Writing Lessons from Charles Darwin

Sep 28, 2021

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” With these words thrice spoken just days after Simon Peter had spoken words of betrayal and denial, Jesus asks the question that would become the guiding line throughout the rest of Peter’s life and ministry. 

“Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter replies. 

“If you love me, feed my lambs,” Jesus tells him. 

Do you love me? It was a question that brought the wayward Peter back to the Way; a question that restored the denier back into a life of self-denial; a question that couldn’t simply be answered by Peter’s words, but by Peter’s life. 

Do you love me? It is also a question for writers, for those whose words form the shape of their lives, for those who wrestle daily with the tug and pull and tension of expressing in words what must be written; words that may betray the truth as easily as they may portray it; words that may wander from their purpose as easily as they may follow it; words that may do disservice to their audience as often as they serve it. 

Anyone who has tried to write has confronted the temptations and struggles that lead the writer astray or cause him to give up along the way—for writing is not only difficult, but it’s fraught with self-interest and fear and falsehood. In the midst of these challenges, love provides the golden thread that can guide the writer through the labyrinths and shadows of the writing life. 

 

* * *

As I reflect on how love chastens and hastens me as a writer, I am—oddly enough—drawn to the writings of Charles Darwin, a man who lost his first love as he pursued the love of lesser things, but a man who knew why love was so important to the writing process. While Darwin is remembered chiefly as a scientist, he was also a writer. As one reads his works, it becomes clear that he was a man who cared deeply about his words. Darwin devoted his life to writing. Often his writing is superior to his reasoning, and his personality and love for the natural world shine out through his syntax and description. This love of language is not merely reflected in his major works, but particularly in his personal letters, letters that reveal Darwin the writer, not merely Darwin the scientist. And as I read these letters, I find that Darwin the writer has much wisdom to offer me as a writer: a wisdom that finds its center in love. For as he wrote in a letter to Joseph Hooker, “what an utter desert is life without love.” 

People write for many reasons: the desire to be listened to, to share an idea or story or poem in the hope that it will serve someone, perhaps to make money or gain prestige. But if one wants to write as a way of life, if one wants something abiding to sustain him through the painful moments of self-doubt, despair, and aimlessness that comes with the writing life, then he will need love and a sense of deep pleasure at root. In his 1828 letter to his cousin William Fox, when he was only 19, Darwin expresses the life-breath that takes a pile of ideas and imagination and turns them into words: “I am dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects:—my only reason for writing, is to remove a heavy weight from my mind, so now you must understand [. . .] that I am writing merely for my own pleasure & not your’s” [sic]. 

Here we find that deep below the many noble and ignoble reasons we write is the simple love for our subject and the profound desire to release our thoughts from their cage. We must write because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to shake the heavy weight of truth banging on the walls of our mind. Of course, there will be many times when we don’t feel that love, when that aching desire to tell someone what we know has left us. But if we do not have that love as the foundation of our task, then we will not have the spirit to sustain us through the hard winters and great discontents that often plague the writing process. And if we do not have that love, then we may find that our other reasons for writing will lead us toward writing the wrong things or writing in a spirit that will leave us dry. Love is where we must begin, or we will wander astray or give up along the way. “What an utter desert is life without love.”

But lest we think this love will always be in the form of felt-pleasure for our subject, Darwin also reminds us that often we must be willing to hate the thing we love in order to share it with the world. After spending many years studying peacocks he tells fellow biologist Asa Gray, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” In another letter to his colleague Charles Lyell he writes, “I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders. I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell.” 

Darwin loved the natural world and loved his ideas about nature. He loved nature so much that he devoted his entire life to studying it and meticulously chronicling what he observed so that he could share it with his readers. But all that time and effort and frustration studying and thinking and writing led him to despise at times the very thing he loved. Of course, his true love still remained; it was a deeper, abiding love that made him willing to dislike what he loved so that others might know it and enjoy it. This is genuine love. It is one of the great sacrifices a writer must often make. So long as the ideas and subjects are in our heads, we can enjoy them whenever we want to bring them to our minds, and they will always remain an ideal, an exciting possibility, an inspiration. But the long process of researching and writing will lead to many days where the sight of the thing we love makes us sick, and what we actually put to words falls far short of our ideals. Yet the writer perseveres, willing to give up his pleasure of the thing he loves so that others might enjoy it afresh. And often, because love abides, that pleasure will return in due season. 

Of course, in order for people to read our writing, it needs to be published, or at least broadly disseminated. But publishing can be a siren call when it promises things it can’t deliver. Often writers are misguided about how publishing a book or article will make them feel, hoping it will give them a sense of validation and self-confidence. The writing process introduces many insecurities and often writers feel a sense of self-doubt. The hope for many writers is that being published and well-respected will cure that insecurity. But often the feelings of self-doubt and fear remain after publishing; and they may not even be aware of how good their works truly are. In a letter to Charles Lyell just one day before The Origin of Species was published and after having written a dozen other books, Darwin wrote, “[O]ften a cold shudder has run through me & I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy.” 

He did not know he was about to publish one of the most historically significant books ever written, much less did he feel confident about his work even though he had already published many other books. He had come face-to-face with the possibility that he had devoted his entire life to something trivial. And yet he risked his own reputation and he embraced his own self-doubt because he loved. Darwin reminds us that we write because we love our subject and we publish because we love our reader. There are a lot of easier ways to love ourselves. And this is at the heart of it, isn’t it? Self-love may be the kindling that can lead us to write, but unless we have a deeper and more abiding love, we will go astray or give up along the way. “What an utter desert is life without love.” 

 

* * *

Darwin was a man led by love, and yet—paradoxically—he had lost his first love, the love that would have abided when all other loves were lost. And this leads us back to Christ’s word to Peter and to all of us. Do you love me? I do not know if Darwin ever felt peace with himself or peace with his writing. I do not know if that love and pleasure ever returned to the heights of his childhood. But we are given an even higher love to follow, a love that moves beyond the lesser loves of the writing life, one that remains within us and gives us all we need to feed others with the fruit of our words. It is a love of the Word Himself, the Word who is love. For what an utter desert are our words without Love. 



 

Nathan Johnson

Nathan Johnson

Nathan Carter Johnson is the Head of Program and Professor of Moral Philosophy and Trivium at New College Franklin. He previously taught Literature, History, and Writing at Greyfriars Classical Academy in Charlotte, NC

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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