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Becoming a Writer

James K.A. Smith has an interesting post up in which he makes the distinction between being an “author” and being a “writer”:

Being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.

But it’s just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
I find this post challenging because I am most decidedly an “author.”  This is particularly clear to me as I work through the works of Balthasar – certainly a writer if any theologian is. Consistent with one Smith’s main pieces of advice, Balthasar was immersed in all forms of literature (and music). De Lubac called him the most cultured person of the 20th century for a reason. The problem is that I simply prefer reading about  history and non-fiction in general more than fiction and poetry – unless you count Harry Potter. Writing also usually just seems like a task for me. In contrast, I assume that most “writers” probably enjoy writing. Not all the time, of course, but more than the rest of us. Ben Myers over at F&T comes to mind here (I would venture a guess that this is probably true with the majority of the most popular bloggers). Writers take real pleasure in the inspiration of a beautiful turn of phrase, whether their own creation or someone else’s.
I have tried this year to write at least thirty minutes a day, six days a week. Smith likewise advises that one needs committment and patience to become a writer. Of course, he is speaking more of attempting to make “language dance and play” every day in your writing. I just try to write something. He also points to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule from Outliers (the amount of time necessary to reach “genius” level with a particular skill). The math is humbling. Even if my dissertation counts as “writing,” if I write for one hour a day every day, I only have 25 more years until I am a writer! Thankfully, “conceptual clarity and careful demonstration” are worthy goals in the meantime.
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  1. March 18, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Even though I do harbor ambitions at becoming a “writer,” in Smith’s sense, I actually found the requirement that one love literature and poetry a bit frustrating. On the one hand, I’m willing to admit that the great storywriters or poets are lately just better with language than most philosophers or theologians, and obviously it’s a good idea to look for role models among recognized experts in the craft. But: (1) writing philosophy or theology is not the same as writing stories, and it’s important to look for role models among the experts in one’s own craft, and (2) some of the best writers in western letters aren’t fiction-writers but theologians and philosophers!

    I’m happy to talk about the importance of form in academic writing, and I’m happy to bemoan its usual absence, but it just seems unnecessary to tie that so closely to a disconnect with literature in its modern sense.

    • Todd Walatka
      March 18, 2011 at 7:48 am

      I agree that attention to form is primary. Nevertheless, would you accept that someone who loves literature is more likely to have good style? Maybe I accept Smith’s suggestion too quickly simply because I see this as true in my case. Yet, even when I look around for role models within theology, the people that I know personally and consider the most like “writers” are indeed immersed in literature. This obviously includes someone like Balthasar but also students and professors. Two fellow graduate students here at ND whose writing I appreciate the most have read more literature than I probably ever will. I should certainly learn from reading their theological style but maybe it would be good to go back to the source so to speak.

      • March 21, 2011 at 12:33 pm

        I honestly doubt it. For every good academic stylist who finds her inspiration in literature, I think it’s possible to find more than one scholar who tries to be ‘literary’ at the expense of good academic writing.

        There is a set of demands to which all kinds of writing are subject–things like clarity, vividness, rhythm, flow. I have no trouble agreeing that in our age literature is vastly better at meeting these demands than scholarly writing, and so obviously scholarly writing should learn from literature on these points. But there is also a set of demands that is peculiar to storytelling on the one side, and to theology on the other; and in fact, those specific demands should give the general demands a different cast. Clarity and vividness, for example, mean something very different in each kind of writing. So I don’t think literature could be taken as the source of good theological writing without distorting the kind of writing theology is supposed to be. Good theological style, in other words, is not derivative of good literary style but sui generis, even if it has certain demands in common with literature and even if literature tends to be more attuned to issues of form.

        I guess I’d want to say that literature is a helpful teacher, but not the only teacher, nor always the best teacher; and unless theology or philosophy settles down the think on its own about how to translate literature’s lessons into its own idiom, the effect is far from unambiguous.

  2. Todd Walatka
    March 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    I agree that style is never enough. As you know from conversations outside of this blog I worry that some people can be such good writers that they seem persuasive but when one really presses the actual content the work just does not hold up.

    I also agree that one would need to do some translating. Theology and philosophy are not identical with fiction – well, it shouldn’t be anyway. Seeing this as a straight cause-and-effect relationship probably is not right either. Perhaps sharp theological or philosophical thinking could aid fictional writing as well. That said, when I look around at the people’s whose writing I respect the most, they are almost all shaped in literature. I don’t want to claim that this is the only way to go – simply focusing one’s attention on style as a good is a first step no matter what else one does – but being steeped in literature does seem help with answering the demands for good writing you indicate.

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