Anyone contemplating reading Out of My Bone, who has not read Lyle Dorsett’s biography of Davidman, And God Came In: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, might want to consider reading the biography before reading the letters. The biography will provide context for the letters; this is particularly helpful since the range of correspondence in Out of My Bone is limited.
Davidman, who was born in 1915, had a remarkable intellect, graduating from Hunter College in 1934 and then from Columbia University with a MA in 1935 (she graduated from high school when 14). Considering that she died when 45, I can’t help wondering “what might have been” had she lived longer; what books and essays might she have written, what might her literary and intellectual and spiritual partnership with C.S. Lewis have looked like, and how might have she continued to grow in her relationship with Jesus Christ?
One of Davidman’s letters that struck me was written to Harold Harwell Lewis (dated June 7, 1943 – no relation to C.S. Lewis) in her capacity as an associate editor of New Masses, the magazine of the Communist Party of the United States. It begins: “Dear H. H. Lewis, I’ve been looking over some of your poems, and I’ve been impressed with the broadening scope of your work…You are certainly growing as a poet.”
Well into the letter Davidman writes, “Another way in which your work is getting above the heads of the audience is in its diction…Our task is to bring poetry back to spoken English; a good rule is to use no expression in poetry that you can’t imagine yourself using in conversation.”
“When you show that you know more than your audience, it should only be something that your audience really needs and wants to learn. You have another trick of inventing words, using hyphens to create what are known as neologisms – horrible things; and using a jawbreaker where a simple one-syllabled word will do.”
“Not only do big words look grotesque; they are also limp and colorless, because they have no associations. A reader will get a mental picture when you say tulip tree, but if you call it Liriodendron tulipifera you will leave him blank. Or imagine using “maternal progenitor” for mother.”
Her letter to H.H. Lewis covers six pages in Out of My Bone and I’m going to quote from it more in the next post; consider the time and thought Davidman is putting into encouraging and critiquing her correspondent, this is quite the investment – and one which Davidman is willing to make with those who “have an ear to hear” what she has to say. Unlike the passive communication style that our 21st century society is perfecting, Joy Davidman gets to the point, expands the point, and then gets to the next point without apology or without using phrases like in my opinion.
Her above-quoted advice is good for writers and speakers today, even writers of emails. I recall once, in Boston, hearing a seminary professor speak at a breakfast of business and professional people and cringing at his theological jargon – even if his audience could deduce the meaning of the jargon the process of deduction would have distracted it from following the speaker’s line of thought, it would have been akin to taking the wrong exit ramp from an interstate highway and then figuring out how to get back on the highway.
In terms of emails, how often have I read an email from someone trying to impress readers and thereby coming across unnaturally, using words that they would never use in normal conversation – and sometimes using words whose meanings they sadly do not know.
I like words, and I like increasing my vocabulary, and I like using different words, including words that aren’t used very often (because if I use them I’ll learn them) – and therein lies the danger if I forget my audience and forget the message – the goal in communication (unless your goal is subterfuge) is for the listener or reader to see what you’re writing or saying – it is incumbent on the one doing the writing or speaking to do it well – and that means to do it with the audience in mind.
There are writers and speakers that are Gnostic in the sense that they portray an air of mystery and secrecy; follow them to become initiated into hidden wisdom and knowledge; use their jargon and “voice” to enter the inner circle of acceptance and ascendency. We see this in art, we see it in religion, we see it in academia, we see it in literature; I suppose we see it just about everywhere – why I even see it in business with buzz words and phrases and in thinking that often has no foundation and that is not logical. We think fancy words indicate learning, knowledge and wisdom – too often they indicate shallowness and egotism. Davidman could see through façade, some people appreciated that and some didn’t. I think Jesus probably would have said to her, “Behold an Israelite, in whom is no guile.”
To be continued…