Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

How to keep a writer humble

I once interviewed the head of pediatrics at a British hospital who had all doctors new to the department spend some time on their knees in the place.

He wasn’t promoting prayer; he believed that having them get down low helped them better understand things from their little patients’ perspective, and how scary the place could seem when you’re a kid. As a result, he believed, they might wield their power with greater sensitivity.

In the same way, I think all writers should be required to learn another language. It might bring a bit more humility to our work. Because, truth to tell, most writers are quiet control freaks, ordering the world around them one word at a time. When you suddenly don’t have any to use, you are forced to surrender, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling.

I’m currently studying Spanish, in preparation for a trip to Guatemala in July with a team from our church; we’ll be working alongside a congregation there in a variety of projects. So far I can say “apple” and “milk” in Spanish, so we won’t go hungry or thirsty. Any theological discussions will, however, be brief (and limited to the Fall and Paul’s admonition to believers to grow up). This may be a good thing.

I am far from being a polygloat (that’s not a typo, but someone who likes to show off about how many different languages they speak). I have retained some of my schoolboy French lessons, and know enough Dutch from my years in Amsterdam to get into trouble. My skill level in each is more effluent than fluent, however.

While the Spanish learning process is stretching, I am glad of the reminder I am getting of how powerless you can feel when you don’t have the words you need to say what you want to. Grappling with my “manzanas” and “leche” has also made me more aware of how self-focused writing is.

Yes, you have to keep the readers in mind when you sit at your computer, of course, but you say what you want to as best you can, then click “send” or “publish.” They are the ones who ultimately have to do the work of deciding what you mean; in that sense, writing will always have an element of arrogance about it—even in the digital space that allows for some interaction with readers.

That’s a professional takeaway from my language lessons. On the personal front, I have been reminded of how important real listening is for me to truly understand what someone else is saying: I have to concentrate on each Spanish word I hear on the audio program I am following, rather than just let it wash over me.

This has made me realize again that even when I am speaking English, a word may mean something very different to someone else than it does to me. Acknowledging that I may not understand keeps me on my toes. Or maybe that should be my knees.

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