instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Inspired writing

T.S. O'Rama quotes Shelby Foote from a 1997 interview:
Good writing doesn’t come from inspiration. It may spark you, set you off, but if you write under the influence of inspiration, you will write very badly—probably sentimentally, which is even worse.
This caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

First, as an anti-sentimentalist myself, I am all for preventing sentimental writing, and I applaud Foote for striking this blow. I take him to mean, more or less, that someone writing under the influence of inspiration, in trying to inspire readers in much the same way, is likely to fall into sentimentalism as the easiest way to get a response.

Foote's concern is the quality of writing itself; as he says earlier in the interview:
As I get older, I care less and less what happens in a book. What I care about is the writing—how it’s told. I read words and I don’t see a scene going on as if I were at a movie; I want to see how these words are shaped and how they intertwine and what the sounds are next to each other, how they rub up against each other, along with the distribution of commas and semicolons.
To the extent writing under the influence of inspiration is hasty writing -- inspiration is fleeting, so you need to write quickly -- the way the words are shaped and intertwine is haphazard. Apart from the rare genius, good hasty writing is likely to be derivative, since the writer will be using whatever words come most quickly to mind. And someone who cares about writing isn't likely to think derivative is good.

All sentimental writing is derivative, at least in the sense that it follows well-worn paths to well known emotional responses. It's manipulative, so if it fails to manipulate -- as it will, if the reader cares about the writing and not what happens -- it fails as writing. Sentimental writing that fails to evoke sentiment is like the illogical logic puzzle detective novel Raymond Chandler criticized in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder": "If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be."

Having said all that, I'm also interested in Foote's comment because I'm interested in the idea of writing as a charism. I can dress that up as a special docility toward the movement of the Holy Spirit in building up Christ's Church through the written word, but it comes down to writing under the influence of inspiration.

Granted, Foote wasn't talking about that kind of inspiration. But the idea of a writing charism does make me think about Foote's distinction quoted above, between "what happens" and "how it's told." Art is right reasoning about a thing to be made, and you have to think the Holy Spirit reasons rightly about the writing He inspires, which suggests that it will be artful writing. Both what happens and how it's told ought to be exceptional.

And yet, the purpose of a charism is to have an effect on others, and I'd bet there aren't a lot of readers as discriminating as the elderly Shelby Foote. For that matter, a lot of readers might well be put off by writing that's too well written. So we might think the Holy Spirit isn't too concerned with words being artfully arranged as long as the meaning He intends is conveyed. But does that really make sense? We wouldn't say that someone with the charism of painting might paint ugly pictures as long as you could tell what they were paintings of.

We could distinguish between writing and writing down. Writing is a creative act, the art of making a piece of writing intended to be read. Writing down is an act of recording spoken or thought words, to convey the intelligible ideas written down to others who weren't there to hear them spoken. The Holy Spirit can inspire either act, right? The writing down of words, so that others can know what the writer-down wants them to know, need not be particularly artistic.

If the Holy Spirit inspires a writer, though, then surely the work that gets written gets written well. And that should make it easy for a writer to know whether he has the charism of writing, since writing well without God as your co-author is hard work.