’s a prayer — just as any effort at communication, true communication, a true sharing of selves, is a prayer.
It’s where God is to be found, it seems to me. And that’s what inspiration is as well.
It’s the bumping of ideas — as a kiss or as a slap or as a pivot — that leads to discovery.
I find myself in writing and communicating. I find others there, too. And God.
In the internal conversation I have as I write. In the whole range of communications I share with my wife, with my kids. In the giving and receiving that takes place in all other dialogues, conversations, debates and small talk that make up my days.
It is this communication that forms the web that links all humans together.
And maybe another word for that web is God.
Patrick T. Reardon