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Writing and the “curse of knowledge”

By December 29, 2014 No Comments

I’m not generally one to make New Year’s resolutions, but I do tend to get pretty reflective as one year gives way to the next. What do I want to keep from the past year or years, and what needs to go? What are the commitments I want to make or renew, and what needs to get set aside in order to free me up for honoring those commitments.

It’s been over three years now since The Twelve got started, and since then I’ve enjoyed this every-other-week habit of writing, even when it feels most difficult. Writing is something I feel perpetually compelled to do, and yet I feel like I get in my own way most of the time. Writing always feels important but hazardous, especially in an era when everything we write online leaves a trail behind us (Oh hello, future employers! Move along, nothing incriminating to see here!). It is exhilarating when I really feel like I’ve written from the heart, when I’ve said something clearly that I hope will resonate with at least a few other souls.

One of my preferred vices when it comes to avoiding the actual work of writing is to read and read and read about writing. My latest indulgence was a good one—I read bits of Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. One of his main points throughout the book is that writers need to overcome the debilitating effects of what he calls the “curse of knowledge,” the writer’s faulty assumption that her readers know as much as she does about whatever subject she’s addressing. (Pinker’s WSJ article here also explores the curse of knowledge). Pinker says that writers all too often fail to get out of the parochial territory of our own minds. The terms and parlance that are familiar to us get used without the sort of explanation or background that would aid the reader. To trounce the curse of knowledge, says Pinker, writers need to think constantly about their readers—what might they know or not know, and what needs to be illuminated further in order for the reader to appreciate what the writer is trying to say?

I find that the curse of knowledge plagues much more than just writing—so many aspects of human communication are predicated on assumptions about what “everybody knows” or what “everyone” has experienced in life. Points of miscommunication and conflict often reveal to us how faulty our assumptions were. Good writers seem to hone the skill of claiming their own perspective and not assuming it’s shared by all their readers. At the same time, good writers also don’t shy away from writing about things that might be commonplace and as old as the ages, because they know that their own take on it will be as unique as the idiosyncrasies of their own minds. Think, for instance, of the way Annie Dillard can give a reader an utterly fresh vantage point to see the extraordinary in everyday natural landscapes.

Religious people, writers and preachers and teachers and readers and hearers alike, fall prey to the curse of knowledge on a regular basis. We assume that words like ‘God’ and ‘grace’ and ‘faith’ and ‘church’ have the same meanings and associations for others as they do for us. Not so. Better to drill down and be forthright about what they mean or don’t mean for us, and to explore with curiosity and openness what they mean for those with whom we want to be in conversation. Language, and the religious meaning it can convey, quickly becomes stale and brittle if it doesn’t engage the communicator’s own way of seeing the world. And something comforting emerges from that, I hope—perhaps especially for those preachers who have just made it through another Christmas round, trying to convey the contemporary impact of ancient texts. The comfort is that we draw on living texts, animated by a living Word. We don’t have to drum up a new spin on Micah or Malachi or Matthew. They endure. What changes are the faces and names and lived experiences of the hearers. Maybe they have never heard the stories at all, or haven’t heard them from the lips of someone who didn’t already assume their familiarity. Maybe this year’s trip around the sun brought joys or losses that will resonate deeply with a timeworn phrase from scripture, or a verse from a faded hymn.

I do want to recommit to writing this year, and to the craft of speaking for myself in ways that, I hope, invite others to do the same. There may be nothing new under the sun, but there is so much yet to be said about it.

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