Beyond Instinct: (Not) Writing Like Weasels

In her much-anthologized essay “Living Like Weasels” Annie Dillard locks eyes and brains with a weasel, launching an essay on calling. Weasels teach us how to live, Dillard writes, embodying an instinctive mindlessness, all energies pointed toward their “one necessity.” One weasel latched onto the throat of an eagle and never let go, even in death, its skeleton attached to the eagle’s chest. The essay ends here:

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot tear you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”  

It’s a stunning close to an inspiring essay. But the beauty of the language disguises the horror of the scene. The weasel latched onto the wrong bird. His actual death was not likely very poetic. As writers and as people of faith, we’re not as horrified as we might be: death is not our final fear, and we understand the larger metaphor of death. But we needn’t seek it out. There are so many ways to die as a writer already; I’d like to save us from an unnecessary demise or two with a few simple words:

Choose the right bird. When you discover you’ve chosen wrongly, let go.

This is a simple way of saying that as writers we labor under more than one calling, more than “one necessity.”  There is the calling to write, the sense of being appointed a wrestler with words, a storyteller, even a prophet at times. But there are callings as well to particular projects and subjects. When we don’t distinguish between the two, we’ll find trouble, maybe even death.

In the last twenty years I have let go of a number of essays-in-progress, articles, even book manuscripts. Despite seeking God’s direction—and feeling that I had found it, two book projects I felt very “called” to pursue, ended up withering. As each  atrophied, I latched on yet harder, spending costly attention and effort trying to revive them—to no avail.

I did not expect success to meet every writing endeavor, but some losses hit hard. We question our worth as writers; we question our very calling. But we often ask the wrong question. Rather than asking, “Am I really called to write this novel (this essay, this book) right now?” we often ask, “Am I really called to be a writer?”  In these moments, we’re not so much rising on the wings of eagles as we are devoured by our own insecurities and disappointments. We may even stop writing altogether. This is the second death—and the least necessary.

The weasel operates by instinct alone. We can do better. We can’t see into the future to know whether a project will ultimately succeed, but we can follow our given passions, testing them thoroughly with research, prayer, and rough drafts. If a project falters, as all seem to do at some point, we persevere until—-we cannot. Then, we pry ourselves loose and let it go.  Not easily, and never prematurely, but our bones will stay hinged, and our musky flesh will live to choose another subject, another day, one that may indeed send us soaring.

Loving Our Reader as Ourselves

We write for so many reasons. As we write, we experience many rewards in the writing process alone, but those personal rewards can sometimes obscure the deepest reason of all to write: to love our neighbors. In our case, our neighbors are our readers, those with faces just inches from our words, their minds and hearts living in the very houses we have built.

How can we love our readers as ourselves? It’s become increasingly difficult to find our way forward here because of our postmodern culture’s obsessions with fame and the self, but here are a few steps forward:

1.     Love your readers by writing beyond yourself.

Write from the self, by all means, but don’t let the primary subject be the self, even if you’re writing memoir. Many of us write to attend to the fragments of our lives and to make something coherent and meaningful from them. It’s a noble enterprise, to pursue wisdom from the chaos of our real lives. We are writing our way home, many of us.  “We are lost in a dark wood and we need stories to help us find our way home,” Scott Russell Sanders writes. But don’t forget that this is also the reason readers read, not to find the way to your house, ultimately, but to find their way to their own true home. Our purpose in writing must be more than self-fulfillment. It must be God-and-neighbor fulfillment.

2.     Love your readers by living a genuine faith-ward life.

God’s truths are not just propositional and communicated by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational.  Our first job as writers is to write from a faith that we ourselves are trying to live in and live out rather than a faith that is simply pronouncements, words on a page. As Joy Sawyer has written,

“And without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the ‘clanging symbol’ of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. . . . .  our deepest joy is experienced when the poetry of our lives begins to be expressed, as the apostle John said, not in words alone, but in deed and in truth.”

 3.    Love your readers by not preaching at them.

We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered.  Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages:  plowing, sowing, watering, reaping.  Think of your writing efforts as a lifelong endeavor rather than a tell-it-all right now.

4.     Love your readers by loving the world we’ve been given.

Though I do indeed want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known. And because He is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not just freed but compelled to discover and then reveal Him through all the lovely, hideous, fascinating and stultifying  things of this world, which are, after all, His. “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur has written, and our love for our reader will call us out into this God-made world as well.

And so, I end here, out of love for you, dear readers! I want to preach 100 more ways to love our readers—but let us return to the lives and words we’ve been given, aiming toward a poetry of truth, word and deed!

What is one tangible way you will choose to love your readers this week?

Does the World Really Need Your Story?

This week snow fell–again, about a foot, on top of already knee-deep layers. I strapped on skis and went off into a spruce forest near my house, my tracks the first marks on the page of the world.

Starting a new writing project, a book or an article, even a blog post, feels much like this. I see something falling outside my window–an idea, a passion, a glimpse of something true and maybe beautiful. I eagerly strap on metaphorical skis and go out, wondrously lost in a world made strange again. I am confident that I belong here, that I will apprehend something of value and meaning. But the going gets hard. The surface of the snow changes. The skis get stuck. I fall. I discover dozens of tracks before me on the trail, most more graceful than my own. Why am I here?

Doubts track me down no matter where I am. I have learned not to dismiss them. They force me to consider and reconsider. Does the world really need one more story?

Today, I give three responses: two from others, one my own.

1. Your story can bring “healing and illumination” to others.

Katherine Paterson, prolific Newbery award-winning author, says with genuine humility, “I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers and theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil . . .”  But here’s what we can do, she says, “we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image, in simple narrative, there are, in the words of Barry Lopez, both ‘healing and illumination.’ Here I see a word of hope and possibility.”

2. Writing your story can preserve your life.

When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband says of her new work, “It’s been said better before,” she responds,  “Of course, it has. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said, by me, ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try, to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.”

3.  Writing can move us toward the city of God.

If we pursue our stories, honestly and truly, they will send us on a pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, from a land of unknowing and darkness, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible . . . but the writing inexorably, day by day moves us closer to clarity, to wisdom, to the very city of God, if we allow it.

Don’t waste your doubts. Use them to move you forward into that forest, into the pages of that story that you must write—for yourself, for God and for others.


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