People always want to begin with writing, but good writing is an ending before it is a beginning, a culmination before it is an inauguration. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, good writing is preceded by slow and careful reading, by thoughtful and patient reflection, and by learned and leisurely conversation. Writing that does not proceed from these things is deficient.
Slow and Careful Reading – It is better to read one book very well than to read many poorly. Being well-read should never be confused with being much-read. Many people read much without ever reading at all. There are fewer people who truly read well. Though they may perhaps read less, they are the readers who gain from their practice.
Good reading approaches the text slowly, attentively, with an openness to what might be thought through it, with an openness to being interrupted by reflection and by conversation. There is no substitute for this time and for this attention. It permits what is not us, what is other than us, to approach us through the text. The text is not itself of the greatest importance. It is the site through which we are encountered by what is of the greatest importance, and its value is in how well it provokes us to be so encountered.
Good reading leaves its mark on the text. It writes in the margins, and it turns the corners of pages, and it notes its favourite passages with bookmarks, even if it does these things only figuratively. A book that is well read is stained with fingerprints and coffee stains, even if only in metaphor. It is well used. It is a tool that has become worn to fit the mind that is reading it.
Thoughtful and Patient Reflection – It is necessary to reflect on reading whenever something calls through the text, whenever the text provokes, but also regularly, as a discipline. To reflect is to engage in the exercise of thinking as if it were a religious act, as if it was the rule of a monastic order, in order that it might sometimes become a spiritual act, beyond the rule of any order. It is to order one’s mind so that it might be prepared more fully for what will come to disorder it entirely.
Reflection is always accompanied by a writing that is not a writing, a secret and secretive writing, notes and jottings, incoherences and incomprehensibles, a writing that will never appear as a writing to be read, a writing that remains hidden and unread. It is a writing that is also a rereading, a returning to the places in the text that need mastication, rumination, regurgitation. This writing chews the text like a cow chews its cud, again and again. It digests the text, gains sustenance from the text, takes the text into itself, makes the text a part of itself.
Reflection is a wondering and a wandering. It follows the text to other texts and returns them to where they began. It takes its time as it wanders. It does not run or even walk. It strolls. It ambles. It perambulates. It wallows in its journey through the text, follows it wherever it leads. It is not concerned with a destination, at least not now, not yet. It leaves destinations to the future and reserves for the present a certain forgetfulness of what the future might demand. Its purpose is to see what might be encountered now on its path through the text, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, not to create a coherent text of its own.
This activity, this reflection, this meditation, is essential. It must not be hurried. It is not brainstorming or some other such technique. It is an openness to the text, a willingness to give the text time and space, a discipline of doing the text justice.
Learned and Leisurely Conversation – Conversation is not mere group discussion. It is not mere argument. It is not mere chatter. It is a coming together through the text, where the text becomes a site where we catch sight of one another. There are always too few of these opportunities to converse, always. They must be treasured when they arise, guarded jealously, so that they are not overwhelmed by the many things that are less important but more pressing.
Conversation involves a careful listening of one another. It considers what the other has to say. It considers what it will reply before it replies. It takes its time, so it is not afraid to pause. It is willing to say less and have it be meaningful than to say much and to have it be mere chatter. It knows that it is better to give things their proper time.
Conversation is being on the way together, is helping one another along the way. It turns us in the same direction, puts us shoulder to shoulder. Though we may turn our eyes to one another, our feet are always on the path together, following the same path together, so that we might draw nearer to what it is we are seeking. Whatever disagreements we may have between us, conversation always agrees, before all else, to walk the path together.
Conversation is also sitting at the table together, breaking bread together, recognizing what is other to us through the breaking of bread. It is the invitation to the table and the acceptance of the table. It is sitting face to face. It is having more between us than words. It is also having between us a giving, and a hospitality, and an invitation, and an acceptance. It allows us to digest each other’s words like bread and wine, to make each other’s words a part of us.
Conversation never ends. It is always being suspended for a time, but it is never ended, except by death.
Writing – Only in the context of these disciplines of reading and reflection and conversation, only in the context of these practices, that writing can begin. Indeed, these disciplines will produce writing, inevitably. Though this writing may take many forms, it will become a necessity in the one who reads and reflects and converses. It will become, not a task to be undertaken, not an ideal to be fulfilled, but a hunger to be satisfied, a thirst to be quenched, a lust to be satiated.
This is what there is to be learned. This is the learning that teaching must let be. This is the learning that teaching must let be learned.