Harold Bloom’s favorite book of the Bible is Jonah–see his NYRB piece to find out why.
Also, Ellen Davis has a valuable reflection on Genesis 22.
There are many ways to write, however, many people will tell you that you must stick to a strict writing schedule–each and every day at a particular time you must plant yourself in a chair and write even if you have an appendectomy scheduled for that afternoon.
I try to do this but often times it just doesn’t pan out. Instead, I tend to write in spurts and I was encouraged to read that Marilynne Robinson does something similar:
“I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.”
Recently I have adopted an approach similar to the strategies concerning prayer within Judaism–keva, or fixed and structured times, and kavanah, or spontaneous moments. Within Judaism keva and kavanah are both valued and integrated into religious life.
In like manner, I try to write on weekday mornings yet I am ready to abandon a particular day’s work if my well is just flat dry. Also, I readily write, even if it is inconvenient, if I have a moment of inspiration or motivation.
So, next time someone asks me if I stick to a writing plan or if I just write when I feel like it I am going to simply respond by saying, “both.”
For more on keva and kavanah see this reflection on the Union for Reform Judaism site.
James Spinti sent me a link to a piece about a writing contest to compose the worst possible first sentence for a hypothetical novel. Here is this year’s hilarious winning sentence:
Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.
There are other winners for various categories such as historical fiction so check out the rest here.
“A story doesn’t have to be simple, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional but, especially if it’s multidimensional, you need to find the clearest, most engaging way of telling it.”
–Salman Rushdie on clarity in fiction writing, yet, I believe, this also, or perhaps even more so, applies to academic writing.
Mat Johnson teaches creative writing at The University of Houston and is an extremely talented writer who is able to reflect upon issues of race in contemporary culture with depth and humor.
He begins the book, Hunting in Harlem, with the sentence: “Three ex-cons came to Harlem looking to become something more.” I think that this a good sentence–it taps into the universal dream of self-betterment as well as creates a sense of intrigue, what crimes did these cons previously commit, is Harlem really the best environment for their rehabilitation, or are they even desiring a law-abiding lifestyle–yet, I think that Johnson made an even better one leading off his most recent book.
Pym: A Novel, is a book which recounts a former professor’s obsessive investigation of the historical realities underlying Edgar Allen Poe’s only full-length novel. It is a quite a fun book to read and includes an appearance of a stand in for Thomas Kinkade that is really hilarious. Johnson begins his crazy tale with this first sentence: “Always thought if I didn’t get tenure I would shoot myself or strap a bomb to my chest and walk into the faculty cafeteria, but when it happened I just got bourbon drunk and cried a lot and rolled into a ball on my office floor.” This sentence begins by omitting the 1cs pronoun giving the sentence a sense of informality; this tone carries throughout the book and the first sentence appropriately orients the reader. But, this informal tone is accompanied with serious reactions of terrorism, vengeance and extremism dreamt of but left unfulfilled. Furthermore, while Johnson’s previous book began with the central characters’ optimism, Pym begins with shattered hopes.
I think that Pym has a better first sentence than Hunting in Harlem but what do you think?
SBL has now made available (again) the book that I contributed to in the Ancient Near East Monographs series: http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/books_ANEmonographs.aspx
You can download this book for free but SBL also has a link to order a paperback version. Interestingly, I clicked this link and was taken to a page which listed info about the volume including the startling fact that this book was published in December of 1967–it seems that I was writing before I was even a glimmer in my dad’s eye.
John Hobbins has some valuable reflections on the forthcoming Ancient Near East Monograph volume that I was a part of (the book was available for download for a couple days, however, SBL uploaded an earlier draft version with a few formatting errors so they pulled it down and we are still waiting for it to be fixed and then made available once more).
John reflects upon a prevalent reality in which scholars merely debate and recapitulate secondary literature; a lament that we both share:
Scholars are known to succumb to a grave and debilitating disease: that of spending all their days reading each other rather than the texts and other artifacts that are supposed to be the objects of their research. In the blessed assurance that someone else knows more about a particular text than she does, a specialist will often say little or nothing about a text that has not been said before. “I and my secondary literature, tenured and blest, watching and waiting, looking above” (with apologies to Fanny Crosby).
It’s a shame.
I whole heartedly agree. Learning original languages–notice the plural; in my opinion one is not a competent biblical scholar unless he or she has at least a working knowledge of the handful of cognate languages, furthermore other more distantly related but culturally significant ones are also desirable–is hard, time consuming work. It is far easier just to learn Hebrew, dabble in some Greek and then move on to write a dissertation and such. Yet, spending the extra time and effort at the front yields huge dividends throughout one’s reflective life. John discusses the importance of Akkadian and Sumerian–I will not use parenthesis for Sumerian since I translated Sumerian texts for my dissertation–for biblical studies:
It is not too much to say that one cannot be a serious student of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, or of pre-classical Mediterranean antiquity without a working knowledge of (Sumerian and) Akkadian and of the field of Assyriology. Grounded, detailed knowledge of ancient cultures and ancient history can only be acquired by reading lots of texts, not in translation, but in the original languages. Again, culturally informed, close readings of ancient texts are only possible on the basis of intimate familiarity with the texts in the languages in which they were written.
The entire piece is well worth a read. Also, I’ll post an update when the Akkadian reader is available.
Continuing the First Sentences series in which I reflect upon the first sentences of books, Ford Maddox Ford penned one of the most memorable first sentences to begin his novel The Good Soldier:
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
Now, this sentence is not especially creative, it doesn’t bend reality or blend words in unique ways. Yet, any author that begins their work in this way has, as Michele Bachman would say, CHOOT-spa. You’ve gotta deliver the goods after a statement like this. Half measures simply won’t do; the author must reach into their readers and rip hearts out mid-beat.
Contrast Ford’s opening salvo with Fretheim’s first sentence in The Pentateuch (IBT; Abingdon, 1996):
The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five book of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least.
This sentence is economical–it conveys information and, really, nothing more. The reader has no expectations other than this book will be about the Pentateuch (which they could have gathered from the title), no approach is hinted, nor controversies alluded.
While Ford’s readers move to the edge of their seats merely after glancing at the first nine words Fretheim’s (who, by the way, I appreciate as a creative interpreter and stimulating writer) remain with their backs against the chair.
There are many reasons why academic books are so bland. In contrast to literary works, scholarly writing intends to convey information, to teach. So, writers seek clarity and economy of language. However, I think there is more to this story. I have a suspicion that some of the main reasons why academic writing is so boring is because scholars rarely try to improve their writing and since boring writing is ubiquitous in the academy they meet this expectation in their own work, that is, they try to fit in to this flaccid mold. And, I admit, much of my writing also swims in this stream but I am trying to break free and navigate a less travelled current.
So, how could we refashion Fretheim’s first sentence? Possibly,
In contrast to the abstract and immovable god of the philosophers, the Pentateuch portrays a god that is, in the best sense, all too human.
This sentence reflects Fretheim’s relational approach to god’s interaction with humankind and the universe as well as establishes a contrast. A contrast that will cause a quarter of his readers to fling the book across the room in righteous disgust, a quarter to nod their heads and wonder if Fretheim fleshes out this picture in a way similar as they, and the rest will say, “Hmm, that’s new to me, I’ll keep reading to learn more about this.” This kind of sentence produces a response in readers, albeit a negative response in some. However, that is merely a cost of business.
Thoughtful people, careful scholars, good writers are not afraid to cause people to break ranks. If everyone agrees with you, if all of your readers put down your book after the last page and do not experience any contrary feelings toward you you either haven’t said anything or you are just saccharine to no constructive effect. Things worth saying will naturally cause debate–there is no use hiding them behind limpid prose or timid fig leaves.
One of the worst things that can happen to a writer is nothing at all. Criticism, even if it be harsh, is still better than silence. When others bash your work at least they imply that your work is important enough, significant enough, or influential enough to merit the effort of castigation.
The sentence I provided also includes a modest literary flourish that hopefully engages readers. Normally, the phrase “all too human” has negative connotations but I employ it here in a positive fashion that slightly disorients the reader and captures some of Fretheim’s thoughts as well.
In any case, this sentence produces expectations and invites readers into the conversation instead of leaving them reclined in their chair merely along for the ride.
My attempt is far from perfect, probably short of adequate, and certainly could be improved. How would you rephrase Fretheim’s first sentence?
Alan Jacobs has a new, “scientific” grading scale that he is trying out which I’d like to adopt as well. Assignments are given one of the following assessments: woot, win, meh, fail, epic fail–check out his post for a detailed explanation.
While we are on the subject of Jacobs, here is an hour long video of Jacobs giving a lecture regarding his excellent new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It is a great read that I will likely integrate into my classes in some form whether it is required, optional, or extra credit. For many a seminary student (as well as professors) reading the Bible has become “work,” even, in some cases, a drudgery. If this applies to you (and there is no shame in admitting it, I certainly have this feeling from time to time) then Jacobs’s book can help you recover the pleasures of reading Scripture as well as literature in general.
Here is a humorous passage from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum that those in higher education, and Assyriologists in particular, can appreciate:
“Well, Diotallevi and I are planning a reform in higher education. A School of Comparative Irrelevance, where useless or impossible courses are given. The school’s aim is to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.”
“And how many departments are there?”
“Four so far, but that may be enough for the whole syllabus. The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance. Another important department is Adynata, or Impossibilia. Like Urban Planning for Gypsies. The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have course in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, Assyrio-Babylonian philately, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film.”
“How about crowd psychology in the Sahara?”
“Wonderful,” Belbo said.