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2/14/2017: On Writers Reading

· 8 min read
Patrick Pace

(8/30/2023: I never published this one. Not sure why not.)

I’ve heard it said a number of times that to write well you have to read a lot. Or to read good stuff. Or both. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

Yes, reading good writing can help us understand what good writing looks like. And it teaches other things, even practical things. Especially good writing, which teaches about life, itself.

But I think even more important, and something that feeds into the nature of our habits of reading (for a person who cares about living life well will care about reading about life!), is the personal interaction with and understanding of life, to the extent that I think a non-reader who understands life could easily write a better book than a reader who doesn’t.

How does a person come to understand life? By living, of course (10/17/2017: Studies have shown that reading has similar effects on the brain as life experiences; but I think we can all agree that a Vietnam vet has a more thorough and nuanced experience than someone who has read all the best Vietnam narratives). The more she experiences things that can be experienced, the more life she knows. The more relationships she has navigated, the more of herself she has come to understand…

Surely reading good writing can help, given that good writing comes from persons who understand and communicate life. But even then, if a person reads life but doesn’t participate in life, he’s at a loss. If he has no relationships, or he only has fake relationships, or he only has dead relationships (since relationships are central to life), he can’t write life. If he has never experienced loss or pain, or if he has never experienced grace—both things I believe are the seminal themes of life—he cannot write life. The same goes for a writer having given grace or having caused pain. For experiencing and causing healing. For all the things that come in relating with others and with the world. The reader can write only written life, which can never fully depict the complexities of actual life, and which can’t even be understood without a person’s own experiences by which to measure and nuance and apply what he’s read. Thus a person can only come to understand life by living, by relating with others and with the world. I should also add himself. He should relate with himself. With guilt and forgiveness. With pride and hatred and malice. With receiving mercy. To the degree that a person experiences the innumerable aspects of life, that person can write life.

Thus writing requires a person who lives, who relates. Reading can help him do this. But it’s the living that matters.

Another delineation. I have read and written elsewhere about relationship’s centrality to Life and also about Life’s equation with that-which-is-like-God. Self-existent God is Life, itself. He is the beginning of all things. He is relational. To relate with God and with others in ways like God does is to live. Not to do so accords with Death—that which is unlike God. It is to die.

But in the world in which we live, Life and Death coexist. And while Life will ultimately defeat Death, and we see this now in things like mercy and grace, Death has the current mastery (at least the current visible mastery). As one author or theologian said, this is not the age of justice. Thus life (little l) consists of both Life and Death.

And even if a person doesn’t acknowledge God or Christ and the fall and our hope for the future, he experiences things that accord with them, like the beauty of love, like the rightness of justice over injustice. It’s impossible to escape these themes in the story that God has created, him being the source and the standard of them. Thus unbelievers learn and depict truths as well. They can even learn and depict truths that we forget or haven't yet learned. And of course, since the fall had universal effects, we all know things like injustice and pain.

So a person who understands life (little l) is a person who understands, to the degree he is able (for we are all given measures of perception and of access to the truth), the nature of the world, including both Life and Death.

But what about the person who experiences life and doesn’t mature (meaning he doesn’t move toward Life)? Who moves toward the Death side (Dark side, ha)? I suspect she'd still be able to write well. She'd have a lot to say that resounded with life and to which persons could relate. The difference would be that her writing would lead readers into Death rather than Life. And of course, as a person who believes in the value of Life, I contend with the value of such writing. But I could see how others who don’t value Life would still see it as good writing simply because it depicts the data we all experience by living in this world or because it accords with their own Death-ful worldviews.

I guess all this means is that I think “good writing” accords with life (little l). I suppose some persons, many persons, think “good writing” is something unlike even life, as is the case for persons who escape life into the various porns of entertainment—soap drama, most video games, much of pop media, porn itself, often social media in its shallowness and inauthenticity.

Which leads me to question why I think good writing must accord with life, which leads me to value my assertion that good writing should accord with Life and not just life. If writing leads a person into Death, it seems no better to me than feeding a person’s escapism, which accords with Death. Escapism certainly doesn’t help a person live life in Life. I can’t value something that leads to Death the same as something that leads to Life, whether it accords with life or not. Accurate to the data of the world, sure. Good writing? No. So I have to go back on what I said. Capital L Life. Not just life.

Something should be said about craft and content. Content is what really matters in writing. What’s being said. What the story is. What the themes are. What the message is. Those are the things of substance. A conversation made entirely of well-crafted sentences but of nothing that matters is a pretty meaningless conversation (except to grammarians and lexicographers—but in those cases, the craft becomes the content [see below]). Unless there’s a meaning to the meaninglessness, like when a person just needs to get her mind off of something that causes anxiety or something. It’s the meaning that’s important, and the meaning is found in the content.

This isn’t to say craft has no purpose. Craft has the purpose of getting the meaning across as well as possible. As clear as possible—both in terms of cognitive and of emotional clarity. It’s the how that’s all about showcasing what’s being said. And reading well-crafted pieces can teach us craft, just as classes and educational materials and practice can (and should) teach us craft.

Of course, the meaning could also be the craft—like a conversation between persons who share a taste in well crafted sentences. The craft becomes the content. It becomes more than just the carrier. It becomes what’s meant to be taken from the conversation rather than just how the conversation is fashioned. Craft becomes the message or part of the message and not just the media for the message.

And this doesn’t apply just to writing. Writing is relational. It’s just communication, thinking and sharing our thoughts. A person who understands Life relates with others in life and about Life. One would think that if he relates to others well on the whole, he will, or he can, relate to others well in his writing.

Moreover, since I believe that to write requires an understanding not just of life but of Life, and since I believe that the Scriptures are God’s revelation to us that leads us to himself, a knowledge of the Scriptures aids us in our understanding of Life. Thus a knowledge of the Scriptures aids in the creation of good writing.

So, good writing is really Good writing. Writing that is Good. Writing that accords with God. Writing that accords with life and with Life. To write in such a way requires an accordance with life, but it doesn’t stop there. Because I value Life over Death, I cannot value writing that leads only to Death. But at the same time, the road to Life is long and complex. And while I believe in “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone,” I believe persons who do not believe in Christ can write things that accord with Life. And likewise, I do not think that only writing that includes the Gospel or Christ accords with Life. Life is anything that accords with God (God is Life, but I’m using the term adjectivally to indicate things that accord with God). And this can be as simple as righting an injustice, showing a daughter’s butterfly kisses to her father after he yells at her, whatever.