Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.

My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.

It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.

All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?

Alan Jacobs

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A Religious Observance can be a wedding, a christening, a Memorial Day service, a bar mitzvah, or anything like that you might be apt to think of. There are lots of things going on at them. There are lots of things you can learn from them if you’re in a receptive state of mind. The word “observance” itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them.

A couple are getting married. A child is being given a name. A war is being remembered and many deaths. A boy is coming of age.

It is life that is going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on.

As Henry James advised writers, be one on whom nothing is lost.

OBSERVE!! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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Even a thousand miles inland you can smell the sea and hear the mewing of gulls if you give thought to it. You can see in your mind’s eye the living faces of people long dead or hear in the mind’s ear the United States Marine Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” If you work at it, you can smell the smell of autumn leaves burning or taste a chocolate malted. You don’t have to be asleep to dream dreams either. There are those who can come up with dramas laid twenty thousand leagues under the sea or take a little girl through a looking glass. Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to. It is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather’s voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the 450-degree oven.

If imagination plays a major role in the creation of literature, it plays a major one also in the appreciation of it. It is essential to read imaginatively as well as to write imaginatively if you want to know what’s really going on. A good novelist helps us do this by stimulating our imaginations–sensory detail is especially useful in this regard, such as the way characters look and dress, the sounds and smells of the places they live and so on-but then we have to do our part. It is especially important to do it in reading the Bible. Be the man who trips over a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills buried in the field he’s plowing if you want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about (Matthew 13:44). Listen to Jesus saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) until you canhearhim, if you want to know what faith is all about.

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot-air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the branches of a tree. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing-home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak, but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are–chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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Why should we care about Augustine’s story? Why listen? This is a question he wrestled with explicitly. And his only appeal—his only claim to authority—is witness authority. Augustine recognizes that he can’t prove anything: “I can’t prove to them that what I confess is the truth.” He’s not offering a demonstration that marshals evidence to prove a conclusion. He’s not trying to argue anyone into his story. Instead, he shares a story that he invites his readers to “try on” and see if it might perhaps fit their own experience. Why write these confessions to God “in such a way that other people can hear?” he muses. If I’m just confessing to God, why not keep a journal, work all of this out in private? Well, for the same reason that addicts share their story at a meeting: maybe someone will see themselves in my story, Augustine says. Maybe someone will hear this prodigal tale, with all its dead ends and heartbreak, and whisper, “That’s me.” And maybe if they can see themselves in my story, they might be able to imagine finding themselves in God’s story as the one making their way home, being gathered up by a father who runs out to meet them and throws a feast. Augustine’s story is only of interest if it is unoriginal, a story that’s been told a million times, one that rehearses the prodigal adventures of the human condition.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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There is wisdom in learning not to judge a book by its cover. But might there be merit in learning to test a book by its acknowledgements?

Acknowledgements—along with dedications, forewords, translator’s notes, prefaces, and the like—can be tempting to skip over as mere formalities, the necessary accoutrements of publishing. But recently I’ve come to consider these bookends as important waysigns to a larger reality. Here, in this small institutional practice of gratitude, we are reminded that there is no such thing as singular genius. Here, with customary nods and gestures to the humble hands and invisible minds that might otherwise go unrecognized, even the most self-important author testifies to the inescapable necessity of community. Here, in a few simple, heartfelt pages where writers testify to their reliance on others, we are reminded that friendship is no small part of the contributions the world remembers. Surely these words deserve more attention than the quick scan they typically receive.

Kate Harris

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Unedited quality

In Lit, Mary Karr recounts the writing advice she receives in a letter from Toby Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life: “Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit. . . . Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed. . . . Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating or anything else. Take no care for your dignity.”

This writing advice can also apply to prayer: take no care for your dignity. Brave is the only way to write, and brave is the only way to pray. Neither is clean and bloodless. Yet the untucked prayers—the prayers of our struggle—prepare the way for surrender, even praise. Many of the psalms have this unedited quality I am suggesting and trace the arduous journey between struggle and praise.

— Jen Pollock Michel, Teach Us to Want

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Context determines the meaning of every utterance, and every word of every utterance. Because we exist in time, the context that determines the meaning of every utterance and every word is constantly expanding. Each moment there is more context. What I said yesterday will be understood not only in its original context but also in the context of the events of today. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon, but subsequent events convinced many Americans that he was indeed a crook, and the subsequent events now set the context for the original statement. The ultimate meaning of any utterance is deferred until history is done, until the last word is spoken, until context is closed off once and for all.

But what if that never happens? What if context determines meaning, and context keeps expanding indefinitely, forever and ever without closure, without a last word, without a final judgment, age after age, amen? This is Derrida’s view, and he uses explicitly theological language to confess what he disbelieves. He rejects eschatology, any hope that there will be “messianic” finale to human history.39 Context will expand forever, and therefore meaning, which arises from difference, will be deferred forever. We can never know in fullness what our texts or utterances mean, much less the texts produced by another, because we can’t know how the future context, and future texts, might affect the meaning of what we write and say.

This is Derrida’s concept of differance, which he punningly spells with an a rather than an e to capture the twin notions of “difference” and “deferral.” Meaning arises from difference, but precisely for that reason, meaning is endlessly deferred.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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