Writing with humility

Just a few thoughts for the busy undergrad

Hemingway’s words loom over me as I look up from my desk to the quote on the wall: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Seemingly simple words, Hemingway. Yet, when the time comes to compose an essay I hit a wall. I’ve recently been wondering about the process of writing: what makes one a good writer and how should we approach the art as overwhelmed undergrads? What impact can one true sentence even have? I was puzzling over this when I heard a priest at mass give a homily about writing with humility. An amazing idea that often gets pushed to the back burner when the essay is due the next day. But I want to return to this idea and assert that writing with humility does transform the experience of writing for the student.

Fall break approaches, and many of us are trying desperately to remain on top of our work, all the while sipping nervously from chai tea lattes that remind us it is indeed autumn. The season brings fear of the winter for some and melancholy thoughts of change for others. Essays and exams also come with the season. But if we can just lift our heads from the piles of work for one second and think about the act of writing—well, the task might become less daunting.

When we write (as I am now), we are putting our thoughts to words and forming, hopefully, coherent grammatical structures that convey some meaning. But, to return to Hemingway’s words, what does it mean for us to write a true sentence? For most students, the common method when writing is to sound as smart as possible and cover up the fact that you wrote it the night before on a few hours sleep with flowery language and big words. Footnotes that add length to the paper are a bonus and if you can tweak the margins to reach the page limit that’s even better. Whether you are guilty of this or not, the act of writing to impress and hide behind the words becomes deceitful in a way. Or more simply, a waste of time—for the reader and the author.

Writing (an essay or anything else) presents a unique opportunity to explore ideas and attempt to piece those thoughts together with words. Style does matter, because how we present those ideas changes the way others read the work and determines if they’ll continue reading. Yet, when the busy student has a load of papers and exams, “writing with humility” may be the last thing to cross their minds.

My dad teaches his high school seniors the novel Old School by Tobias Wolff every year as a way to remind them of the power of writing. The novel takes place in 1960’s prep school for boys in the Northeast and follows the main character’s attempts to win the creative writing contest put on by the school. The one who wins has the opportunity to meet the famous author that visits campus. At one point in the novel, Robert Frost visits and has an exchange with one of the teachers about form. Frost replies to the teacher’s push-back against form in this way:

“I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.”

Frost’s response captures an essential point: writing well, with form, has the ability to convey so much more than that those jumbled thoughts and emotions one has before the process. Although speaking explicitly about poetry here, Frost reminds us that writing allows us to make sense of our thoughts in a unique way. The entire novel explores the notion of writing humbly as the main character takes dishonorable measures to secure his win for the contest—at the cost of sacrificing his credibility as a student and writer.

When I consider the huge breadth of scholarship on what seems to be every topic under the sun, and the pressure to be original in my writing (especially with the weight of my senior thesis), the process of even beginning to write intimidates me. If, however, we try to write as best we can—fully aware of our limitations—then, to return to Hemingway, our words work not to cover up but to reveal some deeper truth we are seeking.  

Sarah Ortiz is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and classics. If you’re intrigued by the book Old School and want to talk about it some more, contact her at sortiz2@nd.edu.

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