A reflection on writing

President Seamus Carey

The following essay appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Third + Broadway magazine, scheduled for delivery in June.

Like most substantive human activities, writing can be a metaphor for how we live. If we take writing seriously, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about that which we write. Writing gives voice to the murmurings of inchoate experience, and in developing a voice, we learn more about who we are and want to be. We deepen our awareness of self.

Like education, writing orients us toward the future, even if we are writing about the past. To set out on a writing project is to make a promise to oneself to bring something into being that does not exist. As we work toward keeping that promise, we increase our freedom by staking our claim on the future.

In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Soshana Zuboff presents an exquisite analysis of ways in which our ability to stake a claim on the future is being undermined by the pervasive operations of big technology. In contrast, she sees the act of writing as an example of how we can preserve our freedom by giving voice to our experience. She writes, “I made a promise to complete this work. … It represents my commitment to construct a future that cannot come into being should I abandon my promise. … I am an inchworm moving with determination and purpose across the distance between now and later. … I can promise to create a future, and I can keep my promise. This act of will is my claim on the future tense.”

This act of will is an act of human freedom. As Toni Morrison points out, “Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.” Word-work — writing — is an exercise in human freedom that enables us to stake a claim on the future by giving distinctive meaning to our lives.

There are technical elements to writing that help. Grammar is a powerful set of organizational tools that direct the way we structure our sentences and hence our thoughts. Knowing grammar helps the writing process, but by itself knowing grammar doesn’t lead to good writing, just as knowing the rules of a sport does not in itself make one a good athlete.

Practice and repetition help. Many writers lament their early work. Over time, as one’s experience becomes richer and thoughts become more complex, the persistent writer becomes more adept with language. The ability to express complexity with clarity increases. Nuance settles into sentences and paragraphs, layering meaning into words. James Baldwin ties together the importance of experience with the agency of shaping it with language when he observes, “It is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.” Like grammar, experience is essential to a maturing writer, but by itself does not guarantee the proficiency we seek.  

Imitation helps. In grammar school and my early years of high school, I traveled around New York City to watch the best high school basketball players in the area. When I got home that evening or the next day, I would try to imitate something they did, and I would repeat it until it could be done with some fluency. Reading other writers is similar. In paying attention to the way they develop a story, a character, an argument, or focusing on the style and efficiency of word use, we can identify and adopt patterns of writing that help us say what we want to say. But, like knowing grammar, imitation is an aid to finding one’s voice. It is not the goal.

Good coaching helps. Constructive critiques of one’s writing from careful readers is invaluable. A good writing coach points out pitfalls to avoid and tips to employ. While the words, sentences and ideas we generate can be hard to let go, the sooner we shun attachments of the ego, the quicker we can advance.  

For some of us, the blank page is our biggest challenge. As hints of an idea slide around elusively beneath consciousness and deadlines close in, our thoughts and perceptions become restrictive. The only creativity we seem to be able to muster is in multiple forms of procrastination. To overcome the restrictiveness that often accompanies stress, we can trust in the richness of the world. There is always a new story, a different angle, a revealing metaphor to anchor an idea waiting to be noticed if we trust in our experience and in our ability to see it. William James’ account of attention is helpful here: “Attention … is the taking by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. … It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

James is reminding us that we decide what we pay attention to. And what we pay attention to not only influences how and what we write, it determines how we live. Again, James: “Our lives are what we agree to attend to.” Through writing, which is a process of upholding promises to which we commit, we increase our claim on the future tense. We expand our freedom.  

This is what liberal education does. It is well known that one of the most notable qualities of Transylvania graduates is their proficiency for writing. By extension, Transylvania exemplifies the very best of liberal education by guiding the attention of students to the richness of the world and encouraging them to stake their claim on the future tense. It is no surprise that so many Transylvania graduates assert their freedom by being attentive to the well-being of others and to improving their communities. They understand that their lives are “equivalent to what they attend to,” and their attention is devoted to what is most important and, ultimately, most rewarding.