This piece was originally published last June.
A writer and professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has authored numerous works—including Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and What’s in a Phrase? —on what it means to steward language well, for our words to act as instruments of truth and life. More recently she has written a pair of books on the words and practices involved in the act of dying faithfully, the first being A Faithful Farwell. The Curator talked with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre about her writing, both old and new, the responsibilities of writers, fidelity to communal conversations, and how we talk about death. This interview has been edited for publication.
Adam Joyce: Why did you write Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies?
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: Part of it came out of my own response to the intensified rhetoric after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the Patriot Act. Corporations and government were justifying all kinds of new unfoldings in the process, which made it difficult to feel that one could trust the integrity of public argument, debate, and persuasion.
The work also came out of a really positive vocational sense of being called, both inside and outside the classroom, to deal with words. I had the positive desire to reflect on my own vocation and the negative motivation was sorrow and anxiety about the discursive environment that students and children are growing up in.
AJ: Amidst these problematic cultural habits and practices of language, what is the writer’s responsibility when it comes to words? Also, what about the essayist—what is his or her responsibility?
MCM: There is a lot of slippage and erosion in how our culture uses language, yet the processes of degradation aren’t always entirely conscious on the part of people who contribute to them. In the book I make a comparison between our treatment of language and the environment. Look at what is happening to the environment by virtue of industrial food processes, farming methods, factory farms, and so on, yet not everybody who eats meat thinks about factory farms. In the same way, not everybody who uses language considers how we have been acculturated to accept abstractions, imprecisions, forms of vagueness or half truths, and empty rhetoric, in political, media, and commercial processes.
The vocation of any writer is to be on the front line of people who are willing to spend mental energy, spiritual energy, cultural capital, and time crafting words, reflecting on them, and renewing them in the sense T.S. Elliot talked about. Borrowing from Mallarmé, he said that the task of the poet is to “renew the dialect of the tribe.”
Part of renewal in a poem or an essay involves recontextualizing words in such a way that people see them again, and say, “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that word in that way.” The task of the essayist is first of all clarity. Clarity is a gift and entails things like precision, careful development, and examples.
AJ: In Caring for Words it seems like the concepts of stewardship and fidelity are interwoven, almost inseparable from one another. And that any sort of healthy “caring for words,” which goes beyond your own inner life and is rightly connected with a community and their words, requires fidelity. Does fidelity allow for us to talk about what good and careful conversation looks like differently than stewardship does?
MCM: I’m a great fan of Wendell Berry. I’ve recently been teaching his book, Fidelity: Five Stories, which complicates and opens up the definition of fidelity. After you have read those stories and his poem, “The Dance,” which says, “Love changes, and in change is true,” you can’t think about what it means to be faithful in quite the same way.
What it means to be faithful has to move from a simplistic idea of steadfastness, to a more fluid and nuanced notion of staying in relationship—helping people to step back from words by foregrounding them, and saying, “What do you think about this word again?” That is one of the ways a writer can pull words up out of the dust, polish them off, and give them new life.
In a class one time I put a list of values on the board that are attached to good writing, including: clarity, liveliness, persuasiveness, interest value, and others. It was a long list. I asked the students to pick five, rank them, and tell me what they really wanted to work toward in their own writing. A lovely student from the Czech Republic, who had just recently come to the United States, was staring at the list with some interest. When he saw me write down lively, he said, “That is it! I want all my writing to be lively.”
This moment goes to my heart because I think of the phrase the “Living Word” that is applied to Scripture. This is a deep idea that can be imported into writing that has integrity, authenticity, and comes from reflective living. We can ask of any writing: “What is it that makes this a living word or a life-giving sentence?”
“What is this writer being faithful to?” is a question I’ve often asked in literature classes. Any writer has to be faithful to certain things, and telling the truth is something that needs a lot of parsing. You tell the truth in different ways if you are writing fiction or non-fiction.
I’m teaching Moby Dick right now and Melville’s all over the place. Often you don’t even know who is narrating particular chapters. So Melville is not being faithful to a particular set of expected conventions—something that might irritate a lot of readers. It might appear to be infidelity. Yet Melville is being faithful to his purposes, which one can infer.
Then there is also a fidelity to the history of words, which Wendell Berry models so beautifully. He uses words that echo the English of the King James Bible. I never see him use clinical words like depression, but he does use words like sorrow. I feel as though he is being faithful to this language not for the sake of “going back to the good old days” but to retrieve something that has been splintered into multiple disciplinary discourses.
We have a calling to do a certain amount of the archaeological digging beneath the language we use, reach back into the etymologies of words, and to pay attention to the nuances of one word choice over another. We need to trust that those subtle differences make a difference.
AJ: And to trust the time it takes to make those choices well also matters?
MCM: It is really easy as you are sitting at your desk and have a deadline in front of you to think: “Life is short; why am I spending most of my afternoon tinkering with sentences?” But if this is what is given to me to do, why is it any less important than what the plumber does or what anyone does on the floor of Congress? The truth is that none of us gets to assess the ultimate difference our work makes. We don’t get to judge. To be faithful to what is given to you, to write, isn’t to judge whether what you are writing is drivel compared to what Wendell Berry is writing about.
Writing doesn’t start with ideas. It starts with your experience, even if you think it’s not of great public interest. Often it happens that if you are faithful to something that is burdening you, it turns out it does matter.
I wrote a little piece one time called “In Praise of Incompletion” It is about how too high a premium is placed upon coverage and completion in things from curricula to cleaning your plate—finishing a task becomes a virtue. I tell my students about the need to read a long novel slowly enough to understand how the writer is working, to be an apprentice, stand at the writer’s elbow, and see what is going on a in a paragraph. And if that means you don’t turn every page, then don’t turn every page. But come to class ready to reflect on what you have read, having noticed matters of technique that will help you listen more attentively to language and to read better.
After this piece was published I got letters from people who said this permission was such a relief.
AJ: There is a lot more to be faithful to in a conversation than just the people who you are talking with.
MCM: You are participating in a much larger process. It is very easy to imagine you are working on this alone, but every time something comes to the point of publication I realize it is simply something that I get to midwife out of an ongoing conversation, to bring it to fruition in a particular way.
I was in my 20s when a mentor said to me: “Pay a little more attention to the call of the moment and then the longer story will unfold as you continue.” That phrase, “the call of the moment,” has really been a watchword for me. To be faithful to your vocation is to recognize that at different seasons of life you are called to very different things. If you stay in a prayerful relationship with the Spirit, even if that looks like it is leading you on a zigzagging course, that may be what fidelity looks like in to the call of the moment.
AJ: So fidelity requires recognizing where you are, and what that place requires of you? And these levels of faithfulness are what help you know how to engage and use your writerly tools at different moments in those different places?
MCM: My husband is a pastor. One of the phrases that one hears in Presbyterian circles is “equipping the saints.” It is a quaint term, but that is what we do in community; we equip one another. Think of how often we borrow words from somebody, or somebody puts something a certain way, and you say: “Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is a beautiful phrase.” You then proceed to steal it, in the way that Eliot means when he says: “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”
So many lines and phrases I’ve received with gratitude from poets and writers. They have provided me with what Kenneth Burke, the literary critic, calls “equipment for living.”
AJ: So Kenneth Burke says literature, and maybe art in general, provides “equipment for living,” but in light of your recent writing, could you also talk about how it provides equipment for dying?
MCM: Over the last couple of years I have been working as a hospice volunteer—work that I really love—and have seen several family members through the last weeks of life. It is very demanding, heart-opening, and grace-filled work. It has always felt like a real privilege to be at the bedside of someone who is coming face-to-face with the thing we will all experience and find ways to be companionable as you walk with them.
One of the particular tasks I was given in hospice was to work with people who wanted help telling their stories for their families, to leave a story legacy. Autobiography is an interesting genre because you can tell your story with many purposes. There isn’t any required starting point, but you do have to decide if you are going to speak about intimate things and how to organize in such a way as to tell the parts of it that matter.
I worked with a 102-year-old woman who was remarkable. She had many funny sweet engaging stories to tell, but after I had been there two or three times she began to tell me about some very difficult things that had happened to her as a young girl. Her family said, “Let’s not talk about this.” Yet she needed to tell that story. My job there wasn’t to cheer that woman up, but to allow the stories that needed to be told to be told.
Part of caring for words is listening to other people’s words and listening for the story that is finding its way to the surface. It is a challenging task to find ways to talk about dying that navigate around the clichés on the one side and social stumblings on the other side—to offer people a language for death that is both frank and gentle.
A Faithful Farewell is one of a pair of books. Eerdmans, the publisher, asked me to write one book for people who were dying and then another one for their caregivers. But finding a point of view for people who were dying was really hard. Eerdmans ended up encouraging me to write it in the first person, which was a challenging assignment. Based upon a lot of visiting with those who are dying, I tried to articulate the paradoxes, the surprising moments, the boredom, the tedium, the irritation with caregivers who mean well, the moments of laughter when things are hard and nobody else feels like laughing, and the moments of gratitude and prayer. There are just lots of things that can happen if you have a gradual going.
AJ: This act of writing A Faithful Farewell in the first person, it reminds me of Christian Wiman’s phrase, “pain islands you.” When we are talking about our bodies, especially bodies in pain, the role of words is complex. We often ask what language “does” in that space, how it functions. The idea of writing a book about dying in the first person seems, in some way, an attempt to “de-island” that space.
MCM: It is certainly trying to, with a very overt and declared fictive device. I am not writing as a person who is in fact dying, but I’m creating and imagining a point of view to try to give a voice to those whom are dying.
I did this with some trepidation. I don’t want it to seem presumptuous, but part of what writers do in fiction is to create narrative persona to serve a particular purpose. To write from the vantage point of someone who is dying is like if I were to assume a persona from a different cultural background. I want to respect that I’m not that person. Tolstoy created women characters that were magnificent and Faulkner created Dilsey, who is one of the memorable African-American women in American fiction. But crossing those lines is always tricky. So entering into the perspective of someone who knows they are dying and saying what it could look like was a challenge.
It was also illuminating. It helped me find a deepened sense of peace with the reality of my own mortality. I’ve never been a person who is terribly afraid of dying, but I am afraid of pain. The fact we will die is a truth that we have to live into as our life continues.
AJ: What sort of space did writing about hospice and the final chapter of life provide for your other thoughts on language and word care? Did it send you back into your larger reflections on language?
MCM: I think working on that book, being in conversation with people who are dying, and every birthday I have makes me aware how precious the time we have here. The journey metaphor is a common metaphor for life. Yet it is important to think of life not only as a journey but also as a conversation. I try to open myself up in morning prayer and to whoever I encounter each day. It has put a heightened premium on encounter, conversation, and especially silence.
AJ: I read numerous times that a lot of hospice is learning what not to say.
MCM: That is for sure. When my mother was dying I was very impatient with people who came in, who needed to be chatty and cheerful. One of her friends, speaking of someone else said, “Well I like her but she is just terminally cheerful.” We need to learn to sit with someone and be comfortable enough in silence, to allow the conversation to find its slow rhythm. It does slow down simply because people have less energy.
This gets to a musical dimension of what happens in conversation. It is a jazz composition where you don’t exactly know what is coming next, you are listening to the cues, and you want there to be some pauses and rests in this collaboration. Rhythm is important.
AJ: Maybe, in its own way, cheerfulness islands you as well.
MCM: People are afraid of death and some compensate when they have to be in the presence of dying. They fill the space to protect themselves. We all struggle with fears, but if you say too much you cover up the things that really would be the gems you have to offer people, by burying them in sand.
AJ: Words can bury other words.
MCM: My book What’s in a Phrase is about unearthing those little phrases that might get buried in long sentences if you didn’t just stop and notice them—like finding opals in that brown earthly rock that they develop in.
AJ: Thank you so much for your time.
MCM: It was a pleasure.