Personal influence on art and craft
(Note: there is a brief video of me lecturing on this topic on my professional blog. You can view it here.)
“In my beginning is my end.” T.S. Eliot
In his classic essay “Why I Write” George Orwell says we write for sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose, an observation with which I completely concur.
But this explains little about why we write the way we do. Clearly one aspect of this is the influence of other writers, writers who have moved us and awed us with the tangible delight of words on a page.
Their work becomes in some collective way a source of our craft, as argued so elegantly in Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, a Guide for People who Love Books and for Those who Want to Write Them. Prose (what a happy name for such a task) argues convincingly for the value of reading literature closely for the necessary models for writing it well.
But our motivation and process are more likely influenced by people we actually know, like our fathers.
Take William Zinsser, for example. In his classic volume On Writing Well, he provides practical, useful advice for writers who want to write clearly and effectively. But in his final chapter, “Write as Well as You Can,” he points to the influences of his early life, including a mother who liked to clip thing out of the newspaper that delighted her for their style, wit or vision.
His dad, on the other hand, owned a company that made shellac and had been in the family three generations. He was a man who loved his business, an art “to be practiced with imagination and only the best ingredients, and who clearly expected his son to follow in his footsteps.
It was not from his mother’s love of literature, however, but from his father’s world of business that Zinsser inherited his craftsman’s ethic. He says “When I found myself endlessly rewriting what I had endlessly rewritten, determined to write better than everybody who was competing for the same space, the inner voice I was hearing was the voice of my father talking about shellac.”
The poet John Leax tells a similar story in Grace is Where I Live. He remembers visiting his home after his dad died. His dad, who bought and tamed four treeless acres outside of Pittsburg with woods and gardens and ponds, was not a poet at all. In fact, he once confessed to his son that he had never read a work of fiction.
He remembers his dad as one who seldom rose to self consciousness, who lived in the present and found pleasure in what he could touch, free, as it were, “of the burden of finishing that diminishes the working.” In such work Leax says his dad reached for holiness, “setting aside what one is to become what God wills.”
“My father was a craftsman who cared more for the act of making, for the assault on perfection, than for the finished product,” writes Leax, and this has become true of Leax himself, “although I work not in woods but in words.”
Fortunately for me, my own father’s craft was words. And wood. As a pastor, builder, artist, writer, he was in fact a multi-talented entrepreneur who taught me that words were powerful channels of vision and grace.
I learned much about craft from him, even before he used to edit my papers in college. He was an English major in college who always took words seriously and prepared sermons thoughtfully.
He was forceful but gracious in the pulpit, with a southern style that reflects the best possible understanding of the term. Think of the elegance of the King James version crossed with the plain style of a builder’s son and you have only begun to understand what it was like to hear him preach.
But what I learned from him as a writer was more about motivation than craft. Dad believed the gospel could change others because it changed him. He never gave up on people, and believed long after I had given up on them that they could be transformed by the truth of the gospel.
Understanding that what we say has the ability to change what others think and do is a great gift for one who writes. This was especially true of my dad, whose integrity and humility were framed by the biblical mandate that we “speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)”
I’m reminded of another preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter 11:
The Preacher sought to find words of delight,
and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
The words of the wise are like goads,
and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings.
He goes on to say that “of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.”
Writers understand that. That’s why in the end we are as concerned with the power of words as with their beauty, otherwise why would we do it? And if we write with passion and intensity, we focus on the why as well as the way.
It helps to reflect on those who have nurtured these things. Style may reflect a confluence of influences, but motivation is usually more personal.