I’ve been writing a chapter for a book on youth work and spirituality in Australia 1. I’ve got way too much to say. On a blog this wouldn’t be such a big problem – I’d just space out the piece into readable chunks and drip it out like water torture on my readers. But in an academic chapter I am required to distil my thoughts down to, in this case, about 6000 words. A few thoughts on this.

Blurting out every word has problems. Building an argument step by step does not come naturally to me. I tend to dredge up all my thoughts and spew them out in one long stream; then focus on trying to distill them, and work out where the different parts belong. The process of painstakingly building a case does not combine well with blurting. But it has advantages. I often dig up gems of buried thoughts that I would not have included if not for the verbiage.

Why write at all? Why not take the best thoughts of others and put them to work? Is it not hubris to think that my particular arrangement of words has anything to add?

It’s tempting to say what I want and then find quotes to back it up. I used to do this in university, and to be honest, I default to this when I am tired. Academic chapters don’t let you do this (Side note: university essays shouldn’t either). Instead, I’ve needed to immerse myself in a bunch of reading that has changed some of my thinking. I then need to connect that with existing things I think and articulate the new understanding. This, as opposed to the uni essay mode, requires my brain to take action.

It’s humbling to realise how much others have thought about the things for which I care. And how little I have. In some circles in which I move, people reckon I’m intelligent. Sometimes I believe the hype. Reading people like Charles Taylor, Sandra Schneider and Howard Sercombe is a painful lesson in intellectual realism. Related to this, I have a desire to be original in my thinking; but writing this chapter gives me empathy for the Ecclesiastical writer, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

So what is my contribution? Why write at all? Why not just take the best thoughts of others (and they are better than mine), and put them to work in the world of practice with young people? Is it not hubris to think that my particular arrangement of words has anything to add? Especially when the world is drowning in words that add nothing except more confusion, more surface thinking, more self-satisfied thinking.

  1. It helps me think. Writing is the way that my thoughts become clearer to me, and undergo some sort of threshing and sorting and refining. If I was an extravert, I might talk it out, and that’s probably more socially acceptable in this age of the ‘conversation’. But my way is writing.
  2. My writing helps others to think. I’ve been told this often enough that I believe it to be true. And true enough to believe that it lies close to the heart of my vocation.
  3. Putting my work out in public view is essential, and vital for number 2 to be possible. It’s also the means by which I work out if my thinking has anything to add to people’s lives.
  4. My action is better when I write. Without the constant yeast-and-flour melding of writing and embodiment – the way that my action seems so much more deep and authentic when I write and my writing seems so much more valuable when I act – my action feels flat, boring. I feel like a roller-skater in the rink, who suddenly realises that they are actually on a slightly frozen lake whose surface is rapidly cracking, and the shore too far for comfort.

  1. This has come out of the Burning Conversations conference on youth work and spirituality, hosted by Tabor College, Adelaide, in 2014. ↩︎