Bret Lott is a writer, he’s a creative writer, and he’s a creative Christian writer. I don’t think he would write a normal review — summary, strengths, and interaction. That would be the easy route. That would, in terms of its category, “borrow from the vast steaming pile of clichés we always have ready at hand” (50). And who wants to do that?
There’s one big idea I’ll take away from Lott’s semi-autobiographical Letters and Life (Crossway, 2013). It appears on page 47, under the banner for chapter 3: “On Precision.” It’s not even Lott’s words, or Lott’s story. But he uses it throughout the chapter, and I’ll never forget it. Lott begins:
Here’s a quote I keep taped to the wall above my desk, which is to say it is an important one, one of my favorites, and one that helps me when I write. It’s from a memoir piece the poet Phil Levine wrote that appeared in the journal Ploughshares a few years ago. It’s about his having been a student in one of those legendary workshops at Iowa, this one taught by none other than John Berryman, that madman prophet whose lips were touched by the searing coal of poetry. Levine writes that one day Berryman gave the assembled young writers the following monumentally inspiring and intensely intimidating exhortation: “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise, you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere because that’s always easiest.”
I don’t remember exactly what I thought when I first read those last two sentences. But I know I stopped. I stopped because I had just been taken somewhere I’d never been taken before. I’d read a real idea, put into real writing.
Because here’s the thing: In writing we’re not just trying to circle the same property, crest the same hill, ford the same river. Writing is a pioneer activity, a mission impossible of the mind. The best writers take us places we’ve not been because we didn’t have the words to get there, and they got there (and took us with them) because they launched themselves into the journey even when they didn’t have the words, either. No one has the words until they have them. And then, there they are, and a new world comes into being.
Of course, it’s rarely that simple. Rarely do the right words just happen upon us like surprise sunsets. Most often we fight for them. We fight to win them from the ever-thickening web of synthetic constraints that dim the glory of the written word. We fight to liberate them from our incessant lackadaisy — or else our overweaning pride and overbearing cleverness. Either way, it’s most often a fight.
Precision calls for patience, it calls for searching; it calls for striving; it also calls for letting yourself trip over what is right there in the path before you. Precision is indispensable; it is just beyond your reach. You don’t have the technique, the language, or the courage to achieve precision. But if you want to write, then for all these reasons — and chiefly because we serve a precise God who is creator of all things — you must reach for precision. As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know (62).
So what will it mean for me to write for the rest of my life? Many things, but never less than this: “trying to write a poem I’m unable to write, a poem I lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve.” Then, though it may be a literary bloodbath to get there, I’ll get somewhere I’ve not gotten before. And perhaps take someone with me.
Thanks to Crossway for providing a free copy for unbiased review.