Maybe you’re like me: at the end of a long day of working, of being constantly “on” and exhausted of what little energy you had at the day’s beginning, you find yourself lying in bed or sitting in that lamp lit chair, book in hand, staring at a page. But as you try and read, you can’t help but think back on all the conversations you had—with students, colleagues, coworkers, family, friends—what you could have said in those moments, the small talk and the serious—the ways in which you could have expressed yourself better. And you’re jealous of the words on the page in front of you. So articulate, so well-crafted by the writer. At what point do you not shut the book, flick off the light, and lean back with a sigh, hoping the night might slow down your well-awakened thoughts?
After all, aren’t the stakes high? On the one hand, we have people like C.S. Lewis in his moving essay “The Weight of Glory” reminding us how significant it is we treat each other with human dignity: “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.”
Freeing in that our work as writers has a focus beyond ourselves. Yet the stakes are high, on the other hand, because this political season from which we’ve emerged has left so many on all sides weary of words. It can be hard to know what to say; harder even when the battles that are being fought—the rights and dignity of women, African Americans, immigrants, and so many other groups—are such high stakes; impossible when the words we want to use fail us in the moment. We are in an age where it is becoming increasingly more important to say what exactly it is that we mean.
Remember how the naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing
—W.S. Merwin from “Note”
When I was in college, I attended the release party of our campus literary magazine, always a warm, celebratory affair when we shared in the work we had all done, held in our hands the final product. Because I had a poem in the magazine, I was on the list of people to read that night, and I remember this experience vividly—embarrassingly—for what happened when I took the stage, the microphone a few inches from my face, the lights turned up and hot. I had a few words planned out to say about the poem I was going to read, but it was as if those words took wings and fluttered around briefly in my skull before exiting out some back door I hadn’t known existed until that moment. Maybe it was ten seconds or sixty that passed—haven’t we all had this experience before?—while I fumbled around with words and silence, before managing to say a little something, thankfully looking down at the page where my poem pleaded with me to shut up and read it.
I realized then how tenuous language is—how fleeting—that even in the moments we most take it for granted, or ironically when we most desire to use it, that language fails us, reminds us how dependent we are on the word, no matter how attractive and coherent that primordial, unexpressed thought originally seemed to be. In order to express the internal, we are inherently dependent on the external. The writer has a spiritual, symbiotic connection with words in a kind of muse-like way. Which is why this pursuit is all the more important to get right.
Christian Wiman, at the very outset of his book My Bright Abyss, resonates with this sentiment: “[W]hat I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is that I believe.” As writers, is this not all what we are leaning toward, this struggle to find not just words, but the right words? To “write straight into the emotional center of things” as Anne Lamott reminds us. To resonate with that arresting line of Hopkins: “What I do is me, for that I came.”
What if the words we search for do not exist, as some would argue? Then we are merely inhabiting the longing to express the inexpressible, never reaching that which we’ve been after for so long. Is this the energy that keeps us writing? Wiman elaborates further:
But now what I crave is writing that strives to erase implications, art that aspires to get right down to the nub of Now. I want the ‘pure, clear word,’ as James Wright once called it: thought and object, mind and matter soldered seamlessly together by pain, faith, grief, grace. That I don’t believe in such a word only intensifies my desire for it.
Like Wiman, I feel the pull toward that ‘pure, clear word’ of Wright’s—but I want no part in a system that provides no answer for the recursive inquiry we call writing.
Perhaps the answer lies in Simone Weil’s conception of the relationship attention has to faith. “Attention,” writes Weil, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object... our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object.”
It is this attention, this kenosis or self-emptying, where what exists in the self that is inconsistent with the divine must first be emptied like a vessel of its contents—this is where the right words come. The writer “increasing his grasp of truth” discovers “a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” Perhaps it is a matter of approach. Maybe I am searching too hard for the words. Maybe, in order to find the words, I must foster an attitude of attention, waiting, in order to receive that which will articulate everything. Maybe the Word is searching for me.
Photo by Ben White
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