Writing and Revelation

My wife and I recently watched “The Words,” a movie with nested stories about writers. It featured a trope that occurs fairly regularly in movies about writing: the all-night burst of inspiration that produces Deeply Moving Prose, usually after the person doing the writing has gone through a prolonged period of emotional difficulty. The desired effect of this trope is to imbue the writing with a kind of mystical power—an effect that these movies usually augment by keeping said Deeply Moving Prose more or less sealed off from the viewers, Hitchcock-style, because it’s easier to imagine Deeply Moving Prose than it is to produce it (which may explain the irony that most movies about writing, including this one, are badly written).

This fantasy of writing as incantatory experience, in which art literally becomes a product of the kind of inspiration or daimonic possession that Plato satirized in the Ion, presents writing as a kind of revelation—or rather Revelation, the idea instead of the thing itself. I wonder if sometimes we’d rather believe in Revelation than revelation, which, like writing, is a slower, messier process than movies typically depict. The historical record in Mormonism certainly supports the idea of revelation being a messy process, with the Joseph Smith Papers now putting marked-up revelation books online and Ed Kimball’s account of his father’s long wrestle before the 1978 revelation.

This is not to say that such incantatory moments never occur. At least in my experience, though, they are the exception. Consider this exchange from George Plimpton’s interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review (an apt example because the writer of Deeply Moving Prose in “The Words” was Hemingway-esque, right down to the mustache):

INTERVIEWER

How much rewriting do you do?

HEMINGWAY

It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

INTERVIEWER

Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

HEMINGWAY

Getting the words right.

Both writing and revelation ought to be about the truth, and truth is a tricky business. First one has to figure out what the truth even is, which means sorting through tangles of opinion, prejudice, various speculations about what might lie beyond the darkness into which one is trying to peer—putting them all to the test and hoping against hope for some clarity. Once the truth has started to emerge, assuming it does, one has to figure out how to put it in words. Anyone who writes knows that the idea in your head and the words on the page rarely match up very well. And so the processes of working out the truth and trying to write it end up being enmeshed, because trying to write the truth usually means having to figure it out all over again, word by word.

Writing and revelation thus evince the works/grace problem. The incantatory model is all grace: Deeply Moving Prose decides to take over for the mind and soul that cannot “breed one work that wakes.” The model that I’ve been talking about not only seems like a lot of work, but is in fact a lot of work. So: is Deeply Moving Prose (assuming one wants to perpetrate such a thing) the laurel wreath bestowed in honor of Olympian triumph? Well, not exactly. If the words manage to illuminate anything at all, that is absolutely grace, and writing, then, involves learning to attend to that grace. That paying attention takes work doesn’t make seeing any less miraculous.

If writing takes work, so does reading, especially the scriptures. Augustine’s famous “tolle, lege” moment in the garden, reinvigorated by Luther’s later experience in the tower, has added a talismanic dimension to our understanding of what the scriptures are and how they work. Terryl Givens and others have written about the way that, for a long time in Mormon culture, the Book of Mormon mattered more as an objective evidence for Joseph’s prophetic call than for its content. From this angle, the scriptures are like the Deeply Moving Prose in movies: mysterious, just out of sight, and thus strategically spared from critical examination.

Sometimes I hear comments to the effect that scripture reading serves as a catalyst for the Spirit, that simply having the book open and being in a contemplative mood is enough. I don’t want to discount this, as I’ve experienced it myself, but, again, these moments are relatively rare and stand on the Quakerish end of a spectrum of how the scriptures and Spirit interact. (Geoffrey Nuttall framed a good question for delineating this spectrum: do you test the Word by the Spirit, or the Spirit by the Word?) I just want to put in a good word for the other end of the spectrum, for the pleasurable work of puzzling through the text, believing that light is in there somewhere, sticking around until it begins to shine through, and then figuring out how to put that light into words of my own. The resulting prose may not be Deeply Moving, but it’s nevertheless the closest thing I’ve got to Truth.

Comments

  1. I have only recently taken up writing (in any form outside of school), and I am in awe of the kind of hard work and talent it takes to get a concept, idea, or feeling down on a page and communicated in a powerful way. I love this piece because it opens my mind up to why Joseph needed multiple revisions to many of his revelations – it’s that feeling you get, not after your first draft, but after perhaps your tenth – when you feel your words captured your indescribable feelings and thoughts you had at the moment. I like this a lot. Thanks, Jason.

  2. Miranda Wilcox says:

    Jason, thank you for your insights.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Kristine: yeah, the tenth draft, if you’re lucky. (He says, having just rewritten the outline for his book project YET ONCE MORE.)

    Miranda: I hope that you can see your influence on my thoughts here. Thanks for the conversation!

  4. I think a lot of great writing–particularly poetry–comes in moments of inspiration. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” comes to mind. Coleridge woke up, wrote a portion of the poem, and was interrupted. He came back to the poem later and was unable to finish it. It still remains unfinished, yet even so it endures. (He did make some small edits to it later on).

    Of course, most of the time writing is all about the re-writing, the editing. Making sure every word sounds right. But sometimes the best writing comes in a flash of brilliance, with only minor changes needed.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Right, and as I said, I don’t want to discount that experiences like that happen. OTOH, I have a poet friend who can manage about a line a week, because that’s just the time it takes to find the right words.

    In my own writing there will sometimes be days when 1600 words just come piling out. Incantatory doesn’t always mean good, though. It’s like Raymond Chandler said: “Vomit into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

  6. Maybe if you take Coleridge’s account of the writing of the poem at face value. Isn’t there some evidence that his account is really more a romantic fantasy than the real story?

  7. Jason K. says:

    My understanding is that it involved copious amounts of opium.

  8. Yes, most writing does take time, much thought, and lots of rewriting. Thanks for the article Jason!

  9. My favorite novelist was a practicing lawyer who wrote over 60 books in the interstitial moments of his practice. 60!

  10. pokemom says:

    I loved this post. It was funny and insightful. And it fit what I have experienced in my own writing and revelatory experiences over so many years. Thanks!