Recently, my older daughter was inducted into the National Elementary Honor Society. Five candles stood on a table in the front. The center one was already lit. One by one, the officers rose, took the center candle, and lit each of the four others and read about the four principles of the society: scholarship, responsibility, leadership, and service.
The principal pointed out to us that for us, at a Christian school, that center candle represented Christ. He is at the center of all we do, she explained, and anything we accomplish in those four areas is because of him. Without that central light, none of the others has any true meaning.
I pondered this while the induction continued. As I go about my daily routine, some things strike me as meaningful on multiple levels: a silly conversation with my child, a bug walking on the car windshield, a stuck doorknob, the dead wasp’s legs sticking out from the bathroom air vent because no one’s cleaned it out yet.
There’s the surface meaning: add to the to-do list: clean out dead wasps from vent.
There’s the writer-as-observer meaning: grab my pen and capture how cool it is that the view from beneath the bug lets me look at its feet up close.
And then there’s the deep meaning.
The center candle glowed with the deep meaning.
What did this image mean for me, not just as a Christian, but as a writer?
Words matter. But if all I do is string a bunch of pretty words together, then those words are meaningless. I’m sure we’ve all seen sentences that are grammatically correct but nonsensical; they’re usually written by writers trying to make the point that grammar isn’t everything. (Noam Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is a good example.)
The more usual problem is the beautifully written piece that means nothing.
Entire bookstores are filled with examples. Books that thrill, chill, and burn their way up the bestseller lists. Books that win prizes in their genre. Books that cause crowds to line up for the author’s book signings. (Or not, because sometimes, often, well-written books fail.) Books that I can read, enjoy, possibly remember, and be left unchanged by.
I set up the school book fair yesterday and was saddened at some of the books written for children.
The other helpers and I pulled some of the books more nasty titles; the librarian gave us free reign on the decisions of what stayed and what went. Anything horror or vampire or occult went back into boxes, now hidden in the back of the library.
But many of the other books weren’t bad, morally speaking. They were just trivial. Blabber and nonsense. Much ado about nothing, minus Shakespeare’s wit and brain. The kids wouldn’t be harmed in reading it, but they wouldn’t be improved, either. Sadly, this applied to some of the Christian books, too.
In a delightful commencement address, Gregory Wolfe tells the MFA graduates:
“But at a deeper level I think Augustine is also saying that it’s important for your words to be grounded in truth—in what Henry James called “felt life”—that form should always be tethered to content. Or, to put it another way: as writers, your love of language and form, even if that’s the place you start from (and that’s where many of the best writers start from), should nevertheless generate a search for the meaning your form wants to say.
“Saying something well is only worthwhile when you have something to say.”
— Gregory Wolfe, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Creative Writers According to St. Augustine, Part 1.” Good Letters blog, September 2, 2014 (emphasis mine)
How many of those children’s book authors were searching for meaning? How many of the good authors I read have something to say? How many good novels are grounded in truth?
Many more aren’t. Even if they’re well-written, they’re ultimately meaningless. They’re good for an hour or two of entertainment.
As a Christian, I don’t want to write fiction like that. I can’t. I look at the center candle glowing, remember Christ, and I can’t waste my writing time on developing the craft at the expense of the deeper content. This means searching. Digging through the layers of cliches and easy answers. Discovering the truth at the center. Hard work, but the only people who believe writing is easy are people who don’t write.
And really, what’s the alternative?
Ignoring the need for worthwhile writing content is foolish. If I did, my writing would have as much meaning as those colorless green ideas sleeping furiously.
It would be meaningless.