Why do we attach such significance to the written word? What is there on the page that is not in the mouth?
Speech is living, is fellowship, powerful and fleeting. Writing is two-dimensional, durable, lying there unmoved until read. What works in one ought to work in both, but different streams from the same spring develop distinctive tastes.
Talk at its best is considerate, shifting tone and meaning in a dance with the perceptions of its audience (whether of one or one thousand). A stroke of the pen can only be ever so mindful of who pays attention. Saying something of consequence in a conversation happens often enough that we don’t notice, but finding true meaning in permanent words is a rare gem. Lives are changed daily by a quip, a word of advice, a confidential aside. To read something and take it to heart requires time, a slow ferment to the bloom of understanding.
Somehow, I’m never satisfied with giving voice to ideas; they aren’t real until they’re on paper. E. M. Forster was not merely being coy when he asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Therein lies the danger, though. It is too easy fake knowledge in person, so much simpler to eat words spoken in haste. What we write (what we truly think, if Forster is to be believed) lives on, returning to us for good or ill years later, unchanged yet never the same. Solomon warned us of this much: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:11-12).
I’ve only recently taken to telling people I want to be a writer. Looking back it seems so obvious–from starting a school broadside (rendered with dot-matrix éclat) in fifth grade to spending seven semesters on the student newspaper in college to taking a job that requires me to think on paper all the time. Ever in thrall of professions that seem to be waning in their ability to feed a family, I dreamed for years of sticking with journalism to become the lone voice of reason at a big-city mainstream newspaper (in other words, being Ross Douthat) and now I’m carving up time and resources chasing after the novel(s) in my head. It’s bad enough to want to spill the contents of your mind on others, much worse to plumb and plunder the depths of other minds also.
At times, articulating a vision for telling stories with excellence for the glory of God almost makes sense. At others, it seems like a petty grasping after the privilege of being paid for my thoughts, as though there are things that must be said which no one else could say. For better or for worse, this is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a calling. Even so, it is always intermingled with craven pursuit of recognition. O, to be sought after, to be thought wise.
Having something to say and saying it somewhat originally, though, tampers with strong magic. It’s one thing, I suppose, to unfold your own troubled soul to the world, but quite another to play the observer. Anything of worth necessarily touches nerves, and the stories that make up our stories aren’t ours alone, but belong to children, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. What does it cost to set a life in text? What if that work is accursed rather than acclaimed?
Teasing out that which will not let you go demands both obscene arrogance and humble fear. And so we write.