One-idea books and other writing ills

I just realized both why I like reading Donald Miller, and why I end up being a bit disgusted with him more often than not. I (and most people who don’t dislike him right from the start) like him because he apparently hasn’t much of an internal content filter, so he says a lot of the stuff we all think but don’t bother saying, as well as a lot of the stuff we say but don’t bother writing — and some of the stuff we at first think or say or write, but then consider a little longer, complicate, and revise. Instead of chucking these little observations out, however, Miller polishes them into amusing anecdotes, posts, and, eventually, books.

Most of us have, I suppose, considered how life has a narrative quality to it, as do stories — and interesting lives tend to lead to interesting stories. It’s not much of a stretch to see, then, that just as there are certain techniques, strategies, and formulas writers can apply in order to produce, if not an original and breathtaking tale, at least a good, solid, enjoyable one; so, too, there may be similar strategies for living a more interesting life. Whether or not most of us have ever actually thought that, it seems like something we might have thought, if we had gotten to it. Any of us might have thought it, and then supposed it to be a helpful lens through which to consider life decisions. Some of us might have thought that for a moment, then found enough counter-examples to decide that it’s not so helpful after all.

What I’m quite certain none of us would have done, however, is to keep thinking about that idea for several years, write a book on it, and arrange a largish conference based upon it. There’s probably a workbook, a personal study journal, and a stationary set based upon this “storyline” idea by now. None of would, I imagine, have done that. Therein lies the particular genius of the popular writer. They can take a mildly interesting idea and make a franchise of moderate importance within the sub-culture out of it, whereas the most I would end up with is a slightly clearer account of how life might productively imitate (be?) art.

So I read Miller, and am impressed at the things he bothers saying, no doubt requiring a good deal of time and attention, possibly tedium. After being impressed, however, I’m disappointed. There was a reason the rest of us never judged that idea to be important enough to write a book about. A good writer can say in a single thought something it takes a vapid writer 200 pages to disclose — and the good writer will generally be aware that he is mostly working to distill and sharpen something that everyone knows already, if they ever get to thinking of it (which we may never do, if not for the writer).

I was thinking about this on account of Miller’s most recent blog post, which is about how real righteousness is so much more inviting than self-righteousness — and about how we Christians too often have an abundance of the latter, and nearly none of the former. At least I suppose that’s what he’s writing about. Much as I suppose that Eldridge is writing about how we tend to get into boring, insipid ruts, and need to get out in nature to work at being better poems. Much as I suppose that those Christian speakers I heard as a teen were talking about how it’s important not only to do religious things out of habit, but to try, and be always working and praying and trying, to actually love God. Much as I suppose that those educational trainers want us to approach our work a bit less relationally, and a bit more calculatingly.

That last is, I believe, the point. I’ve heard a lot of educational trainers, but I never really listen to them. In fact, I expend a great deal of energy in not listening to them. I then am horribly alarmed that I don’t understand what they said. Of course not. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to because there are few things I value more in a writer or speaker or teacher than that he let the hearer in, as much as is possible under the circumstances. That his words be in some way a mirror of his thoughts. It’s never entirely possible, of course — and is right and proper that he should conceal a good deal, in the sense in which we are always concealing most everything: it is not possible or even desirable to communicate everything about oneself or one’s thought all at once. No one’s mind nor soul is so small as to permit that. Rather, I appreciate it when writers or speakers trust and respect their readers. They show this not by relating self-depreciating anecdotes carefully chosen for affect, but by writing and speaking at the same level as they think — to people who are somewhat like themselves, who probably haven’t studied or thought very much about this particular question, but will still respond with recognition — with a recognition that is in some way analogous to that which the writer experienced when he first came upon thie thought which he is now relaying. And then the reader will either agree or disagree, but may well do either creatively — by adding his own thoughts to the conversation in a way which really may add something. For all their talk of cooperative learning, educational specialists really do not entertain the possibility that we may add something to the conversation in any substantial way. They do not suppose that any of us could add anything that could cause anyone (especially themselves!) reconsider anything.

I mention all this by way of contrast. It would certainly be unreasonable to expect a writer I admire but disagree with to actually change his mind because I contradict him. Still, I would like to know that he takes me seriously enough to bother disagreeing with me. I would especially like to know that he takes others seriously enough to bother disagreeing with them by name and in print. I would like Mr Miller to take us self-righteous Christian sinners seriously enough to bother relating whether he has in mind the entire church, or most of the church, except perhaps for a small group of select righteous — and, if so, who these people are, and what they’re like. I would like Eldridge to take us dissenters seriously enough to bother disagreeing with us, rather than simply brushing us off by mentioning that we’re giving into satan when we disagree with his take on life. I would like, at the very least, for him to bother saying things that can be disagreed with. Be a poet. Sure. That’s cool. But should I actually go adventuring, or is it enough to go for walks in the park? What on earth is he really trying to say? He never bothers clarifying. Miller never even bothers accusing me of being a consumer, and therefore inferior to himself, but is continually implying so. People like Neitzche, in part, because he goes to the trouble of offending us.

At this point I realize that I’m dealing with three different objections, at least one of which I’m guilty of myself.

  1. We’re taught in school not to choose a topic that’s too broad: if one is writing a three page essay, one had better try to say something that can be said, or at least briefly introduced in three pages. It is just as important, when one is writing a book, not to choose a topic that can be adequately covered in a three page essay, or a one line aphorism, and proceed to beat it to death with romantic imagery and self-depreciating anecdotes — and to then go on past even the book to a video series, a specialized retreat, a themed journal, a workbook, a poster set, a weekly study group, a month long intensive ministry extravaganza, complete with leadership materials, and on and on.
  2. Treat your reader as an equal if you possibly can. Even if she doesn’t quite understand you, she’ll appreciate your consideration.
  3. Be as specific as possible. If you’re bothered by the evangelical youth conference speakers you heard when you were 14, your youth pastor, the youth pastor at Casas, the college group leader, the Intervarsity outing in college, Child Evangelism Fellowship, and a small smattering of Bible Study books — say so. Don’t mutter vaguely about “those people out there.” Likewise, if you (I’m talking to you Mr Miller) are bothered by the smarmily sanctimonious lady who sits two rows in front of you, who chastised you for that thing you said in last year’s book… say so! Otherwise I have no idea what you’re talking about, or why you’re talking about it. If you (I’m talking to you Evangelical Free conference leader) are bothered by those of us who say we’re Christian, but never go about shouting in the streets, evangelizing random mall people, and who stand quietly and don’t raise our hands in worship… say so. Don’t mutter about “dead religions” and whatnot, when you really mean “I want to see some sign of life out there!” Don’t go all vague and goopy about “relationships” when you really mean that you strongly suspect I only go to church because my grandma told me I should or I’d end up in the bad place, but I really don’t care a whit about God. And if you happen to mean Donald Miller, Rick Warren, and the Eldridges — don’t go on about some vague “popular Christian writers” just to avoid having to explain why you care whether they happen to write well or badly.
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7 thoughts on “One-idea books and other writing ills

  1. Wow! You should be a columnist for Christianity Today–is there an Orthodox equivalent? You have a talent for synthesizing different writers, ideas. You are a critic older than your years. Of course Eldridge thinks he is creating a parallel gospel, which is certainly not what you think he has managed to do, but I think your estimate of him is accurate, as is your notion of how disappointing it is to be intrigued by what a writer says in some way that is attractive-as Miller does–but then find his ideas trivial or banal or simply ignorant. In Heretics Chesterton found ideas worth fighting against, because the writer’s espoused strong, important points of view, with which he disagreed. Are there popular writers today whom it would be worth our while to criticize, as in, favorably or unfavorably, writers from whom one can learn either negatively or positively? That would be the point of being a critic of course. You seem to me to be developing some foundational critical ideas about literature and the nature of how to write about it. I don’t know how strongly you want to go in this direction but you do seem to have some nice discernments (from War and Peace for instance) which would be helpful for a lot of readers. But maybe the essay you just wrote might be sent somewhere to find out if anybody might be interested in it or in you–definitely worth keeping, in any case.

  2. I like your views on how a writer should treat a reader. I have never thought in that way before.

    I like your insistence on specifics.

    I am still unsure if your definition of “good writer” agrees with mine. Is a good writer someone who is “skilled at writing,” or like I suppose, is a good writer “one who waits until she has mastered a subject before bothering to write about it.” I wonder how much of everything you are saying would be null and void if you found out that these writers you mention simply haven’t fully understood what they are writing about yet.

    • What do you mean by “mastered a subject?” I lot of people who are very good at some particular specialty are also rather dull writers, because they go on about details that a general audience won’t want to know anything about. Many good writers seem to be well informed amateurs, or else they are specialists in something, but their best writing isn’t in their specialty (like Theodore Dalrymple, who is a MD, but writes best on cultural issues; or Descartes, who was better informed as a mathematician, but a better writer in philosophy). I wonder if there’s a particular balance to be struck between knowledgeability, sympathy for the ordinary uninformed reader, and still having enough to go on and learn about that one is not bored by having to explain one’s subject to someone who doesn’t know very much about it? Like the way specialists aren’t often good teachers, since they get tired of explaining the preliminaries of their discipline again and again?

      • My apologies, I freely admit I am inarticulate to the point of being incorrect, so let me try again:

        What I mean by “mastered a subject” should not mean “mastered a subject” at all, but rather should mean “understand human nature”. So to me a good writer is one who understands human nature well enough that she can write about it, whereas the rest of us are humans, so we know the nature of humans but cannot articulate it. I think Shakespeare was a master at that.

        When you mention “he says a lot of stuff we all think but don’t bother saying”, or when you say “life has a narrative quality to it,” you are at the cusp of articulating that skill a good writer has which I am failing to articulate.

        So while Miller has the ability to articulate thoughts that we all think, which is what people like Dostoevsky also are good at, perhaps Miller does not understand something about human nature to the level Dostoevsky does. DB Hart contrasts Voltaire to Dostoevsky using a similar line of reasoning, asserting Dostoevsky understood the nature of suffering much more richly than did Voltaire, in the Doors of the Sea. Neither is a bad writer, but one has ideas which ought to be fought. So Miller may indeed be a good writer (or not), but he makes assertions that are not correct, precisely because he does not understand something, what that something is I don’t know.

        I think you should submit your (this) essay to the amateur writing group. Its quite good.

  3. I should have read more closely:

    “and the good writer will generally be aware that he is mostly working to distill and sharpen something that everyone knows already, if they ever get to thinking of it (which we may never do, if not for the writer).”

  4. 1) What is he getting at? Can I summarize the main thrust of his argument?

    The appeal and the disenchantment of a popular writer lie in his ability to take a moderately true and interesting idea, and then run with it, exhaust it, and distort it into an entire franchise.

    Also: these same writers and speakers maintain an improper relationship with their readers.

    1) What fundamental human question does this address?

    a) Proportion: how do we get the scope of our work on an idea to be proportionate to the actual importance of that idea; how do we refrain from either being hyperbolically obtuse or tepidly timid about the importance and originality of what we are saying? How can a writer speak with humility and conviction?

    b) How do we permit a relationship between reader and writer that communicates with neither unnecessary complication (conceit) nor talking down simplistically (also conceit)? I suppose that it somehow lies in the recognition that the writer is, in most cases, trying to clarify and distill that which is already available to the reader’s own experience — if not the writing will hold no interest nor conviction.

    3) Is his question a true and important one?

    For a very short essay, I believe so. But I may just be saying that because I wrote it. Perhaps it should be two very short essays, since there are two sides to it.

    4) Is his answer a true and substantial one?

    I’m not sure what the answer is yet: I’ve only just dragged the question out of hiding.

    5) If not, do I have a truer response? If so, how would one live that out? How might I live that out as the particular person I am, in the circumstances within which I find myself?

    If I were to write for people other than my friends and family I would probably have to consider these questions in more detail and revise my writing style accordingly.

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