Writing as Naming

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I came across a statement this morning that captured why I write. It is from one of my favorite writers, Tish Harrison Warren, in a new book co-edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon GroundShe writes:

When we write, we participate in Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden: the vocation of naming. We give words to reality, and through our words, we help shape reality” (p. 73).

Both my outer and inner worlds often feel inchoate. Whether it is making sense of what I am thinking and feeling, describing the gist of a discussion among colleagues, or trying to discern some thread of meaning in the chaos of modern existence, I find myself turning to writing.

I write to know what I think. Sometimes I write to figure out what I think. When I review, I write to crystallize in a few words the thousands of words I’ve read in a book. Sometimes writing is the way I sort out my own sense of how I should live in pandemic times. I give words to reality, and at least shape how I will engage that reality, if not the reality itself.

Writing as naming is communal as well. It certainly is in a medium like that which on which you read my words, or in magazine articles, newspapers, and books. Our writing gives shape to reality not only for ourselves but for others. One of the tests of good writing for me is whether others recognize the reality I’ve tried to name as their own. I love it when someone writes back and says, “you found words to describe what is was like for me.”

More than that, writing as naming, when done well clarifies how we will work together. Lawyer friends of mine tell me that this is at the heart of a good contract. I’ve learned a great deal about getting the words right from my attorney friends. It is equally important on a work team as we discern and decide what we will work on together, and what we each agree to contribute to that work.

I’ve never been a writer of fiction, but I suspect this is part of what drives these writers. They are not just telling a story. They are creating a world. I think of J.R.R. Tolkien, who created Middle-earth, fashioned languages, and a whole mythology of origins and cosmology. That is some serious naming!

For babies to receive a name, a mother must give birth. Many writers describe the labor of giving birth to words that name as akin to the birthing experience. Finding the right words and phrases, the right composition of paragraphs is hard. There is such a difference between “almost right” and “just right.” I think any of us who write feel we rarely totally achieve that end. Sometimes, it feels that the beautiful or pithy thing we want to say is out there, just beyond our grasp. One thing for sure: for writers, words matter.

Why then do we do it? I think it comes back to what it means to be human. We are naming creatures, gifted with amazing language powers far exceeding any other creature. While not all of us are drawn to writing, all of us use words to describe our world. Writing simply allows us to deliberate our words (hopefully) and to extend them in space and time, extending them beyond the circle who can hear our voice, and the ephemeral moment of our utterances.

This helps me understand a bit more why I write.

2 thoughts on “Writing as Naming

  1. Thank you for this, Bob. This puts words to what I feel about writing: “I write to know what I think.” The discipline of putting thoughts and feelings into concise and well-ordered words is like putting pictures in an album. The sorting, arranging, culling, choosing, and finally presenting allows me to have a coherent presentation of my thoughts, even if my written word is never read. Well said!

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