The Writer's Burden

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[trigger warning: rape culture and imagery] I have written hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words in my life.

Until I was 24, papers for school were the main product of my words, so I grew used to feedback, even if I didn’t always agree with it. Frequently, when I did disagree with my teacher, it was on the basis of how they interpreted something I had written as something I hadn’t intended.

The most salient example of this was a book report I did in graduate school. I was assigned to read a book on narratological techniques in literature, and do an 8-10 page report. The book was a mess, organizationally speaking, and my intent in my paper was to honor the author’s structure and simply critique things in the order they appeared in the book, as a means to demonstrate the poor organization in the original document.

Unfortunately, my professor didn’t see it the same way. Now, I could easily chalk it up to a personal critique of the professor himself, and indeed, at the time, I distinctly recall claiming that he obviously hadn’t read my paper closely enough to understand that the organizational problem was in the piece I was critiquing, not in my own work.

But that justification only kept me from seeing what I didn’t want to see: my chosen structure for the paper was a poor idea, and ultimately didn’t function in the final product. My purpose would have been better served by choosing different words, different structure, and maybe a different thesis or method of critique altogether. It’s my fault that my writing wasn’t clear to begin with, no matter my intent – my reader (my professor) didn’t get what I was doing, which meant I hadn’t done my job.

This point became even clearer to me when I started teaching freshman composition during my second year of graduate school. I was reading 200 papers in a semester, and didn’t always have time to sit and puzzle out what a student meant versus what she had written. In a reader-writer relationship, all that the reader has to go on is the context and words the writer has chosen to use. This is why it’s so important to make sure that your point is as clear as humanly possible and says what you want to say before you put something out to be consumed.

That, ultimately, is the failure of Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson of the Gospel Coalition this week.

Jared posted, with little context given, a few paragraphs from Doug Wilson’s book, Fidelity, in response to the phenomenon of 50 Shades of Grey. In this excerpt, Wilson has this to say:

Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence. … In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed. … True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not 'no authority,' but an authority which devours. (emphasis mine)

Many women – many of them rape survivors – objected to Doug Wilson’s wording. What followed was a 109 comment thread in which both Wilsons accused their critics of simply failing to comprehend what was being said, accusing them of taking words out of context, and basically dismissing the pain caused by the words Doug Wilson wrote.

In a follow up post, Jared Wilson writes that critics of what was said have “decontextualized [the words about conquering and surrendering] and maintained it doesn’t matter what was meant, only what was said, and therefore what was thought to be said was assumed to be meant.” He then quoted Doug Wilson in a comment (on the original piece), saying:

Only a person with a poetic ear like three feet of tin foil would maintain that penetrates can only be used of a Nazi invasion of Belgium, or that plants means that a man must treat his woman like dirt, or that conquering can only be done by ravaging Huns, and that colonization can only occur in a Haitian cane break.

What I was talking about occurs within the bounds of a man and a woman who love and respect one another, mirroring the relationship of Christ and the Church. Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class. A third option — the one I think pertains here — they could surrender the a priori notion that I must be crammed into their mental caricature of a conservative complementarian. [emphasis mine]

This response is a failure, not only of grace and compassion, but of basic skill as a writer. It is the freshman comp student whining to their professor that they should be graded on what they meant to say, not on what they actually said.

The response to the criticism is – and I am using these words and phrases purposefully – juvenile and beneath the life of supposed men of the Gospel. This refers not only to the insults used in response (needs to retake their ESL class, which is vaguely racist), but also to the tenor of the response. There is no grace for their critics, only condescension and dismissal. It is beneath them as men of the Gospel and as writers.

My point is this, so as my meaning is absolutely clear: Words mean things. And they may not always be interpreted as what we intend when we as writers choose them.

The onus is upon the writer to own up to the fact that their words hurt when a reader pipes up and says, “Hey, that’s not good.” The proper response is not to say “You’re not reading it right!” but instead to go back, look at the words in the context in which they were given to the reader and figure out how this reader arrived at their interpretation. And even if it doesn’t make sense to you right away, the proper response is not to leap into the defensive and accuse them of wrongly interpreting things, but to let them know that you are taking what they’ve said into account, reexamining what you said, and then actually examining and being introspective about your choices.

I see none of that introspection in any of the commentary either Doug or Jared have offered on this piece. The sheer refusal to acknowledge that their words caused hurt and pain is – I cannot say this enough – a major failure and an insult to the writing profession.

I’m not going to delve into the specifics of the interpretations (Rachel Held Evans and Scott McKnight have offered plenty of room for such debates), but I will quote one of my twitter followers, Peter Garcia, who said, “Claiming any kind of ignorance to the violence of such language is absurd.”

Words mean things, Messrs. Wilson, and once we use them and make them public, our interpretation of the words is no longer king. And if we discover that our words have caused pain (as I have experienced as a writer time and again), it is ungracious and utterly terrible of us to claim that the hurt reader has simply failed to understand our meaning.

So, writers, here’s a helpful script for the future when a reader tells you they were offended by your word choice: “I’m sorry. I did not think of that interpretation, and it was a poor choice of words.”

That’s it. That’s all that needs to be said. But, like the words you meant to say in the first place, you really have to mean what you say when you apologize, too.

UPDATE: It is worth noting that Jared Wilson issued an apology for the fiasco and has taken down both posts at the center of this controversy. The apology appears to be contrite and sincere, so I am willing to accept it and hope that he will continue to learn from this experience (this does not mean you must accept it; that's up to you).