One night, a couple of months ago, my son asked me to help him write a poem for school the next day. He doesn’t usually find homework difficult, unless it involves writing. In this we agree. I find writing hard work, and good writing harder still. Words rarely gather meekly on the page for me; they prefer to slip through my fingers like fish.
The evening crept on as we faltered through the writing. He found the search for the right words excruciating. We both did. And yet, in his agony (and mine) I learned once again how difficult it is to write well and how very good it is to try, for the good that is created from the effort is not just a well-crafted piece of writing, but also the gift of presence — of being there in the words with another person.
It was only after our hands and eyes and minds were sore from wrestling with words that I could see how they how they had taken shape and drawn their first small breath on the page.
Writing ‘On the Currambene’ – a dialogue
“I have to write a poem about camp,” he said. “For tomorrow.”
“What kind?” I asked.
“Your teacher specifically said the word ‘limerick’?”
“Someone said it.”
“How about free verse instead? Tell me about camp.” I picked up a pen and a few sheets of blank paper.
“I hated it.”
“What part exactly?”
“Could you be a bit more specific? For the poem?”
“I was cold.”
“You’re glad I was cold?”
“No, but it’s a feeling that a reader can understand. Were you cold all the time?”
“Just the end of the day.”
“So, the beginning of the day, the whole middle bit, you were warm, and then only at the end you felt the cold.”
“That’s what I said! Aren’t you listening?”
“What did the end of the day look or feel like?”
“A day is a day. There’s a beginning, middle and an end. And it was cold at the end! That’s how days work.”
We sat and stared at one another for a moment.
“The light was different,” he said. “Darker.”
“What were you doing when you felt the cold?”
“One time was hiking, the other was canoeing.”
“Let’s do canoes,” I said as I wrote. “What colour was yours?”
“Perfect,” I said as I cantilevered red over canoe at the top of the page. “Where did you go?”
“I’ll google it,” he said, opening the laptop.
“No. Show me through words. Was it a lake?”
“River.” He travelled for a moment through the internet, the keys a hull, the screen a sail. “Currambene Creek.” He pointed at the screen. “We started here, near the Pacific Highway, we ended where the cursor is.”
“How did you get your canoe in the water?”
“Slipped it in.”
I wrote down the phrase entire.
“And the colour of the water?”
“Water’s water, it has no colour.”
“But when it pools together it gives the impression of colour.”
His eyebrows squeezed together. “Green,” he said. “The water was green.”
“That kind?” I asked and pointed to the dark leaves of a rubber plant.
“Like that?” I pointed to the emerald leaves of the potted fig in the corner of the room.
“No.” He walked over to the refrigerator and yanked the door open. “Like this,” he said, holding up a bright green apple.
“What was on the shore nearby when you slipped your canoe into the water?”
“New mat a fours.”
“Pardon?” I asked. “You’ll have to spell it.”
“P-n-e-u-m-a-t-o-p-h-o-r-e-s,” he spelled the word so quickly I only wrote down ‘p’ and ‘n’.
I looked at him blankly. He looked at the laptop. I closed it with a click.
“Tell me what they are with your words and your memory.”
“Mangrove roots. Aerial ones. It helps them breathe.”
“I can’t picture them.”
“Fingers. Hundreds of them. Thousands even.”
“What were the fingers doing?”
“They aren’t fingers. They are an aerial root system that helps the mangroves breathe.”
“But you said they looked like fingers, and so I am attempting to conjure a picture of these pneumatophores, this aerial root system, by using the metaphor that you have already supplied — namely, fingers — and then bring that picture to life, so to speak, by showing in the mind’s eye what these fingers were doing. Were they like this?” I stretched my fingers out straight, parallel to the floor.
“They were pointing up,” he said. “Like this.” He pointed a finger up to the sky where the ceiling had once been.
The water was the colour of bright green apples and the banks were covered in a forest of knobbly mangrove fingers pointing to the clouds.
“This is where we start,” he said.
I shoved the canoe, blood red (I’d imagined it lighter) into the water, getting my feet and the hem of my pants wet in the effort. Drops of water hit the page, soaked the words “water” and “canoe” and made them swim in ink.
“If we follow it, where does it lead?” I asked.
“The sea,” he said, and dove his paddle into the water and set us moving downstream.
“Do the finger roots …”
“Pneumatophores,” he said.
“Yes those, do they last the whole way?”
“You’ll see,” he said.
He paddled us into the middle of the creek, the deep red hull over the clear green of the water. We canoed for what felt like an hour or more, but perhaps it was only a line or two. As we moved downstream the banks widened and the creek stretched to fill them. The finger roots of the mangroves withdrew and houses grew where mangroves had. And there, where the water lightened to the colour of frangipani leaves, he stopped.
“This is where I saw the stingray.” He looked on either side of the canoe. “It should be here. I don’t understand why it’s not.”
“What did it look like?”
“Can you describe it?”
“It looked like a stingray! Don’t you know what those are?” he shouted.
The canoe rocked from side to side as his voice was carried over the water. He slammed the oar down and threw himself onto the floor of the canoe; one arm covered his face.
“I hate this so much! When is it going to end?”
The canoe bobbed as small licks of water lapped against its sides.
“Sometimes chocolate helps with poetry. Would that help?”
He nodded and sat up.
A poem is a small world you make with words so that another person can live in it for a while.
I broke off a square of chocolate from the bar that I had managed to grab before the dining table disappeared. He nibbled it down, corner by corner, his eyes squinting in the long rays of the afternoon sun. The canoe rocked as he returned to his seat. He held the oar upright between his knees as he licked the last of the chocolate from his fingers.
“A poem is a small world you make with words so that another person can live in it for a while. But the only way that they can ever be in this world, to see what you can see, or hear what you hear, or even taste what you taste, is through words. That is why they are so important. Words are a way to let another person in.”
He let out his breath in a gust. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Grey,” he said. “Darker than a dolphin.” He looked at me through one open eye. “As long as your arm, mum. As wide as I don’t know what.”
“Yes. A kite,” he said.
“And what did it do?”
“It glided. Under my canoe.”
I held my breath and looked over the lip of the boat. At first nothing; I noticed only the ripples of the water, flashes of light on the green, but then, a darker smudge of movement below the water’s surface caught my eye, and there it was, dappled and grey, a living kite, gliding in the green under the hull of the canoe.
“It’s here!” I said.
I watched it, a dark diamond flying under the water, a silent song, dancing deep below us, until it slipped so far away that I was left only with the bright wrinkles of water again. I broke off another piece of chocolate for him, and one for me. Gulls called to one another overhead.
“It’s close, isn’t it,” I said. “The sea.”
He nodded, sucking on the chocolate. The rays of the sun had lengthened. The trees shone gold and were outlined in black. The breeze coming off the water cut through us with a chill.
“We could make it, you know,” I said, “If you wanted to.”
“I don’t,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
He turned the canoe and headed for the shore of the dining room; the face of his oar slipped in and out of the water.
“Is it always this painful?” he asked.
“Poetry. Writing. I thought I was going to die. Is this how it feels when you write?”
He drew the canoe up alongside the kitchen island.
“Always,” I said. “Until the right word is found. And then you live again.”
“Until the next word comes along,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Until then.”
The right word
I used to think that to find the right word, all I had to do was use the best words — the ones that I brought out on special occasions the way I might bring out my grandmother’s china or wedding silver. These words were so fine I worried they might break if I handled them too often, and so I only used them when I wanted to be reverent, or impressive or grand. I brought them out from the mothballed cupboards of my mind and set them down on the page, careful not to chip or scratch them. I lined them all up in a row and admired the gleam of the light on their lines and curves, and when the page was turned, the chapter ended or the book was closed, I washed and dried them by hand, wrapped them in tissue paper and placed them once again in a cool, dark corner of my mind until the next occasion for their use arrived.
When I wrote this way, stringing a collection of jewelled words together, I made little sense. All those lovely words standing shoulder-to-shoulder made a beautiful wall that did not let anyone in, or any thought out. I isolated myself in my words, and if someone else happened to read what I wrote on my airless page they were trapped in words that led nowhere. When I reread things that I wrote during that time, I hold my breath. My writing did not afford the reader any breathing room.
Writing that uses words as ornaments is more concerned about the style of communication than its substance; it trivialises words as decoration rather than respecting them as instruments of precision and thereby cheapens them. The emphasis on verbal finery puts distance between words and things, between writer and reader, and between the mind and the heart of the matter in the prettiest of ways. It wallpapers the page with flourishes rather than doing what good writing needs to do, which is make things clear.
There is another tendency in writing that is less innocuous. This habit of writing uses words to direct a reader away from the matter at hand by cloaking the true intentions of the writer behind vague words and long sentences. Bland and boring words numb the reader and lull her into almost a comatose state. This type of writing is usually on display in the workplace when unpleasant changes are afoot, and is certainly wielded in the drafting of laws that concern the beginning and end of human life, the oppression of the vulnerable and profit procured at the expense or suffering of others. This is language as an anaesthetic, or worse, a suffocant.
Such writing demeans the reader and removes her from the heart of the matter by forcibly turning her mind away from it. This kind of writing is lazy at best and deceptive at worst; it uses words as weapons that are wielded by the writer against the reader.
Writing that is either merely decorative or deceptively dull is not good writing. Good writing is a window, not a wall or a weapon; and the right word is the hinge that opens that window and allows the light in. It is often small and plain words that do that work best.
Good writing holds something living in its hands and supports and sustains that life on the page in order to bring it, still living, to the mind of the reader. To do so, it uses the words most true to the subject while also removing those words that distract from or distort the matter at hand. It invites the reader to come and see things for herself. Such writing carries a stillness that invites the flitting thought to alight — and then, without disturbing it, draws so close that you can feel the breath on your face and see the flicker of its pulse beneath the skin of things. It looks at the world and others with a charitable eye. It is earthed; it has dirt on its feet and under its fingernails. It is embodied; it lives and breathes. Good writing is always an echo of the incarnation.
The eternal word
Incarnation means to be made human, embodied. Christmas is all about this word. It is the celebration of the moment when God earthed himself, cell by cell, bone by bone, ligament by ligament, fingernail by fingernail, and was born. This is one of the miracles at the heart of the Christian faith, that God became flesh and blood, a living, breathing human being formed as a baby in the womb of his mother, was born and came home to live right next door to us.
At Christmas, Christians celebrate the fact that the eternal word of God took on flesh and showed up on earth, but also marvel over the fact that he took on such small flesh. He has such ordinary skin. He was just like us, because he became one of us. It is this word, earthed, that teaches me what good writing should aim for.
The incarnation of God was not grand and showy. It was not rare and fragile. It did not take place behind closed doors. It was small, earthy, and completely familiar. God became one of us and came so close you could feel his breath on your face if you were there, and you could see the flicker of his pulse beneath his skin. He had dirt on his feet and under his fingernails. And why? To save us whole and rescue our broken world by his death on the cross in such a way as to show us that he had crossed the distance between us, for us. To do that, he first was born and met the sharp edges of the world wrapped only in a second-hand blanket. There was no desire for finery, for grandeur only adds distance between things — between ruler and subject, between priest and congregation, between God and human, between friend and enemy. Closeness was what was wanted, presence — and for that, the near and familiar was chosen and not the grand and far away.
Good writing invites us to hear a heartbeat other than our own.
The incarnation of God and the subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus took the distance between God and humans, as well as between humans themselves, and swallowed it in the relationship of family and the place of home. Incarnation comes close, it reconciles. It renews things using the humblest of materials. And it is these qualities of the incarnation that good writing leans towards. Good writing draws us close and cuts the distance between us. It allows us to step into one another’s shoes and walk around in them and feel where they rub and pinch our feet. It is looking out from one another’s eyes. Good writing invites us to hear a heartbeat other than our own.
Writing is often compared to the God-like act of creation, and the writer’s power is that of creating things ex nihilo out of her mind or, as Theseus puts it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” And yes, writing is an act of creation. It can be a revolution on the page. It can be used to create a whole world letter by letter, line by line.
While the act of writing can be compared to the creative power of God, the manner in which good writing lives and breathes on the page echoes the incarnation. Of course, by this I do not suggest that human words can actually become human. While our words are constantly transmuting themselves, from thought to sound, from sound to text, becoming both aural and visual artefacts when spoken or written, they do not actually take on flesh. Ligaments and tendons do not stretch between words, nor nerves connect them, nor skin cover them, nor breath fill them. Well, breath does fill them when spoken, but they themselves do not have lungs that fill with air. They do not walk or sit or stand or run. And yet, good writing holds life gently within it.
In a well-written piece each word is oxygen, it is matter; each word is essential to everything else on the page. And yet, it is also humble. Good writing knows the transitory nature of the materials with which its world is made. It knows that paper burns in an instant; it takes less time than even kindling to combust. And words, when spoken, soon vanish; they hover on the air for a moment and then are gone.
Good writing holds within it the knowledge that it is not writing that lasts but what is placed within it that lives on. And, of all the things that can be placed within words — fear, sorrow, anger, faith, hope, love – the best writing holds love, because love is the greatest of all of these and lasts the longest.
Dr Laurel Moffatt is a writer and researcher living in Sydney. She is a fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.