Values & the writer

Here’s a writing tip from William Zinsser: get intention.

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In this blog largely about craft, sometimes I must remind myself that intention is more important than craft. That is, the spirit behind the work is at least as important as that which makes it visible. I saw this years ago in daily journalism, where craft was enshrined to avoid talking about the messy, subjective self (I wrote about this here in 2008, in “Between Self and Story“). Of course the self and its niceties cannot become manifest, cannot become art without . . . craft. Craft is the refinery that processes the ocean of self into the sweet elixir of art. So craft, sure—it’s what we can readily discuss. But who we are determines what we see and what we ponder, which determines what we write.

William Zinsser expresses this notion beautifully in The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of his concise columns for The American Scholar. Here’s Zinsser on intention:

Zinsser-The Writer Who Stayed Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is an engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.

I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America; to writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.


Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, NOTED, religion & spirituality

14 responses to “Values & the writer

  1. I agree with Zinsser; tips are sort of checklists to look over for writers already on their way to becoming proficient, just to make sure for themselves that they aren’t missing anything.

  2. This post of yours, Richard, is very close to prayer–your framing comments and the spectacular Zinsser quote. Thank you so much for lifting my morning, as I begin again to write.

  3. Must be something in the air for yesterday I wrote of intention. Love this piece, well framed and delivered. Love Zinnser’s books on writing, too. He is so motivational and inspiring. Thanks for doing same for me this morn 🙂

  4. Marisha, above, spoke for me this morning. You woke me up with this post! I love Zinsser. I love the minimalist presentation of his powerful presence.

  5. Love this. We almost never talk about intention — we talk about assignments and length and money and editors. I spent this week interviewing two scientists whose work is potentially world-changing. What a privilege, as you and Zinsser say, to bear witness and share their stories.

  6. So many nice comments here! Thanks, everyone. Taking the last first: Caitlin, few people realize what a high calling journalism can feel like—and be—so you are fortunate to feel that in the midst of it.

    Marisha, I am glad you mentioned that the post’s like a prayer. Writing often seems like such a different sort of activity, both in the doing and in the reading. Maybe that’s a good way to think of it, as a form of prayer. To what or whom do we pray? I think that’s for each of us to discover. I myself pray to something that’s closest to what Jung called the collective unconscious.

  7. I have not thought about this concept before, but it is so important! How else do we explain how it feels when something is so well written and yet it doesn’t seem to speak to our soul. Something in the character of the author that bubbles up through the words, intangible and invisible, can make or break a piece.

    Thank you for covering so many important aspects of good writing with thoug

  8. This is a great perspective on writing. I like how Zinsser compares writers to golfers. It’s so true that much more goes into writing than structural elements that have to do with how words appear on a page.

    What values a writer embraces is probably what leads us to see a piece of writing as authentic or not authentic. A simple checklist cannot determine that. Something of the writer comes through onto the page (or the canvas, if one is an artist) to create authenticity.

  9. Richard, I had to find and add these words from Willa Cather, so relevant to this post. From her essay “The Novel Demueble”:

    “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, it seems to me, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.”

    • Thanks so much, Shirley. How apt and lovely. This goes again to implication, it seems to me, to things—tone, mood, hints—that allow and indeed impel the reader to complete the circuit.

  10. Couldn’t resist revisiting this post to add the quote by Rilke, which I noticed upon rereading his Letters to a Young Poet.

  11. Pingback: Writing is it an Art Or a Craft? Acting is it an Art or a Craft? | seventhvoice