A Letter To My Son
Bill Long 10/14/08
To set the context for this essay: I talked to my son on the phone the other day from his apartment at the university. He is pursuing a dual major in sociology/gender studies and I was expecting to hear a litany of how things were going in "Soc. 348" or other like courses. Instead he told me he was taking one course on Shakespeare and one on creative writing. He, who won the math prize in high school, now was seemingly caught up in the enduring and endearing world of language. I could barely suppress my enthusiam for his decision to do this; this "essay/letter" is the first of (I hope) many letters I would like to write to him about the joys and challenges of writing.
To The Letter
"I wanted to tell you, Will, how delighted I was to hear that you have decided to extend yourself to learn about the craft and discipline of writing. Part of my delight comes from the unexpected nature of the news. I had always known you as a "quantitative" kind of guy; indeed, that comes naturally to us as "Longs," but we have had to work hard for our victories in the literary field. Yet, as I think about it for a moment, it isn't strange to me that you have taken up writing as a craft, for even your emails to me speak with such vivacity and clarity that I can see the ideas leaping, as it were, from your pen.
But as you begin to see yourself as a writer, I would like to share a few things I have learned in my years of writing, not because you might find any of it life-changing or even terribly useful, but simply as testimony to what the writing life has taught me. In this letter I will mention two things I have learned; maybe other lessons will follow....
Lesson One--Words and Pictures
You have often heard it said that "A picture is worth 1000 words." This is normally said by people who either are photographers or who are so captured by visual media that ocular demonstration is the highest form of proof and entertainment for them. Yet, I would frame it this way (I quote from myself in another context):
"For me a word is worth 1000 pictures; and my unrelenting quest, then, is to find that word, that phrase, that dagger-deep expression that so captures the scene I am trying to describe that it not only communicates a picture but inspires imagination in the reader/hearer. God created by the Word, Genesis tells us, and therefore there is something fundamentally life-giving and fruitful about word-work. I think that Shakespeare is so powerful because his words "explode" as you read them (my theory of language is very practical--I call it the "cherry tomato" view of language---let the words explode in your mouth), and you are able to take them two, three or sometimes four different ways. His language also allows the reader maximum freedom to fill in what is lacking in the words. In this way writing is almost an act of love--creating one side of a conversation that needs a beloved to respond in kind."
The "pictures" you can create through words are endless and even exceed those that an artist can paint, for to you is also entrusted the ability to describe inner spaces of life, emotions, periods of time long-forgotten, and interactions between people. Your life as writer, then, is a "quest for the words"--for the words that take you and others where they can barely imagine being...
Second Lesson--Turning to Look
When Moses, in the Book of Exodus, was addressed by God, he heard the voice of God coming from a bush. The author tells us that the bush was "burning but not consumed." Moses, glancing over at this sight, said to himself: "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up" (Ex. 3:3). If you really think about those words for a moment, you realize that what Moses did was to capture the essence of what it is to be a great writer. In order to be a great writer you must first be a good looker. Or, differently, you must be on hair-trigger alert for the way that the world strums your senses. I chuckled a bit when I read a resume recently of a young person applying for a job I listed. She said she was skillfull at "strategic listening." I have no idea what she means by that, but it did spark in me the notion that all our sensual engagement as writers is "strategic." We must be willing to "turn aside" to notice the things around us. What is the smell in the air? What does the motion of people remind you of? What do you see in people's eyes? How do their actions or words reflect the processes going on in the mind?
But we can take this much further. To be a "strategic" writer means that we notice the animate and inanimate realities of nature. Continuing with some thoughts I have expressed elsewhere:
"Thus, I spend a lot of my time trying to learn "all the words" as I sometimes say. But I want to see them "at home," so to speak, or where they perform best. Therefore I search out their history, see which meanings we have left aside, usually for not very good reasons, and try to blow life into them the best I can. I believe if I have enough of these building blocks around that they will then nourish me, by coming to my "rescue" when I am tired or searching for the right one of them to use. So, eventually, the relationship you have with words is a living one--a sense that these are not just mute blocks of stone, but are "living stones" or "molten creations" that can be shaped and hammered and made beautiful as we fit them into the building we are constructing."
The world looks a lot different to you when you decide to notice what is there. I have found that once I begin to notice things, I just want to do so more and more. Whereas Jesus might have said, "Zeal for thy house will eat me up," so it is for me that "Zeal to know and describe things well" begins to eat me up. I want to express my sense of ownership of this world by describing it in my words.
So, join me and others in this quest for writing. If the Word was in the Beginning, it will certainly be there at the End.