BILL TAMMEUS There is holiness in the written word
GRAPEVINE, Texas -- Pete Hamill, a quintessential New Yorker who has written 18 books and thousands of newspaper columns, is talking about his passion, writing.
"I'm the least religious of people," he says, "but I recognize there is something holy about good writing."
Hamill is right, and it both alarms and encourages me.
I'm frightened because so few people, especially young people, seem to understand the ways in which good writing is holy and why it matters to them. But I have hope because the power inherent in words -- wisely chosen, judiciously used, lovingly read -- can mine the dark shafts of human souls and let in light where there is only ignorance, only apathy.
Hamill, whose new book, "Downtown: My Manhattan," contains a celebration of what Trinity (Episcopal) Church means to New York, is here speaking to a wildly receptive audience, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, meeting in its annual conference.
The society is made up of people who also believe there really is something holy about good writing but who periodically need to hear veterans like Hamill reaffirm that belief.
It can be so easy for writers, especially columnists under constant deadline pressure, to give up on that idea. Complaining readers and dry-hearted editors can suck the life out of a writer's spirit, making it easy to cave in and write to please the frivolous pop culture, which has almost no appreciation for the way finely crafted words can rescue people's souls.
So Hamill is here to remind us that what we do is worthy and that we must not settle for mediocrity. He says he reads at least one poem every night before bed. Poetry lets him hear again how compact collections of words can jackhammer through readers' defenses and find their vulnerable hearts.
And at least once a week he reads a short story to remind him how to draw readers into his own columns and how to narrow the focus until, at the end, the writer sticks the landing like an Olympic gymnast.
Sacred writ is permeated with the idea of the holiness of words. In Genesis, God uses words to create the world from nothing but the divine mind and heart. And in Christianity, Jesus is called the "Word" of God, meaning the very substance and image and essence of God.
In religious communities, the crucial words of liturgy, ritual, ceremony and hymnody speak profound and holy truths to the faithful.
But even though that's related to what Hamill was saying, I'm pretty sure it's not what he meant.
Rather, what he meant, I think, is that words -- which are always metaphor, always inadequate, always merely road signs pointing to some reality beyond them -- are holy even in secular settings in which the purpose of the words is not specifically to convey religious beliefs.
That's because, as Hamill rightly notes, the world always and inevitably has what he calls "a moral context," and any words writers offer always and inevitably build up or tear down that moral context. What we do is never morally neutral or indifferent.
The problem today -- as Hamill and others, including me, see it -- is that we are not teaching young people about the holiness of written words. So we see words treated with disdain, words misused and, maybe worse, ignored. The danger if we continue this is that words will be drained of their value, their power to create new worlds.
They will be wasted on subjects that do not illuminate or improve the human condition but, rather, draw us away to ponder things that don't matter to our lives at all -- Michael Jackson's bed life, Tom Cruise's current choice of female companionship, what the pretentious women of nearby Dallas are wearing to their pretentious parties.
Written words are too precious to be wasted on cheap trickery and spirit-killing frivolity. Words matter. They require loving care in their construction. And they require diligent attention by their readers to discern how words can shape us into people who recognize the moral context of the world and do everything possible not to undermine it.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.