152. Nor Can We Be What We Recall

Today’s post was written by Josh Hamm, also known as The Scholar. (I need a title like that; it’s a pity “The Doctor” is taken.)

“Nor can we be what we recall, / Nor dare we think on what we are.”

I like to quote people in my writing. I like to sprinkle references as if Tinker Bell were a little tipsy and got too free with the magic pixie dust. Maybe it’s a remnant from school, where we have to integrate all sorts of quotations. I distinctly remember a teacher in Grade Twelve telling the class that we should quote authors because anything they’ve said is better than whatever we could up with.

I enjoy it though; it’s an act of sharing secrets that were never meant to be secrets. It’s the same as when you feel the urge to start exchanging YouTube videos, but I prefer to exchange the thoughts of influential authors I’ve read. I tend to drop a few specific names in most of my writing.

People like G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner and Marilynne Robinson. I don’t solely quote these guys. I read a lot, so I’ve got a lot of wells to draw from, but these are some of my favorites. Besides, let’s be serious, I’ve never met a Christian who doesn’t profess love for C.S. Lewis.

(I’m pretty sure that when Martin Luther declared Sola Scriptura he included a little caveat for C.S. Lewis.)

But sometimes I disagree with what my teacher said. It seems so defeatist, as if we may as well not try to write anything at all, because it’s all been said, and said better and more profoundly than we could ever hope to write.

Now, I rarely use this word, and I’m sorry to use such strong language, but that is just utter balderdash.

Sure, in most cases these authors have extremely profound phrases and witty turns of speech, but whatever we write has value too. We may never become half the writer that Chesterton or Merton was, but that doesn’t render my voice or your voice useless.

Don’t just outsource your thinking.

Don’t check your brain at the door because you’ve given up and assume that others have already taken your place.

Come up with your own viewpoint, your own writing, and then supplement it with authors you like. Quote those that you love, those authors you’ve read or read about and feel a connection to. Then add your own flavor. Add some meaning, some of yourself into their words and ideas.

But whatever you do, don’t blindly accept what they say or regard everything they’ve written as a work of genius. It’s not.

Remember that other writers do not define what kind of writer you are. I read great novels or great autobiographies, or philosophies, or poetry, and I wonder in jealous despair why I will never write like they do.

Then I’ll remember, it’s not my job to write like them. It’s my job to write like myself.

Don’t feel like your message is diluted just because writers and thinkers before you said similar things in brilliant ways. Share their thoughts if you think it will enhance your message, but remember that’s just what it is at the end of the day—your message.

2 thoughts on “152. Nor Can We Be What We Recall

  1. ‘Don’t feel like your message is diluted just because writers and thinkers before you said similar things in brilliant ways.’
    Definitely something to keep in mind. I always have the feeling that it’s all been done before, and there’s nothing left to be written.

    • It’s been a really hard lesson for me to learn, but I think it’s a vital mindset to have. I’ve gone through long periods of writer’s block thinking I had nothing to offer, especially after reading great novels or essays.

      Thanks for reading, and good luck with all your writing endeavours.

      If you’re interested, there’s some great practical advice and writing tips from Jeff Goins at goinswriter.com.

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