Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Experts make it look so easy!

Last Saturday I attended a lecture hosted by the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington on religious pluralism. The Institute sponsors a Convocation each year, and I always enjoy feeling my mind stretched when I attend. This year's speaker was the esteemed religious scholar Dr. Richard Plantinga. His presentation was extremely interesting; you can see it here. If you look it over, you will notice it is very readable. Even if you are not highly knowledgeable about the subject, you will learn from reading his text. He takes us through some fairly weighty material, and balances the concluding tensions in a way that makes us feel we have reached greater enlightenment on this complicated issue.

Anyone who remembers being thrilled by lightbulb moments in the classroom and beyond will understand how Dr. Plantinga does this. He breaks down a complex subject into smaller parts that are comprehensible (not necessarily right off the bat, but sooner rather than later). Your best professors did this. They may have learned how to do it through pedagogy, but most likely it was knowledge hard won through experience. They found their own voices, and spoke in terms that helped listeners and students understand. Vocabulary pitched at the proper level of complexity. Simple, direct sentences. Metaphor that is evocative, yet not too convoluted. Striking imagery.

Not all writers and scholars can do this, of course. I am sure you can remember the professors who won major awards for books and articles, but were disappointing lecturers. Writing for the ear is not the same as writing for the eye. It is a different variation on a theme.

I write plays. (My latest play, Becoming Calvin, was commissioned by the Reformed Institute.) And that is yet another variation. I write for the ear, yes, but in different voices. And I write for the eye--not to be read--but to be visualized, physicalized and turned into action. Writing this way taps into different levels of creativity. But always, the watchword is clarity. If character or plot or theme become too complex and people can't follow then, then I need to go back and simplify. Because the point is never about showing off how much you know or how deeply you feel or what creative stretches you can do. It's about sharing your message.

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