“Letters and Life”: A Book Review

On July 2, 2014, in Books, Christian, Culture, Literature, Movies, Writing, by Derrick G. Jeter

Letters and LifeThe 2012 movie The Words begins with a cliché: young novelist struggles to find representation for his first novel. Every writer, young or old, who’s ever tried to get their work published has experienced this frustration and disappointment; each of them can show you a stack of rejection letters received over the years. But in our movie (unlike real life), the young novelist discovers, by happenstance, an unpublished and unnamed manuscript from an unknown author. Better than his own writing, the young man wrestles with a moral dilemma: should he claim the manuscript as his own?

His moral resolve weaker than his literary ambition, he lies to his wife, his parents, and to the publishing house he works for as a mailroom clerk (cliché), and submits the manuscript to his employer for consideration. The publisher loves it and publishes it to great popular and critical acclaim! (more cliché) Now published and famous, our young novelist goes about his life on the New York literary cocktail party scene, content in knowing that he duped the publishing world and the reading public, but haunted in the knowledge that he will never match the literary power and emotion of the unknown author.

What makes The Words interesting, however, is the confrontation between the unknown and unnamed author of the manuscript and the young novelist. I’ll not spoil the movie for you—and this isn’t a movie review—but one line from the unknown author stuck in my mind as I was reading Bret Lott’s books on writing, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. Here it is: “I loved the words more than the woman who inspired the words.”

Writers are prone to fall in love with their words—to see in their words their world, their existence, their life’s purpose. Lott, who teaches creative writing and is the author of numerous novels, including the Oprah Book Club selection Jewel, is no different than most writers—he’s tempted to make his words his world. But in Letters and Life, a collection of essays on writing and an extended memoir on the death of his father and the importance of writing, Lott strikes a cautionary note.

Not a how-to book and not so much a look into the literary life—both of which you can get with much enjoyment in Stephen King’s On Writing—Lott wrestles with the philosophical questions of writing, especially as a Christian: What is literary fiction? What is art? How does the Christian artist engage the world? How does writing change the hearts and minds of readers? What is the role of humility in writing?

These are serious topics worthy of serious consideration by everyone involved in the profession of writing (or would like to be), especially in light of so much junk (Christian and otherwise) that passes for literature and thought these days. But what made Letters and Life engaging was the contrast of the second part of the book—the story of a father’s death and the significance of the writing life. Reclaiming literary fiction and writing with precision—topics covered in the first part—is important, but how important compared with life and death?

If part one (the essays) is the head, then part two (the memoir) is the heart. And the heart of Letters and Life is that writers must learn humility. Not the humility that comes through rejections from agents or publisher—that kind tends to either steel our resolve to keep writing and submitting manuscript after manuscript, or crushes us beyond repair, persuading us to put down the pen. The humility Lott speaks of is of a spiritual kind—of a kind that recognizes that writing is of great import but it’s not the most important thing in life.

I think Bret Lott would agree: we can love the words, but we ought not to love the words more than the woman—the man, the child, the life—that inspired the words. And if writers can remember that, then, perhaps, we’ll come close to the humility Lott says is so vital to the writing life.

An attitude I’ve learned to cultivate and treasure in my own writing life.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.

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