Really really REALLY good writing

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When I was quite young, I read a book whose themes were beyond the ability of my preteen mind to grasp. Nothing about it stuck with me except a description of a new wife who, with her up-and-coming husband, moved into an up-and-coming neighborhood. The author described her figure as so perfect that “every other woman in the room took one look and went off her diet.” There was no way to compete with such perfection of form.

And that’s how I feel after finishing “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. The writing—each word, sentence, phrase, paragraph—is so beautifully formed and unified and presented that it makes me despair of even bothering to approach the perfection.

All envy aside, however, good writing makes me happy. Here are a few examples, all from Scripture, that delight not only my heart and soul, but my mind’s eye and imagination. (A quick disclaimer—most of the phrases below come from the New King James version. Depending on which version you use, you may or may not find the translation of these verses as engaging as I do.)

Sometimes good writing is really good because, in a few words, in perfectly pairs a mental image that perfectly portrays Truth. Like this phrase from Romans 5, the end of the 20th verse. Most versions have some form stating:

…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more

And immediately grace is personified, leaping over the multitude of sins trying to trip it up. But there goes grace, bounding effortlessly over the top. And sin will never be able to keep up.

I don’t bother getting any more detailed than that in my mind’s eye. I couldn’t write a sermon or a homily or even an entire blog post on what I’m envisioning. I don’t know what the text says in the original Greek. But the image in the translation I use delights me with such precisely lovely writing.

Also from Romans (chapter two, the twenty-first through twenty-third verses) is a textbook example of how a writer can vary the rhythm in a paragraph to keep it fresh and avoid that singsong lilt that puts readers to sleep.

You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?

Every sentence starts with “You,” and poses a sort of rhetorical/accusatory question, but the apostle changes up his verbs and varies the length of each question so that the reader can’t ignore the indicting finger leveled here, then there, then over there. Some day, I want to write a paragraph using this sort of repetitive variety.

My most recent find comes from Psalm 97, the first part of verse 11.

Light is sown for the righteous…

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What? How does one sow light? While the “grace abounded” verse gives me an immediate and clear image, I can’t come up with anything for light sown. Which is what makes this such good writing. I have to puzzle over it. Is there a “light seed” that one places in furrows? Is it scattered into the wind, to land where it may? What kind of conditions does light thrive on, how does it grow and how fast? I LOVE this phrase precisely because my mind’s eye struggles with an image to match the beauty of the words.

One more.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. 

This one from Romans 8 goes way back. Maybe my high school days? We used the Revised Standard Version at my childhood church. Most other versions use “groanings that cannot be uttered.” And maybe that is more accurate? I don’t know. But sighs too deep for words is my first love. The visual depiction and reality of these words didn’t just delight my imagination with its imagery and tickle my ears with lovely phrasing.

The comfort personified in that beautiful phrase carried me through decades of doubt and self-recrimination. And fear that “I wasn’t praying right.” The vehicle that carried the reality to me was really, really, really good writing.

 

 

 

Grace for the Chatterbox

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A strong, silent type and a chatterbox

Recently the pastor preached on Mark 9.
Jesus took 3 disciples up a mountain.
His clothes became white as light,
God spoke audibly from heaven,
and Moses and Elijah, who had been dead several hundreds of years, came to discuss issues of life and especially death with Jesus.
It appears that while these three phenomenal, unprecedented events were occurring, James and John stood silent.
Then we have Peter.
In the pastor’s words, he suggested they build tents and camp out up there. With the Son of God and…the guys who had died.
WHY this inane comment?
Because ‘he did not know what to say…’

So, when Peter had nothing whatsoever of value to contribute to the conversation,
he opted to say something of absolutely no value.
Peter suffered from ‘Fill the Silence with Sounds Syndrome. (FSSS)
He is the patron saint of chatterboxes.

A chatterbox, to boil the definition down to its solid state, talks a lot.
Unlike politicians, who talk a lot to get elected, stay elected, or confound anyone who questions their record/stance/expense account/dalliances,
a chatterbox has no firm agenda in mind.
We don’t aspire to impart the wisdom accumulated by ourselves or others, as teachers do, and our verbiage doesn’t expound on the ultimate Word in the way of pastors.

We part our lips. A lot of stuff comes out. It is as simple as that.

Chatterboxes differ from windbags. We don’t just want to hear ourselves speak.
We aren’t egomaniacs. We aren’t driven by a need to convince you of our fabulousness.
Under that steady stream of babbling syllables often lies a bedrock of intelligence.
We do care about people, and express it is via a plethora of utterances.

Are chatterers a product of nature or nurture? No empirical data to back this up, but I’m guessing we are either/or, possibly both/and.
Just don’t assume that every chatterer you meet was born that way.
Many of us, in our essence, are wallflowers.
Tuck us in a quiet corner with a book.
Please.
But another psyche wars within us, a little harder to identify.
The nature that abhors a vacuum of silence.
Many non-stop talkers I know have a fascination with the written word.
Has it metamorphosed into a need for generating the spoken word?
Or maybe us FSSS sufferers harbor an unattractive, latent god-complex.
Anyone’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can be repelled if we only speak enough words over them.
Share a problem or concern with us and, even as part of our brain says, “Can you just keep quiet and listen, for pity’s sake?” our mouths are positively burbling with advice or sympathy or a similar woe shared by a great aunt.

The wisdom of the world sides with that portion of our brain begging for silence:

“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. “ Proverbs 17:28

Aesop made the dictum pithy:
“Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words will disclose a fool”

George Eliot expanded on the adage.
“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.”

Even the Mad Hatter gets his digs in.
“I don’t think…”
“then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

Compulsive talkers are surrounded by this kind of stuff. We want to appear wise and sage and prudent. Really we do. But like Peter, when we don’t know what to do, we say.

Quiet people suffer from no such urges. And they look like we want to. Intelligent.

But here is the problem. Say there is a party. A baby shower. The in-laws’ 50th anniversary.
One of our ilk sits down at a table with 3 or 4 silent types, each a quiet, wise-looking little iceberg.
Like the Titanic propelled on a turbine of words, our chatterbox steams into view and, unlike the Titanic, breaks the ice. While the icebergs don’t necessarily interact with each other much, they are tolerant of, and even engaging with the icebreaker.
Really, there isn’t much they need do. The chatterer will fill the air with a perpetual tumble of anecdotes and questions and comments.

At the end of the evening the quiet ones head for home. It was a successful evening. They hadn’t been bored. They could socialize gently. They haven’t appeared shy or been accused of being stuck-up.
The chatterbox leaves with her usual host of regrets.
‘I talked too much. Again’
‘I said such STUPID stuff.’
‘Why can’t I develop laryngitis?’
Chattererboxes find comfort where they can:
We are generally liked.
We can patter lightly on about almost any topic.
Occasionally we give offense—how could we not? The odds will catch up to us and we’ll eventually put words end-to-end that hurt someone’s feelings.
But it is almost always inadvertent. Our chief function is to care for others by filling empty space with syllables.

Sometimes we surprise ourselves by saying something worthwhile.
St. Peter burst out with the profession that Christ is the Son of the Living God. And even though he almost immediately blundered into saying something really, really stupid, God used this compulsive chatterer as a foundation to build His church.

Yes, there is ‘a time to keep silence.’
But blessedly, there is also ‘a time to speak;’