Sunday, June 13, 2010

Wendell Berry: Telling the Truth

Wendell Berry at his farm in Port Royal, Kentucky

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


poetreader said...

Let me just add to Mr. Berry's excellent advice that telling the truth is one of the most important things that good fiction does, even the wildest fantasy. Of course it's not all the telling of actual facts. If it's fiction, much of it is not literally true, but if it's worth reading, the invented story is saying something true about the writer and the world he is writing in. In fact it is saying something true about the reader as well.

What I mean is that fiction and poetry do not need to be a dreary recitation of literal facts, but they do need to be speaking, somehow, the truth that is in the writer.

Yes, read the classics, and you will find not only the riches of language, but also the deep kind of truth telling that good writing needs to show.


Scott Walters said...

I agree, poetreader. In his criticism, Berry doesn't have much time for "mere realism," the recitation of facts. He is more interested in truth, the sense of the underlying meaning of facts. But he is focused on the particular -- the details of living that are carefully observed and fully appreciated. And as a result, his writing is resonant and, yes, true.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The truth sometimes hurts, but it also gives courage. Mr. Berry's writings do both. Consider this: