I Write to Understand
By Graham Chipps
“If you write like porridge you will think like it, and the other way around. And if you have to read porridge all the time you may well begin to speak it.” 1
Do you taste breakfast mush whenever you write? (with apologies to good porridge.)
It is a common misunderstanding that good writers first understand, then figure out how they want to express their thoughts and only then do they actually begin to write. Not so, good writers begin writing long before they have understood and figured it all out. They write so that they can understand. They start writing before they know how they want to express their ideas.
This is like creativity; whether it’s poetry or music or story, the artist does not wait till some flood of creativity fully informs in advance and then produces great art or brilliant literature. Creativity comes in the doing of it; creativity comes in the work of brush and pen. Most of the creativity comes after one has started.
For example, the recent movie on the life of Beatrix Potter, “Miss Potter”, includes this statement; “There’s something delicious about writing the first words of a story, you never quite know where they’ll take you.”
Consider Friedman’s best seller on the already flat world, why did he write such a book? “I wanted to drop everything and write a book that would enable me to understand how this flattening process happened and what its implications might be…” 2 He wrote so that he could understand.
And there is that saying that you may have come across before in some form or other; “How can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I’m going to say?” It is in expressing ourselves that we better understand what it is that we think.
Have you ever been excited about some ideas in your head and then discovered that when you tried to explain them to others, the ideas did not seem to be anywhere near as clear nor as meaningful? All of us have been there. For this reason we value conversation and discussion because it helps us fine-tune our thoughts and bring a greater maturity to them. Of course, doing so with only like-minded people is limiting to say the least.
Writing is of similar benefit. It stimulates clarity and furthers our insights. It increases our capacity to think and to explore. It sharpens our wisdom and grows a deeper appreciation for the complexities of life. It develops our skills in analysis and synthesis.
Francis Bacon said, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
Reading, conversation and discussion, and writing each play a powerful part in the maturing of our minds; in the increase of our capacity to think.
Of course, if one only writes for oneself it is easy to be self deceived. Better to write for others; a friend or a group of friends, perhaps a mentor, perhaps for publication. CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and the Inklings used to do this as part of the regular gatherings at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford.
Did you ever see the movie “And A River Runs Through It”? It is a somewhat autobiographical story in which, amongst other themes, the writer describes how he learned to write. He would produce a piece for his father to read. The recurring response of his father was something like, “Good, now re-write it so that you say just as much in half the length.” The best of writing is worked over many times; wrestled with and played with until the writer is satisfied.
For the last three years of my less than brilliant high school career, I failed all English language subjects every time but one. By some strange mystery I managed to pass the one set of exams that mattered; the finals. And so I “completed” my high school requirements. But my capacity to express myself in English (my only language) was very limited.
rial, sans-serif”>It is only now as I look back that I see how much various attempts at writing have been part of my growth in understanding and in my capacity to think. Letters, reports, study notes, essays, and so on. The gift of word-processing technology has been a powerful boost in the opportunities for writing. Here there is endless opportunity for revising and exploring how best to express my ideas: and as I do so, weighing up the alternatives brings a much greater clarity to my mind as to what I think and why.
Now I am much more conscious of this process and I intentionally write to understand: or to put it in the negative, I write because I do not understand as well as I need to.
George Orwell concluded his essay on his own writing with these words; “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” 3 Writing comes from both mind and soul and when both are shaped by a longing for a better society, words gain life and writing increases depth of understanding.
Maturity in thinking and in thinking capacity is valued by Scripture. Just consider Romans 12:1-2 and Philippians 4:8; there are plenty of others. To explore this mandate of Scripture, John Stott wrote that “Your Mind Matters.” 4 and Harry Blamires wrote on “The Christian Mind.” 5 And there are many others.
To shy away from writing because one is not good at it is a disappointing neglect of an opportunity to further our maturity in Christ. Obviously, such maturing is also about character and spirit and the many others facets in being Christ-like. But maturity does have an intellectual side and wise people set out to develop this capacity within themselves. Writing is one of God’s gifts to help us do so.
It can be a tough gift to hold on to. Hendrik Ibsen was right when he wrote this short poem in 1871:
To live - is to war with demons
in the vaults of the heart and mind.
To write poetry – is to hold the
Day of Judgement on oneself.
Writing does expose and it does make plain the failings of our minds and living. To write is both to understand further but also to self-critique. To write is to sit in judgement on oneself but such judgement is of the kind that puts to right or at least has the potential to do so.
I’ve heard people say, “I don’t write” and I grieve. An opportunity is being dismissed as too hard. Writing is always hard going when new to it. But a lifetime of writing is a gracious gift through which we can increase understanding and increase our capacity to serve others well.
Thinking is a skill that is learned and each of reading, conference and writing has a part in the maturation and capacity of our intellects. We have all met the porridge-minded people: for the sake of Christ let us pursue the excellence of mind that honours our God.
Write, re-write and then write some more. This is God’s gift to you.
1 Don Watson, 2003: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Vintage, p. 171.
2 Thomas L. Friedman, 2005: The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, p. 11.
3 George Orwell, 1946 / 2004: Why I Write, Penguin, p. 10.
4 John Stott, 2007: Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life, IVP.
5 Harry Blamires, 1997: The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think, Vine Books.