Following after the Words

I seem to recall George Gilder once attributing writer’s block to a lack of faith. I have been unable to track down his exact words, so I can’t give you the context. Faith in what, exactly? And if you did suffer from writer’s block, how did it help to be told you were lacking in faith? Your faithlessness was just one more reproach to heap upon yourself when the words refused to flow. Even so, I think Gilder had a point. It hardly matters what you have faith in: a higher power, your unconscious or your own genius. It all boils down to faith that the words will come when needed, wherever they originate.

“I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second,” wrote Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. All well and good for those who can get past the first sentence. But the real test of faith is overcoming the terror of the blank page – or, more likely these days, the blank screen. Nervous public speakers are sometimes advised to imagine their audiences sitting there in their underwear. The problem, of course, is that the speakers actually imagine themselves standing there in their underwear while the audience is fully clothed. Writers facing a blank page find themselves in a similar situation – except they aren’t standing there in their underwear; they are buck-naked.

I would suggest that writers who are terrified of standing there in their birthday suit just need to take it one step further. They need to be invisible. George Orwell famously said that good prose is like a windowpane. You should be able to see right through it to whatever it is you are writing about. Prose that calls attention to itself will inevitably call attention to its defects, the chief of which usually is that it calls attention to itself. Once that happens, you are bound to notice the writer standing there buck-naked. But how, pray tell, do you write invisibly? By realizing that you also are the windowpane, not just your prose. Do you imagine that words originate with you? Your job is to transmit them as faithfully as you can, from wherever they come from. You don’t think up the words; you listen for them and then follow wherever they lead.

In general, I have found it better to follow rather than try to lead when I am out on life’s dance floor; if nothing else it reduces the chances of getting your toes stepped on. As a young man, I had a sudden and blinding realization that I was a priest. Although I was raised as an Episcopalian, I had not voluntarily set foot in a church in some time and had no ambitions to pursue a career in the ministry. So I went to the only priest I knew, the Episcopal chaplain at Yale, seeking assurances that I wasn’t losing my mind. He heard me out and provided me the requisite assurances. “But what do I do now?” I asked. He gave me a little smile. “You wait for further instructions,” he replied.

In essence, that is what I have been doing ever since, and not just in vocational matters. I never did become an ordained priest, which is just as well, since I had no aptitude for it. After some false starts, I realized if I was any kind of priest, it was more what Martin Luther had in mind when he talked about the priesthood of all believers. If nothing else, I had a certain aptitude for believing, which in practice means learning how to follow. Waiting for further instructions in my case did not mean waiting for a disembodied voice to speak to me from a burning bush. It is usually a nudge here and there, sometimes a shove, but more often than not a gentle pull in a certain direction. If I started out with the notion that I was in charge of my life, I have long since thought better of it. All I have to do is to look back from the vantage point of seven decades to realize the truth of a verse from The Book of Proverbs, “A man's mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” Or, as restated by John Lennon, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” At bottom, I am no more the author of my life than I am the author of the words that flow through my fingers onto the page.

Proverbs 16:9
John Lennon “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”

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