Saturday, March 3, 2018

Tracy Kidder on Writing (and for me, on Preaching)

     My preaching has been blessed, over many years, by books I have read about writing.  Mind you, I constantly remind preachers I teach or just know (and myself!) that a sermon isn’t an essay to be read or semi-read or memorized even.  It’s an oral event, spoken words, eye to eye contact, conversational in ways that lead us to use incomplete sentences, or fumblings and pausing, and even the marvelous and useful word Um… (which similarly can be grossly misused; I love Michael Erard’s book on this word).

     At the same time, reading great writers explaining their craft can refine, retool, and re-envision how we approach crafting a sermon, how our phrases and sentence actually happen, and some big goofs we should avoid.  My favorites? 
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is brief, packed with wisdom, and humbling in a way that helps me feel better about my struggles to get the Gospel (which she never mentions) onto paper and then voiced out loud.  Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (which is the origin of the much-quoted and misquoted “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans”) similarly delves into the whole thought process, which is really a life process, a learning to observe, being attentive to and reflective on your life and the world swirling around you.  Stephen King’s On Writing is a happy jaunt through the habits and principles of what it is to think and write.  And there are more.

     Recently I stumbled across a relatively new one I’d missed somehow, just five years old: Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  It’s mostly Kidder, whom I have admired so much for several things, especially his riveting retelling of how Paul Farmer became Paul Farmer (in Mountains Beyond Mountains).  Todd served for years as Kidder’s editor, and contributes a bit to the book.  As I read Kidder’s recollection of how he has labored to write well, and his wisdom and counsel for other writers, I kept scribbling in the margin “Preaching!”  Let me share some of his most provocative insights.

    See why page 1 grabbed my attention: “To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them – by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know, but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you.”

     Wow. Preaching is all about trust – and involves us trusting them, believing they know plenty we don’t know.  I was taught you know way more, and preaching is an attempt to download into them.  Kidder explains how great writing creates a dialogue, in which you expect, anticipate and even articulate their questions, critique, and maybe their assent.

     I remember Frederick Buechner’s fascinating riff (in Telling the Truth) on that pregnant moment just before the first word of a sermon – how the preacher notices his mouth is dry, and the people are settling into their seats, worried about their issues and secrets, and so how crucial is that very first sentence.  Kidder feels the start is overrated.  Start slow and soft, he advises – and yet it can’t be awful or confusing: “You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away.”

     You can lose the people out there in many ways.  One is what Kidder calls the “desire to impress” – which he believes emerges from a terror that you might bore the reader.  “Much overstuffed prose reflects a desire to bully, to impress, or to hide… Inflation of language is sometimes not a boast but cosmetic for insecurity.”  Kidder believes that what the reader wants is simpler – to believe that you are “trying.”  I love that.  Pew-sitters want to sense you’re trying to speak a word from God.  Again, it’s all about trust.  If you get that trust, Kidder believe, “trust and disagreement can coexist.”  Too many preachers fear or hope to squash disagreement.  Kidder invites it.

     I was struck by Kidder’s obsession with factuality.  Check dates, people, quotes (who really said that? and do I have it down right?).  There are facts – and Kidder pleads with writers never to slide down into the abyss of subjectivity, suggesting things like “If it’s true for you, then it’s true,” which he calls “the quagmire of postmodern nihilism,” and noticing how “subjectivity absolves people of responsibility for action.”  If this is true for a nonfiction essayist, a journalist, or a novelist, how much more is this true for a preacher?  And yet Kidder shudders over the notion of dogmatic absolutism – which gives the reader no space to disagree or respond.  This fine balance must be learned, tested and honed by the preacher, week after week.

     Kidder speaks of preparing to write – and the key is always in the posture of “a willingness to be surprised.”  Preachers don’t buckle down and figure out how to drill what the preacher has known forever into others; the preacher prepares in a way that is open to, ready for and delighted by surprises in the text, the world, and the people.  Writing, for Kidder, is lots and lots of revision, throwing away some of what you thought and still think is really good (but it just doesn’t fit the finished product).  He has a strong preference for shorter sentences: “Sometimes longer is shorter.”  And don’t get fixated on your writing (or preaching) technique, “which can be the same as concentrating on yourself.”  I love that, and notice often how skill, talent and inventiveness draws attention to the preacher more than to the text or to God.

     Good Prose has a terrific section on storytelling and character development – how you imagine the readers in their chairs, giving them not all there is to the story, but “telling details” to draw them in, making them wonder what will happen next, inviting them to insert their own “Oh no, don’t…” or “Oh God, that could be me.”  To me, there’s no better way to improve our skill at this in preaching than to read people who do characters and stories well.  Stephen King’s constant counsel in On Writing is to read, read in a waiting room, at a stoplight, on the toilet.

     At the end of his book, Kidder proves to be a man after my own heart with a simple, funny and challenging section on “usage” and “grammar.”  This matters so much in preaching: there’s always an old English teacher out there sighing over your split infinitive.  But it’s also about clarity – and how we honor God by our words.  Kidder warns writer about the perils of hackneyed terms and incorrect usages (“enormity” means something horrible, not something big, and “disinterested” means impartial, not bored), phrases from pop culture (like “I’m just sayin’,” or “Make my day”), and flat out grammatical errors (“Between you and I” should be “Between you and me,” getting who and whom straight, and also lie, lay, lain… “Samuel lay down to sleep” not “laid”). 

     Once again, I have learned new ways to improve my preaching, my expression of what I’ve apprehended of God, and my connection with my people.  We find help any and everywhere – and now from Tracy Kidder.