"Open a Vein"

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers' awards: 

I WISH THAT I had told my writing students to give some thought to what they wanted their books to make happen inside the people who read them, and I also wish that I had told them what Red Smith said about writing although I suppose it is possible that he hadn't gotten around to saying it yet . . . What Red Smith said was more or less this: "Writing is really quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein"—another hematological image. From the writer's vein into the reader's vein: for better or worse a transfusion. 

I couldn't agree with Red Smith more. For my money anyway, the only books worth reading are books written in blood. . . 

Write about what you really care about is what he is saying. Write about what truly matters to you—not just things to catch the eye of the world but things to touch the quick of the world the way they have touched you to the quick, which is why you are writing about them. Write not just with wit and eloquence and style and relevance but with passion. Then the things that your books make happen will be things worth happening—things that make the people who read them a little more passionate themselves for their pains, by which I mean a little more alive, a little wiser, a little more beautiful, a little more open and understanding, in short a little more human. I believe that those are the best things that books can make happen to people, and we could all make a list of the particular books that have made them happen to us.  

-Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry and later in Listening to Your Life

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Word and Deed

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers' awards: 

I THINK OF PAINTING and music as subcutaneous arts. They get under your skin. They may get deeper than that eventually, but it takes a while, and they get there to some extent tinged by if not diluted by the conditions under which you saw them or heard them. Writing on the other hand strikes me as intravenous. As you sit there only a few inches from the printed page, the words you read go directly into the bloodstream and go into it at full strength. More than the painting you see or the music you hear, the words you read become in the very act of reading them part of who you are, especially if they are the words of exceptionally promising writers. If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned; if there is nourishment, you are nourished; if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful. In Hebrew, the word dabar means both word and also deed. A word doesn't merely say something, it does something. It brings something into being. It makes something happen. What do writers want their books to make happen?  

-Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry 

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"Creative" Writing

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers' awards: 

SOMETIME IN THE early 1950s, for two years running, I taught creative writing at the summer session of the Washington Square branch of N.Y.U. . . . I was uneasy about teaching creative writing for a number of reasons, one of which was that I've never been sure that it is something that can really be taught—for better or worse, I don't think anybody ever taught it to me anyway—and another that I had absolutely no idea how to teach it right if it was. But my main uneasiness came from somewhere else. Suppose, I thought, that by some fluke I did teach it at least right enough so that maybe a couple of people, say, learned how to write with some real measure of effectiveness and power. The question then became for me what were they going to write effectively and powerfully about? Suppose they chose to write effective and powerful racist tracts or sadistic pornography or novels about warped and unpleasant people doing warped and unpleasant things? Or, speaking less sensationally, suppose they used the skills I had somehow managed to teach them to write books simply for the sake of making a name for themselves, or making money, or making a stir. It seemed to me and still does that to teach people how to write well without knowing what they are going to write about is like teaching people how to shoot well without knowing what or whom they are going to shoot at. 

-Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry

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WHEN KING SAUL found his oldest son, Jonathan, siding with David, whom he considered his arch-enemy, he cursed him out by saying that he had made David a friend "to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness" (1 Samuel 20:30). They are strong words, and some have interpreted them as meaning that Saul suspected a sexual relationship between the two young men. 

This view can be further buttressed by such verses as "The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Samuel 18:1) and the words David spoke when he learned of Jonathan's death, "Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:26). When David and Jonathan said good-bye to each other for almost the last time, they "kissed one another and wept" (1 Samuel 20:41), we're told, and there are undoubtedly those who would point to that too as evidence.  

There seem to be at least three things to say in response to all this. 

The first is that both emotions and the language used to express them ran a good deal higher in the ancient Near East than they do in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Boston, Massachusetts, or even Los Angeles, California, and for that and other reasons the theory that such passages as have been cited necessarily indicate a homosexual relationship is almost certainly false. 

The second is that it's sad, putting it rather mildly, that we live at a time when in many quarters two men can't embrace or weep together or speak of loving one another without arousing the suspicion that they must also go to bed together.  

Third, in the unlikely event that there was a sexual dimension to the friendship between Jonathan and David, it is significant that the only one to see it as shameful was King Saul, who was a manic depressive with homicidal tendencies and an eventual suicide. 

Everywhere else in the Book of Samuel it seems to be assumed that what was important about the relationship was not what may or may not have been its physical side but the affection, respect, and faithfulness that kept it alive through thick and thin until finally Jonathan was killed in battle and David rent his garments and wept over him. 


-Originally published in Telling Secrets 

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Algebraic Preaching

X + Y = Z. IF YOU know the value of one of the letters, you know something. If you know the value of two, you can probably figure out the whole thing. If you don't know the value of any, you don't know much. 

Preachers tend to forget this. "Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and be saved from your sins," or something like that, has meaning and power and relevance only if the congregation has some notion of what, humanly speaking, sin is, or being saved is, or who Jesus is, or what accepting him involves. If preachers make no attempt to flesh out these words in terms of everyday human experience (maybe even their own) but simply repeat with variations the same old formulas week after week, then the congregation might just as well spend Sunday morning at home with the funnies. 

The blood atonement. The communion of saints. The Holy Ghost. If people's understanding of theological phrases goes little deeper than their dictionary or catechetical definitions, then to believe in them has just about as much effect on their lives as to believe that Columbus discovered America in 1492 or that E = mc2. 

Coming home from church one snowy day, Emerson wrote, "The snow was real but the preacher spectral." In other words nothing he heard from the pulpit suggested that the preacher was a human being more or less like everybody else with the same dark secrets and high hopes, the same doubts and passions, the same weaknesses and strengths. Undoubtedly he preached on matters like sin and salvation but without ever alluding to the wretched, lost moments or the glad, liberating moments of his own life or anybody else's. 

There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him. If there are people who remain unconvinced, let them tune in their TVs to almost any of the big-time pulpit-pounders almost any Sunday morning of the year.  

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark

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