On Poets and Prophets

by Halee Gray Scott

We all have those moments. Those moments we glibly call “defining” in which we are forced to make a decision that, in effect, makes us or unmakes us.  One such moment came to me one winter morning in 1988. My life was a mess. My parents’ marriage was on the verge of collapse and my grandfather—the one person I loved more than anyone—had just died from a bypass surgery gone wrong. It would be hard to overestimate how alone in the world I felt. Like always, I sought solace and company in books.

On that same morning in 1988, as I was leaving my fifth-grade classroom for recess, I overheard a conversation between two of my classmates. John and Rachel were standing on the far side of the room, next to the brown chalkboard covered in division problems.

“Do you understand anything Halee says?” asked John. “She uses these big words and I never understand her.”

“Not really,” Rachel answered, “but I like it. She’s not like everybody else.”

As kind as Rachel had been, it was John’s words that I honed in on. Mortified, I fled the room. “Nobody understands me,” I globalized. But when my friends were Meg and Charles Wallace Murray, Anne of Green Gables, and Mary Lennox, what else could I have expected? That morning, I made a decision: I would stop reading and (even more so) would never use “big” words again. And for a long time, I didn’t.

Matthew 25 lets us eavesdrop on a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Through the parable of the talents, Jesus urged the disciples to steward their gifts well. But why would such a lesson be necessary? In an American Idol culture, it’s hard to understand why anyone would bury their talents, but look closely at how the unfaithful servant explains himself: “So I was afraid.” He weighed his personal inadequacy against the greatness of the task and was paralyzed by fear.

As writers, we’re subject to a similar temptation because our calling is so similar to the calling of the prophet. And prophets are never popular. Walter Brueggemann writes that the task of the prophet is to criticize the status quo and energize people towards a grander alternative by casting a vision of what is possible. But neither criticizing or energizing is easy. No one wants to be criticized, but Brueggemann argues that no one really wants to be energized either. In the complacency of 21st century America, who wants to expend the energy to create something new, to work and hope our way towards a better future?

For the writer, the poet, the temptation is to mute ourselves or lower the octave of our voice to be more amiable to our hearers—much like I did in response to the criticism of a 5th grader.  It’s a temptation we must resist if we want to be faithful. As Ann Voskamp has said,  “To create, you have to bury something. Either bury your fear in faith, or bury your talent in fear.”

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13 Responses to On Poets and Prophets

  1. Eric Oppenhuizen says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I’ve been trying to do more and more writing lately, but what happens is I just start pouring whatever is on my heart into the words, and when it is done I look back and wonder in what ways my words might offend others, or more specifically family, friends, and people I’m involved in ministry with. I end up cutting massive chunks out or scrapping altogether and calling it a journal entry, coming up with some sort of rationalization saying I was just processing an emotion or idea, and it’s between me and God. Is it, though? My intent is never to offend or throw stones – it is to challenge and spur growth. Maybe unfiltered honesty is a better medium than watered down partial stories? This is giving me a lot to think about today. Thanks!

    • Halee says:

      Eric, thanks! You’re right. It is a challenge to put your thoughts out there and risk offending. But when you do that, you risk missing out on being used by God to bless others.

  2. untonyto says:

    True and relevant, timely and relatable, useful and beautifully written. I am challenged. Even the previous comment was helpful. God bless you.

  3. I remember you telling this story in our group at the Festival, and it strikes me now as it struck me then. Writing and speaking creatively is such a vulnerable act, it is hard not to want to shut up forever when just one person discounts our art. I love your call to courage here!

    • Halee says:

      Yes, writing is so vulnerable. Especially in the age of the “angry commenter”. Sometimes those comments can really make us want to crawl under a rock.

  4. Bonnie says:

    Thank you for this, Halee. I agree with you, especially about writers being a kind of prophet. It’s easy for me lose my conviction, though, and start second-guessing in the face of self-doubt and other-fear. I appreciate the encouragement.

  5. Lara says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. So glad you overcame your fear and returned to books and big words. Interestingly, the definition you give of a prophet startled me. Recently I was asked to describe what my “dynamic” is – how I approach what I write. And I defined it as “challenging what no longer works, then encouraging those who take steps in the right direction.” So um, you mean that I’m made to be a prophet as a writer?

    You’ve left me a lot to think on here. Am I whispering my words in fear or calling them out to be heard?

  6. Tim says:

    Your piece here really resonates with me, Halee. I tried to give up big words a few times when younger too, and for pretty much the same reason. It never stuck. Now I not only use big and small words, I make up words as the need arises. People seem to understand me well enough.

    In writing, there are always those who try to silence voices they don’t understand. Perhaps they confuse an inability to understand with the presence of a disagreement. (“I don’t get what you’re saying, so you must not think the same things I do.”) On the other hand, there are a lot of people like Rachel out there who like it. The older I get, the more I listen to the Rachels.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  7. i am actually crying. those words i want to believe were written for me to read this exact day. i am in the fear and need to dig my feet into the faith. thank you sweet bud.

  8. I’m so inspired by your words! What encouragement when I hear you saying not give up or stop writing, and to be bold and step out on a limb now and then, and to keep on keeping on. Thank you for making the words of Jesus come home to me from your thoughts. I’ve cherished my calling to write for many years, but have not been inspired to share because I needed to face my own fears. I think the sharing and the telling are the most important part though, and now I see from what you’ve said so clearly that it is a wasteful and selfish thing not to share. I will not be afraid anymore! Thank you.

  9. I am very heartened by your words. As someone who has primarily communicated either without words (photography) or with words but live, I am just beginning to understand how much courage writing requires. There’s a permanence in writing that seems to demand a greater accountability and therefore more clarity and resolve. Thank you.

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