Published as "The Opening of Veins" in The Clown In the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction (Harper, 1992)
As it has been explained to me, the Whiting Awards are given each year to writers of “exceptional promise,” and it is with that phrase “exceptional promise” that I would like to make my point of departure because it immediately raises two serious questions in my mind. The first question is: Promise of what? The second question is: Exceptional in what way? Both of them make me quite nervous when I think about them.
In fact there is something about writing in general that makes me quite nervous whenever I think about it, especially the kind that is called creative writing. It suggests that there are other kinds of writing, and the first one that occurs to me is of course “destructive writing.”
I am sure everybody will agree that writing can be destructive. Peter Benchley’s Jaws, for instance. I didn’t actually read it, but the year the movie first came out I saw it in Chicago with my youngest daughter, Sharmy. Sharmy, who watched it through the buttonhole of my green linen jacket which, even as I was wearing it, she had tucked her head under for comfort and protection. For me and Sharmy and God only knows how many million others, Jaws destroyed for the rest of our lives a significant part of the pleasure of swimming in the ocean. Or from another part of the spectrum altogether, I think of the novels of Charles Williams, whom in some ways I admire very much. There are passages in those novels where the Christian faith, which I love and believe in as he did, somehow gets mixed up with the occult, the operatic, the Madame Blavatskyan, in ways which if they do not actually destroy at least seriously disturb my peace of mind the way bad dreams do when you can’t quite remember them or quite forget them either.
So when I think of writers of exceptional promise, all these misgivings run through my head. Some promises are promises you wish had never been kept. Charlotte Brontë was exceptional and so was the Marquis de Sade. There is writing that creates and writing that destroys. Needless to say, I have absolutely no misgivings about the writers being honored here this evening. I am confident that they would not be awarded prizes as distinguished as these in a setting as venerable if they hadn’t convinced everybody that they are exceptionally promising in only the most beneficent way. It is not about them that I am speaking but about writers and writing in general.
Sometime in the early 1950s, for two years running, I taught creative writing at the summer session of the Washington Square branch of NYU. I taught the prose section, and the poetry section was taught one year by Horace Gregory and the next year by Oscar Williams—that small amiable man with the triangular face and pink eyelids of a clever mouse who used to turn up at cocktail parties with a brown paper bag full of copies of one or the other of his many anthologies, which he autographed and passed around with such abandon that it was said that rare book dealers would pay top dollar for a copy he never happened to have gotten his hands on. I was uneasy about teaching creative writing for a number of reasons, one of which was that I’ve never been sure that it is something that can really be taught—for better or worse, I don’t think anybody ever taught it to me anyway—and another that I had absolutely no idea how to teach it right if it is. But my main uneasiness came from somewhere else. Suppose, I thought, that by some fluke I did teach it at least right enough so that maybe a couple of people, say, learned how to write with some real measure of effectiveness and power. The question then became for me, what were they going to write effectively and powerfully about? Suppose they chose to write effective and powerful racist tracts or sadist pornography or novels about warped and unpleasant people doing warped and unpleasant things? Or, speaking less sensationally, suppose they used the skills I had somehow managed to teach them to write books simply for the sake of making a name for themselves, or making money, or making a stir. It seemed to me and still does that to teach people how to write well without knowing what they are going to write about is like teaching people how to shoot well without knowing what or whom they are going to shoot at.
What a writer chooses to write about concerns me a lot because I think writers can for better or worse do things to their audience that other kinds of artists for the most part can’t. Painters hang their pictures on the wall, and when you look at those pictures, there is a certain space between you and them. The kind of light there is in that space, the presence maybe of other pictures hanging nearby or of other people wandering around, the angle of your vision, the kind of eyesight you have—all those other things are going on while you’re standing there looking at the picture, and one way or another they all to some degree dissipate, aerate, insulate you a little against the effect the picture has upon you. With music it is more or less the same thing. You are in one place and the music is coming from another place, whether the other place is an orchestra or a radio or your fancy new compact disc system, and all the same kinds of distractions and conditions are involved there.
With that in mind, I think of painting and music as subcutaneous arts. They get under your skin. They may get deeper than that eventually, but it takes a while, and they get there to some extent tinged by if not diluted by the conditions under which you saw them or heard them. Writing on the other hand strikes me as intravenous. As you sit there only a few inches from the printed page, the words you read go directly into the bloodstream and go into it at full strength. More than the painting you see or the music you hear, the words you read become in the very act of reading them part of who you are, especially if they are the words of exceptionally promising writers. If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned; if there is nourishment, you are nourished; if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful. In Hebrew the word dabbar means both word and also deed. A word doesn’t merely say something, it does something. It brings something into being. It makes something happen. What do writers want their books to make happen? It is not a question that I ever thought to raise in Washington Square forty years ago, but I wish I had.
What I am getting around to, of course, is talking about the kinds of books that seem to me worth all the trouble it takes to write them, let alone to read them, the kind of words suitable for injecting into the bloodstream of the world. I am thinking of all the things I wish I had known to say to the odd assortment of people who turned up at those long-ago NYU classes. There was one man who conceived the idea of rendering a character’s thoughts vertically on the page so I had to keep turning his manuscript sideways so I could read them. There was a short, plump German man who I believed was a baker, at least he looked like a baker, and a young man who had been James Farrell’s secretary. I wish that I had told them to give some thought to what they wanted their books to make happen inside the people who read them, and I also wish that I had told them what Red Smith said about writing, although I suppose it is possible that he hadn’t gotten around to saying it yet. As I am sure you all know, what Red Smith said was more or less this: “Writing is really quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein”—another hematological image. From the writer’s vein into the reader’s vein: for better or worse transfusion.
I couldn’t agree with Red Smith more. For my money anyway, the only books worth reading are books written in blood. I have always thought that the classic advice to write about what you know about is misleading because it seems to mean that if you come from the Middle West, say, you should write only about the Middle West, if you’re black you should write only about blacks, and so forth. If you expand “what you know about” to include what you know about in your dreams, in your nightmares, in your stomach, then it’s OK and lets Stephen Crane write The Red Badge of Courage and Gertrude Stein write Three Lives and Shakespeare write The Tempest. But the advice is ambiguous at best. Red Smith’s advice, on the other hand, is clear as a bell.
Write about what you really care about is what he is saying. Write about what truly matters to you—not just things to catch the eye of the world but things to touch the quick of the world the way they have touched you to the quick, which is why you are writing about them. Write not just with wit and eloquence and style and relevance but with passion. Then the things that your books make happen will be things worth happening—things that make the people who read them a little more passionate themselves for their pains, by which I mean a little more alive, a little wiser, a little more beautiful, a little more open to understanding, in short a little more human. I believe that those are the best things that books can make happen to people, and we could all make a list of the particular books that have made them happen to us.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first I read that did it to me, that started me on the long and God knows far from finished journey on the way to becoming a human being—started making that happen. What I chiefly learned from it was that even the slobs and phonies and morons that Holden Caulfield runs into on his travels are, like Seymour Glass’s Fat Lady, “Christ Himself, buddy,” as Zooey explains it to his sister Franny in the book that bears their names. Even the worst among us are precious. Even the most precious among us bear crosses. That was a word that went straight into my bloodstream and has been there ever since. Along similar lines I think also of Robertson Davies’s Deptford trilogy, Fort Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, George Garrett’s Death of the Fox, some of the early novels of John Updike like The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think of stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” and Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and works of nonfiction, to use that odd term (like calling poetry non-prose) such as Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb or plays like Death of a Salesman or Our Town.
My feeling is that works like those, to name just the few that happen to occur to me first, and all of them written in blood, bring about transfusions that can save souls if not lives. They make good things happen not just in the people who read them but in the very air we breathe. There are lots of other kinds of profound, entertaining, informative books that make lots of other kinds of things happen, but the older I get, the more I find that the ones I am drawn to as a reader and the only ones that I am interested in trying my hand at as a writer are the ones that one way or another make healing and human things happen in a world that is starving for precisely those things, whether it knows that is what it is starving for or not.
A few years ago Alfred Kazin wrote a New York Times Sunday book section review of the new edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature. It was a long review, and somewhere toward the middle of it I came across a sentence which read like this: “An eyebrow may be raised here and there at so much space devoted to Frederick Buechner.” Needless to say it stopped me dead in my tracks, and I have thought about those raised eyebrows from time to time ever since. I have never gotten around to comparing the amount of space devoted to me with the amount devoted to other writers of more or less the same general qualifications so I don’t know how matters actually stand on that score—I picture naughty little boys measuring each other out behind the barn—but my suspicion is that the real issue the review raised was not how much space I got but that I got any space at all. Generally speaking, my literary credentials are respectable enough, so my guess is that those eyebrows Mr. Kazin mentioned, and for all I know even Mr. Kazin’s own eyebrows, were raised on different grounds. I may be wrong, but I think the people who raised them did so because they know that I am an ordained minister and because for that reason they believe that I belong not in an Oxford Companion to American Literature but an Oxford Companion to Religious Propaganda. I would bet a nickel that if in a moment of madness Andre Dubus or Anne Tyler were to get themselves ordained, the same eyebrows would shoot up all over the place about them.
There are people who are suspicious of writers like me, ordained or otherwise, and unfortunately for us those people are apt to be the movers and shakers of the literary world. They are suspicious of us as pleaders of special causes and promoters of particular points of view. The primacy I have just finished giving to books that make healing and human things happen would be just the kind of evidence they would point to. I think they are suspicious of me in particular because as a writer I am trying to proclaim as convincingly, and at the same time as honestly, as I can the most interesting thing I have found in the world as I have experienced it over the last sixty-four years or so, and that is what I might best call the elusive presence of God among us. I try not to stack the deck or load the dice in my novels. I try to be as true to my experience of the dark and despairing side of things as to the holy and hopeful, but that elusive presence is my continual subject, and of course it raises suspicions and eyebrows all over the place.
I in turn am, if not exactly suspicious of, then at least left cold by, inclined to raise an eyebrow at, writers who are not really interested in proclaiming anything much at all. With a few happy exceptions, I am suspicious of writers whose books end up by the millions in the paperback sections of drug stores and supermarkets and B. Daltons throughout the universe because my guess is that they have written not what they believe is true but only what that believe will wash.
The writers, on the other hand, who get my personal award, are the ones who show exceptional promise of looking at their lives in this world as candidly and searchingly and feelingly and truly as they know how and then of telling the rest of us what they have found there most worth finding. We need the eyes of writers like that to see through. We need the blood of writers like that in our veins.
Frederick Buechner is an American writer and theologian. He is the author of more than thirty published books and has been an important source of inspiration and learning for many readers. His work encompasses many genres, including fiction, autobiography, essays, sermons, and other nonfiction. Buechner’s books have been translated into twenty-seven languages for publication around the world. Buechner’s writing has often been praised for its ability to inspire readers to see the grace in their daily lives.
He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been awarded eight honorary degrees from such institutions as Yale University and the Virginia Theological Seminary. In addition, Buechner has been the recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Rosenthal Award, the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize, and has been recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.