Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Enrich the Well From Which You Draw Your Inspiration

Last week I began a discussion around the idea that if we want people to read and follow our work, it has to be interesting.

I don’t mean interesting in the sense of cool, hip, or flashy. I mean intriguing and meaningful in a human sort of way.

It concerns me that so many writers are hustling and scrambling to get attention, but they’re only regurgitating what’s already being said.

I don’t mean that in a condescending or confrontational way.

I mean it in the sincerest possible sense. Ever since the “democratization of publication,” as I refer to it, blogs and self-published material have abounded exponentially.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing in that everyone can have a shot at sending their thoughts out to the world through the medium of written word. It’s a bad thing in that whenever anything gets democratized, it gets cheaper.

Think about tract homes and hamburgers.

Yes, it’s good that a lot more people can afford a house today, but it’s bad in that beauty has been compromised to achieve this end. It’s great that you can find Coca-cola and McDonald’s in nearly every country in the world. It’s terrible that these pass as healthy food and beverage to achieve this.

It’s possible you completely disagree with me about this point. That’s okay.

But can we agree that there is a sense in which those of us calling ourselves writers may not be living up to the best expression of our vocation by doing really interesting work?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not for reinstalling the gate-keepers and adding more regulations to the publishing industry or any nonsense like that, but I am for raising the bar in the interest of elevating the standards for the work being published.

Just like in politics, societies who can self-govern get to enjoy their God-given freedoms. Societies who can’t get a dinner invitation from Madame Guillotine, or else a jack-boot to the head.

So in the interest of raising the bar and adding value to our vocation, as I mentioned previously, last week I offered three tips on how to write interesting work about ordinary topics—the kind of work other people will want to engage with.

These were:

  1. Become a more interesting person, and your writing will become more interesting, organically.
  2. Build authentic relationships with people who share your interests and you will naturally cultivate a community of like-minded people who want you to share your work with them.
  3. Finally, treat your writing projects like you are actually interested in them. Readers are more apt to respect your voice and take you seriously if you give your writing the dignity it deserves and treat it like the profession that it is. Interested writers are interesting to read.

In this post, I want to address the first point.

Successful writers know that if they hope to persuade on a given topic, win a reader’s attention or admiration, or move a person to action, they must first hold their audience’s attention—from beginning to end.

As Horace famously said, a good poet both enlightens and delights.

Said another way, an enlightened audience will only be so if it is also a delighted audience. (Uninteresting writers and boring speakers create uninterested and unmotivated audiences.)

The way to do more interesting work is to become more interesting yourself. If writers become more interesting people, they will naturally do more interesting work. Once again, I’m defining interesting as something like intriguing and meaningful.

The simplest and most straight forward way of accomplishing this is cultivating something called copiousness.

Mark this down: to be interesting a writer, you must possess copiousness.

Derived from the Latin copia, copiousness literally means abundance. It refers to the stuff writing is made of. It is the material accumulated by the experiences of life, the fodder of failure, and the absorption of wisdom that makes the writer–and what he or she has to say–interesting and meaningful.

Copiousness is possessing a deep, refreshing pool of ideas, truths, and anecdotes from which to draw delightful, compelling arguments.

This is where the commonplace is helpful. A commonplace is a delightful maxim, a striking quote, or a morsel of knowledge that is often held in common by tribes and communities. In former times, writers made a habit of collecting these.

The term is derived from the Latin phrase locis communis, literally, common ground. One author captures this idea by defining a commonplace as “commonly-held worldview phrases circulated in every community.”

Examples of familiar commonplaces are expressions like “spare the rod and spoil the child,” or “Mind your p’s and q’s.”

The former is a maxim taken from the book of Proverbs (13:24), which is itself a kind of commonplace book compiled by Solomon, the ancient king of Israel. The latter is an English expression meaning to “mind one’s manners,” probably derived from the schoolhouse where children tended to mix up the p and the q, or from the pub where the patrons were reminded to watch their alcohol consumption, which came in pints and quarts.

Writers and rhetoricians have long collected delightful poems, important quotations, pithy proverbs, and striking phrases, and compiled them into a florilegium, or what is often referred to as a commonplace book. Collecting, studying, and reflecting on commonplaces is just one effective and practical means of cultivating copiousness. But it is not the only means.

As the author of the book, Fitting Words, aptly observes, “Developing copiousness starts with maintaining an excellent education, reading the best books, and talking with wise men and women. It continues by expanding your life experiences.”

So having copiousness is more than just possessing a huge pile of random facts and trivia one can reach into and toss out at a whim; rather, it is the idea of oneself being full—overflowing—with nuggets of truth and words of wisdom that are easily recognizable to one’s audience.

Filling oneself with “true thoughts and wise words” will not happen automatically. It must be done on purpose.

Being too occupied with amusements to read books, too prideful to ask questions, or too lazy to think through difficult problems and important issues impedes the development of copiousness. As one author satirically quipped, “If you listen to stupid music, watch stupid movies, and read stupid books… well, congratulations, you’re stupid. And, being stupid, you have failed in the pursuit of effective communication at the outset.”3

Like a garden that must be tilled, planted, watered, and weeded, copiousness is cultivated—a work that takes time and effort. It is developed through the purposed, pleasant discipline of reading many good books, making a point of thinking about what is read, and collecting the best thoughts and ideas on a variety of topics.

Here are a couple of resources you might find helpful in cultivating copiousness.

Author Louie L’Amor shared his advice for cultivating copiousness in a book called The Education of a Wandering Man, his memoir of reading books and traveling the world.

A more intentional approach would be to take a great books course like the one I offer each Fall.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me your secret. How are you enriching the well from which you draw your inspiration? Let me know in the comments.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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2 Replies

  1. Gilead Rose

    I love this.
    In Douglas Wilson’s book “Wordsmithy”, he wrote about the importance of abundant life experience, as well as being well read in order to be an effective writer.

    My current educational endeavors are in Koine Greek, New Testament studies, Homiletics, as well as various maths and sciences for the industrial machinery mechanic apprentice program I’m in. These keep me pretty busy, buy I look forward to returning to more writing and reading the great books when I finish the programs I’m in.

    I’m trying to manage my schedule a little better so as to allow at least a little time for those things in the present.

    1. Gilead,

      Yes. That’s a great little book. We’re actually going to be reading that one, along with one I read recently by Louis L’Amor the western writer. It’s called the Education of a Wandering Man. Another great read on the writing life. Thanks for the encouraging comment.

      Never give up on the dream of writing!