Recently I had the privilege of editing a collection of writings for the seasons of Lent and Easter, which meant I got to read a lot of great books. And by a lot, I mean hundreds. Every time I went to the local library to pick up materials on hold, the librarian would glance at me over those glasses that librarians wear (you know the kind: usually on the funky side, with glass beads on a chain) and say, “Are you really going to read all these?” I would simply grin like a kid on Christmas. Oh, yeah.
And I did. Well, most of them. Or, at least, more than half. Because, I’ll be honest: life is too short to read bad writing. And after editing three of these anthologies, I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting bad writing. It used to take me a chapter or two before I’d figure out that something was off or was just not going to work for my purposes. But now it takes me only a few sentences. The longer I’ve exposed myself to the good stuff, the quicker I’ve become at spotting the stuff that just isn’t working.
For most of my life I’ve known in my bones when writing isn’t great. But generally I’ve struggled to articulate why. This could be because the laws of grammar are, for me, like math: I know them instinctively. But as soon as you ask me to break them down, my brain shifts into seventh-grade-pre-algebra-exam crisis mode, and I lose the ability to speak coherent sentences. Please, God, don’t let this subject verb this object in front of everyone. But the longer I’ve been publishing, the more other people want me to weigh in on their work: e.g., Why was this article rejected? Do you think my novel has promise? Is this essay going somewhere? So I’ve learned to say, “This isn’t working because your thesis isn’t clear,” or “The pacing is kind of clunky: try alternating the length of sentences,” or “You’ve been watching a lot of Downton Abbey, haven’t you?”
Of course, we’re often blind to this in our own work, so part of my journey has been to offer my writing for critique by people that I know are both honest and kind. For example, I tend toward the hyperbolic—everything is always stunning or awesome or brilliant—but once you’ve employed such words, what else is there? Astounding? Stupendous? At a certain point the reader becomes numb. There’s only so much emotion in the world, and I’ve used it all up. What’s left is not greater emotion, but ennui. The reader stops caring.
This is where I’d like to drill down for a moment, particularly as we journey through the season that marks some of the strongest emotion in the Christian story—namely, the execution and resurrection of Jesus. As I collated the Lenten guide to prayer I read a lot of poor poetry and fiction on these themes. Why is this?
Maybe it’s because we tend to think that raw emotions are justified in being expressed using raw language. We can write bad poetry about a bad breakup because at least the writing is honest. We can whip out a stream-of-consciousness post venting about injustice, because this is real life, and in real life we’re not always put together. But what happens in those moments is we give high emotion too much credit; we give it more power than it deserves. The truth is, we are not ruled by grief or fear or panic or rage: we’re ruled by a living God who gave us the skills and the calling to say things well—and to do so all the time, but most especially when there’s a moment worth marking.
Take the biblical book of Lamentations, for instance. In the words of one scholar, Lamentations is “the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future.” It was written to commemorate the destruction of the First Temple of Israel in 586 B.C.—and it’s recited annually in synagogues. On that day of public mourning and fasting the congregation sits on low stools or on the floor, as if it’s a funeral (because they have been “brought low” by grief); and the entire book, all five chapters, is chanted or recited. Interestingly, what doesn’t come through in our English translations is the fact that each chapter of Lamentations is an acrostic poem—each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet—and the third or middle chapter is a triple acrostic. In other words, the author of Lamentations took great care in the writing of that book.
On the heels of one of the worst catastrophes God’s people would ever know, a writer did not assume that high emotions can only be expressed in a rush of blabbered honesty. If anything, that writer chose a particularly restrictive poetic form that required polished expression—and probably took a long time to create. He (or she) was not going to waste this event on trifles. It deserved good writing, the best one could offer.
So, what does this mean as we journey through Lent, that annual season of lament, of strong emotions? Well, first I think it means we write carefully—about everything, not just faith. We write carefully when we’re upset about something on the news. We write carefully about family issues with which we struggle. We write carefully when the sins of others threaten to unravel our attempts at stability and peace. And the more we get in the habit of writing with care—avoiding hyperbole and sentimentality, taking pains to develop a coherent argument, pacing the length of sentences (shorter, then longer, then really short, etc.), and a thousand other details—the more such writing will become instinctive.
Second, the high emotion of this season demands that we pause before we hit “post.” Find someone to read the piece first, someone who both affirms your calling and is willing to speak up when something seems off. Workshop the essay or article with other writers you trust. Take the long view: when your children or godchildren read this, will they recognize that you had a healthy sense of your place in a much larger story?
As I discovered in creating the Lenten guide to prayer, the good news is there are lots of great books out there. We can stay in the habit of writing well by staying in the habit of reading well. And perhaps that’s our task in this season of lament: to pull back from the rush of our own emotions and write as if our words, like good books, will outlast us.