April 25, 2007
Confessions of a Wild Tongue
As a writer, I've been accused more than once of being "elliptical." In my defense, though, I think that particular accusation has always come from the same person. Her less elliptical friend chose to describe me with the less charitable label "nuanced nincompoop"--which I suppose is pretty much the same thing.
To be honest, I think I write in an elliptical fashion--that is, I swirl around and around a theme like other things that swirl around and around in the process of completing their work--because that's how I think. I look at any number of problems like some sort of daisy chain of Gordian knots, and I'm enough of a failed Boy Scout that I can't bring myself to take a knife and cut through to the solution; I must untangle these morasses and thus untether myself.
Beyond my own issues, there's a cultural bias toward oversimplification that it's appropriate to resist. As Brian McLaren writes in the foreword to Neil Livingstone's Picturing the Gospel, "the habit of 'boiling things down' or 'putting things in a nutshell' . . . makes certain things clear and accessible, but it can obscure and distort other things." Life, I feel entirely justified in saying, is irreducibly complex, and quite frankly is getting only more so, so to treat it as simple is to be dangerously simplistic.
But there's what goes on in my head, and there's what comes out of my mouth. I went to lunch with my pastor yesterday in an attempt to give some of my inner perplexity some air, and as I listened to myself articulating the complexity of relationships and missions I see in play at our church, I found myself thinking, I sound like an idiot. And then there's the article I wrote about how Batman as a character has oscillated back and forth between serious and silly to match the vicissitudes of American culture; the one bit of reader response I got was "You make no sense."
So as a writer I face this challenge of acknowledging and authentically representing the complexity and nuance present to the human condition, even to celebrate it in artful expression, without wallowing in--and miring my readers in--nincompoopery and ellipticalness.
A friend at IVP reminded me this week that the curmudgeonly godfathers of English style and grammar, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, have come across this particular Gordian knot and took a pretty effective whack at it:
There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose. . . . Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" . . . "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!"
Well sure, when you put it that way. E. B. White made a talking spider into an icon of maternal comfort in Charlotte's Web and a talking rodent into an icon of adolescent self-discovery in Stuart Little, so I guess he knows how to pull off the impossible. But as for me and my writing, I fear we will continue to, umm, serve a literary yearning.