And a heaven in a wild flower,
In the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour1
Timeless writing - that is, writing that transcends the daily news and has lasting meaning - is a wonderful thing. Sadly, however, I often fall prey to the illusion that the more generalised and detached from real life my writing is, the more timeless it will be. This is wrong. Somewhat paradoxically, writing is only truly timeless when it is time-full; anchored in a real place, located in real sequence, and packed with rich draughts of distilled and fermented experience.
Great authors like G. K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis understood this well. They knew that the worst way to write timelessly was to deliberately set out to do so, and as such they did not hesitate in the least to use real people, real dialogue, and plenty of proper nouns and culture-specific terms in their writing. They understood that all of us write in space and time, and that the crowning literary achievement is not to divorce your surroundings but rather to celebrate them and make them come alive.
Very few of us can write inventively, out of thin air. The ideas in this post, though brewing inside me for some time, have been brought to life and shaped by very concrete things that I've been doing recently, such as talking with Jessica, reading a book called The Christian Imagination (excellent), and so on. Most writing, then, far from being creation from nothing, is simply a compilation - an organization of varied and loosely linked experiences into a coherent whole.
I think the reason some of us are reticent about allowing our everyday experiences to inform and enliven our writing is that we are embarrased about our lives - we think our own experiences too crude or commonplace. Lacking a voice of our own, we pursue some abstracted poetic or scholarly identity, trying to make things "interesting." When we do this, we've completely missed the point. Noticing, probing, and sharing life as honestly and deeply as we possibly can is at the very heart of literary craftsmanship, and to do that we have to start with ourselves and our own experience.
We are here to witness and abet creation. To notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.2
"To witness and abet creation" means developing an eye for detail, for small things. The work of the writer is one of magnification; putting life under the microscope of appreciation, reflection, and imagination; being a scientist of the specific. Thus, the writer is deeply interested in facts, in particulars, in things as they are. And further, it is his intent to appreciate and comtemplate them in all of their self-existent splendor, not merely as a metaphor or a vehicle to some higher end.
The strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrary to that false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind... All the romance and glamour [of real things], so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream. This is for the poet the strangeness of stones and trees and solid things; they are strange because they are solid.3
It has been observed that people are only interested in art because they are interested in the world, and when art ceases to be about the world, they lose interest. This unnatural division is a distinct danger for Christians, who are predisposed towards abstracting things in the name of spirituality. As Chesterton warns, "The main outline of the Christianity that has come down to us should be supernatural but not antinatural; and should never be darkened with a false spirituality to the oblivion of the Creator and the Christ who was made Man."4
All around us there is beauty in the specific: startling, tangible, and profoundly real. Rich Mullins sang "There's so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see / but everywhere I go, I'm looking..."
Let's live and write with open eyes.
(1) William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
(2) Annie Dillard, as quoted in Leland Ryken, Ed., The Christian Imagination, (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002), 90
(3) G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, (Doubleday, 1956), 153
(4) Ibid, 161
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