As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I’ve long been in the habit of examining others’ writing for what it has to say about the creative process. Nonfiction, my primary genre, lends itself most naturally to such scrutiny, since the solipsistic writers who tend to write in this genre love to write about what they’re up to. The writing of memoirists and essayists thus provides valuable glimpses into the process. In nonfiction workshop, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is my go-to handbook.
As I blogged last month, I’ve been listening to the Bible on my iPhone while I run. Since I run in five to ten mile chunks, I’ve heard whole books at a time and am making my way quickly, if haphazardly, through the text, following not the order of the Bible’s original organizers but spurious impulse (or, as I like to think, the Holy Spirit). Listening to scripture aloud, I’ve become newly appreciative of the almost constant reverberations between biblical accounts. The echoes of one story in another, of one biblical author’s phrasing in the voices of others, of the words of Hosea and Isaiah in the mouths of John and Paul and Jesus. The Bible is a masterpiece of intertextuality, a tapestry of voices in sentences that mesh and thicken from one chapter to the next.
I don’t know whether it’s because of the biblical writers I’ve happened to choose thus far or because of my new way of “reading” the Bible—that is, hearing the words aloud rather than reading them from a page—or just my old habit of paying special attention when writers mention writing, but I’ve noticed that the biblical writers talk a lot about writing. As such, the Bible offers considerable insight for me and fellow writers about our line of work.
Forgive my foray down a path we Christians like to avoid in considering the Bible—namely, the exact nature of divine inspiration that led to its composition in the first place—but one biblical writer after the next, from Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah to John, describes the initial inspirational moment pretty much exactly as I’ve experienced it myself. An urgent voice—sometimes identified as God’s, sometimes an angel’s, sometimes unspecified—commands, “Write this down!” For these ancient writers, writing was not a choice—not a career goal or the desire to influence or educate others or even a matter of passion—so much as a dutiful response to that voice. An idea rises like a vision in the mind and the voice says, simply, “Write.”
“A writer,” I tell those who say they want to be writers, “is someone who writes.”
The most common writerly methods in scripture, which several biblical writers go out of their way to explicate, are the same ones I recommend to my students: in the words of Luke, “after investigating everything carefully from the start, to write an orderly account” so that readers “may know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4 NRSV). Careful investigation and organization are what convince.
Regardless of genre—whether they are writing poetry, chronicles, stories, or philosophical treatises—the biblical writers take pains, as Paul assures the recipients of one of his letters, to “write you nothing other than what you can read and also understand” (2 Corinthians 1:13). Nothing show-offy, though the words of scripture are often as artistic as they are true. No erudition for erudition’s sake.
And though their accounts and rhetorical goals are diverse, the biblical writers share, it seems to me, one essential writerly skill: they tell what they actually see and hear and smell and taste and feel. Unlike my students, who would rather explain their thoughts, the biblical writers are, to a person, concrete. Here’s Jeremiah (whose repetitive ranting could be boring, were it not so vivid) showing, not merely telling, how ridiculous it is to worship idols:
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good.
(Jeremiah 10.5 NRSV)
Wow. Like scarecrows in a cucumber field. I wish I had written that!
My students typically define creative writing as writing that doesn’t have to follow any rules. Grammar rules, especially, are irrelevant. When I talk about sentence-level problems in their writing, they roll their eyes. In poetry workshop, many abandon the sentence altogether, writing instead in fragments. Creativity, in their view, constitutes the opposite of order.
The biblical writers, by contrast, seem to model their creativity on that of God himself. The creation, as described in Genesis, is a work of separation and sorting, of repeating and omitting, of drafting and considering before declaring anything “good.” Again and again, the biblical writers are selective in what they opt to tell. They keep only the best episodes of a given narrative—key conflicts, the rising action—and leaving the rest mysteriously, sometimes frustratingly, elliptical, in this way to engaging the reader’s own imagination and mental processing. There’s never a pat moral to the story. As hard as we Bible-readers try, we can never read the Bible as a straightforward primer or even a narrative account of holy living, cleansed of all confusing or upsetting or unholy details. Rather, it portrays real life—convincing in its familiarity—and real characters, the holiest of whom, as we ourselves, struggle and fail and fail again.
For writing instruction, I’m learning, the Bible is unsurpassable. Even better than Hemingway.