While attending the Festival of Faith & Writing, I inadvertently wandered into a session led by the poet Scott Cairns. The title of the presentation was “Writing as a Way of Knowing” and since I often don’t know what I’m writing until I am writing it, I thought it may be a helpful session.
Though my expectations were quite different from what was delivered, I really enjoyed the presentation and wrote down quite a few quotes from Mr. Cairns. Here are a few of them:
“People are under the impression that writers are people who have things to say. They are just people who have found out how to say things.”
“Make good friends with really accomplished dead people.”
“The act of writing is literally ‘coming to terms’ with something.”
“I am an idiot who wants to become a fool.”
About that last one, Cairns was talking about his most recent project, Idiot Psalms. He broke down the root meanings of the words “idiot” and “fool”. Though it came to its current derogatory meaning in the 14th century, the root of idiot is “idios” which means “one’s own” or a private person. A fool, in the religious sense of “holy fool”, is one who holds to the truth of the gospel under the guise of folly. It is a person who is more concerned with others than what others think of them.
I think that’s beautiful.
Cairns then read a few poems from Idiot Psalms and convinced me that perhaps I have misjudged the literary value of poetry.
And as a side note, Cairns discussed his views of how one can determine whether a piece of writing is literary or not, a discussion that always seems to happen in the fiction world where I live.
The degree to which a piece of writing can be considered as literature as opposed to popular text is in its opaqueness. By that he meant that when you are reading a piece of popular writing, the author has provided an absolutely clear window into the scenes they describe. Readers no longer notice the words on the page; they see only the pictures put into the text by the author. But when a piece of text is slightly opaque or translucent, you are drawn away from the scene by the beauty of the text describing it. You can see what the words mean, while at the same time, noticing the carefully chosen words themselves.
When asked to continue the thought as to whether something that was completely opaque was the pinnacle of literary value, Cairns commented that no, that was just bad writing. You still want people to see the scene, after all.
And so, as a writer of fiction, I’m going to see about applying some translucency to my stories, and some foolishness (not idiocy) to my life. I may even start reading poetry for some pointers, starting with Idiot Psalms.