Saturday, 18 March 2017

Douglas Wilson's Letter From Moscow (About Writing and Writers)

A Duck-billed Platitude

Douglas Wilson

I have often said that I write for the same reason that dogs bark. Ah, someone might reply, but why do you write the way you do? There are two ways to describe this “way” of writing, the first using words like zest, verve, color, and manly courage, and the second being a detailed description of a couple of dogs yapping endlessly at midnight. If I wanted, I could turn this into a Mobius paragraph if I simply moved on to describe those dogs with zest, verve, color, and manly courage. But I forbear.

Like all writers, the voice I now have grew and developed over the years, meaning that it wasn’t here when I started. But that is not the same thing as saying that it wasn’t present in any respect. Long before I knew how to do it, I was profoundly attracted to those writers who did know how to do it. I know that this began at least by my time in high school, and there were probably stirrings of it earlier.

I grew up surrounded by Christian literature. My father ran Christian bookstores. My parents subscribed to Christian magazines. Missionary newsletters were constantly around. And the problem was that one of the presenting characteristics of evangelical writing was that it brought to mind visions of vast acres of vanilla tapioca.

Lewis was the first great writer I was acquainted with, and that started early on.
But I encountered William F. Buckley on my own when I was in high school (Up From Liberalism), and he made an instant conquest of me. He was talking about serious things, but he was interesting. He was entertaining without being frivolous. And he was interesting, not only because he was addressing topics that interested me, but he did it in an interesting way. But if it was possible to do this with something like politics, why not theology?

If you were to tally up a report of when I first ran into the writers who have most influenced me, here they are, along with the age I most likely was when I first encountered them: C.S. Lewis (5), William F. Buckley (16), Tozer (19), Chesterton (22), Wodehouse (23), and Mencken (40). If you wanted to make a pie chart of influences, the only thing I could do would be to wish you luck, and perhaps suggest something else, something more like the corned beef hash of influences.

So my takeaway idea was to learn how to exhibit the great commonplaces of Christendom, the basic mammals of truth, and present them in a way that was unique and striking and completely unexpected. Call it an attempt at the duck-billed platitude. In fact, that’s a glaring example right there.

I learned early on that there are three different kinds of communication—although I don’t think I would have framed it this way when I first learned these distinctions. First, I communicated with Nancy, family, and close friends, and did so on a daily basis. I had learned how this was supposed to go from the family I grew up in, but got married in 1975 and together with Nancy began cultivating an atmosphere of communication in our home, consisting largely of affirmation, storytelling, jokes, and so on. In the second place, I began preaching regularly in 1977, and so was communicating with a larger group of saints. Given the size of the church, I knew them well, and they knew me. The preaching was personal—we were all in the same room, and in addition to my words, they could read my gestures, expressions, and so on, and could ask questions afterward if there had been a bafflement. The first group was less than 20, and the second group was between 200-300.

In 1980 or thereabouts, I began writing a weekly column for our local newspaper—a column of political and cultural commentary. And lo, the troubles began. This kind of communication involves thousands of disparate tastes, views, opinions, and hatreds. And one of the perennial mistakes that people make about this last kind of communication is that they measure it by the rules of the first or second kind. But although words are involved in all of them, they are completely different worlds.

During my newspaper column days, Nancy used to run a business out of our home for a time, selling fabric. A woman had come to our house to buy some, and as they were chatting, a light of realization began to dawn on Nancy’s customer. “You aren’t married to Doug Wilson, by any chance?” Nancy allowed that she was. The response was mystified. “But you seem so nice!”

And you know what? She is nice. But you know what the implication was, do you not?

In the meantime, back at the blog—which is where this circuitous ramble has brought us—this kind of communication is a very different thing than asking a beloved family member to pass the mashed potatoes. In the potato scenario, success or failure is easy to ascertain. You might have to ask again, but you can generally tell whether you are going to have to ask again.

But what is involved when you write for, say, 50,000 people? The audience is wildly mixed—some are there to hate-read, some to research, some to be entertained, some to be informed, some to gawk, some to be stirred up, and so on. And the work itself is a mixture of mass communication, show business, polemics, wordsmithing, teaching, and eye of newt. How do you determine success or failure? Clicks, comments, traffic?

That is a small part of it, but the main thing is whether you are honestly saying what you believe God has given you to say, and whether it appears to be getting across to the kind of people you intended to reach. If you assume the goal is to get it across to all 50,000 in exactly the same way, as though you were requesting the potatoes, and they were passing them, then you are clearly not thinking of communication theory in the same way I am.

Put simply, what audience am I writing for? Keep in mind the actual audience could well be physically bigger than that, but you can’t have multiple central audiences. Who am I addressing? What is the central target audience?

Since the late eighties, my central “ideal reader” could be described in this way. He is evangelical and conservative, and for some reason is generally out of step with the surrounding evangelical culture, including perhaps his own church. Although out of sympathy with a great deal of what occurreth out there, he is frequently not sure why these things are bothersome, and remains uncertain until someone articulates the source of the unease. When that happens, the response is something like, “Yes, that. Exactly. That’s the problem. I knew I wasn’t crazy.”

Or perhaps someone else is crazy in the same way.

No comments: