Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wendell Berry: The Writer's Obligation

The following letter was written by the extraordinary Wendell Berry to my former writing students at Millersburg Military Institute (which closed in 2006). I 'm making it public for the first time, in celebration of the first year anniversary of this blog!

Alice C. Linsley
March 2008

                                                           February 22, 2005

Dear Friends,

Your teacher, Ms. Linsley, has written to tell me about your writing class, and to ask if I might have something encouraging to say to you. This is an assignment that I take seriously, and I have been asking myself what you should hear, at this time in your lives, from an older writer.

The thought that I keep returning to is this: By taking up the study of writing now, you are assuming consciously, probably for the first time in your lives, a responsibility for our language. What is that responsibility? I think it is to make words mean what they say. It is to keep our language capable of telling the truth. We live in a time when we are surrounded by language that is glib, thoughtless, pointless, or deliberately false. If you learn to pay critical attention to what you hear on radio or television or read in the newspapers, you will see what I mean.

The first obligation of a writer is to tell the truth--or to come as near to telling it as is humanly possible. To do that, it is necessary to learn to write well. And to learn to write well, it is necessary to learn to read well. Reading will make you a better writer, provided you will read ever more attentively and critically. You will probably read a lot of contemporary writing in your textbooks, in magazines and newspapers, in popular novels, etc. The contemporary is inescapable. You may more easily escape the writing that is most necessary to you. I mean the books we know as "classics," books that have been read for generations or for centuries and so have proved their excellence.

As you learn to judge what you read, you will learn also to judge, and so improve, what you write. Reading, I think, is half of your responsibility as students of writing. The other half of your responsibility, of course, is to write, and your effort to write well, as I hope you already know, will make you better readers.

But you must never forget that the purpose of all this effort is to become capable of knowing and telling the truth.

Yours sincerely,

Wendell Berry

Related: Curtis Surovy's Letter to Mr. Berry


Ellie said...

That is a wonderfully insightful letter.

Alice C. Linsley said...

A so timely, given the ubiquitous lies of political correctness.

Anonymous said...

Yes this is a wonderfully insightful letter and so timely. Still, the task is very difficult. Most of the advice I get on trying to engage students deals with "meeting them where they are" and finding things which interest them. Mostly this means reading about celebrities and cars. I try to present them with quality literature, work that has stood the test of time, and they most often hate it. What is more, my colleagues view me as out of touch and didactic. It all seems so wonderful on paper, but in the real world it is different, and much more difficult.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Anonymous, high school students are the most "trendy" creatures on earth. They are interested in the trends of the past also. Have them read the 3 opening paragraphs of 7 great classics from different periods. Tell them to act as investigators and determine what was the literary trend or style. Make it a competition between small groups who have to defned their author. Don't make them read all of Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment, The Last of the Mohicans and Ivanhoe until they can digest and appreciate 3 paragraphs.

Alice Linsley said...

I heard John Updike speak at the Kent State Writers' Conference in 1996. I had the opportunity to speak with him personally and his advice corresponds to Wendell Berry's. Updike explained that he wrote in the morning, usually no more than 3 pages, and he read in the afternoon. Reading good writing makes for better writing.