They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
A few years ago I read the Gospel of Mark with some friends. We moved slowly and carefully through the text, often spending a whole evening on just a few lines. One passage that struck me was the ‘feeding of the 5000’. In that story Mark describes the miracle of the fishes and loaves in which Jesus turns a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish into food for 5,000. At the end of the story Mark says, ‘They ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up the twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over’.
Those twelve basketfuls of leftover bread troubled me. I recall badgering my fellow readers about it. Why the excess? God knows the hairs numbered on your head, why not stop with food sufficient to feed the 5,000? Why create more than was needed? What would happen to those extra pieces of bread? Would they be eaten the next day or would they go to waste? What could this excess mean? Was it a symbol of luxury, a Gallilean potlatch?
My naive questions, generously accommodated by my friends, bellied a genuine concern about wasteful excess. But what I didn’t realise then was that the feeding of the multitudes isn’t a story about consumption. It is a story about what is given. It is a story about the abundance of a love sufficient to cover us all, a love that isn’t limited by number, a love available to any who might come.
‘Here, my brother, my sister, come and sit with us. We have food enough for you’.
I was reminded of the feeding of the multitudes again recently, while reading Annie Dillard.
‘One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes’ (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p78-79).
Here is another homily about the abundance of the gift. I like Dillard’s reflection on the writing process because it shows me what I couldn’t understand about the story of the fishes and the loaves. The gift isn’t economy. It doesn’t calculate impact or measure benefit or risk. It isn’t concerned with squander or thrift because it isn’t an investment. It doesn’t seek a return. It gives and that is all.
I also like this homily because it introduces the dimension of time. ‘Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book’, she says, ‘give it, give it all, give it all now’. The gift doesn’t hold back because the time of giving is now. The experience of gift is immediate. It has no future and no past. And this immediacy asks for faith.
When you give fully you leave yourself naked, with no grain left in your stores and no strategic investments to protect you. Laid bare, you must be carried by faith, faith that the next words will come. In the moment of their own choosing, when the time is right, the next words will come. But only if you are laid bare. ‘These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water’.
Thinking about the timeliness of the gift I am reminded of the contrary advice, often given to HDR students, to squirrel away significant passages that don’t fit well into their theses, to store up findings or questions that might be used for another paper. ‘Plan your current project’, the well-meaning givers of advice intone, ‘so that it can sustain the next project and the next. Make it last, so that it can be used to build a career’. Good advice, undoubtedly, but uncomprehending of how the creative process unfolds.
Research writing, like all serious writing I’m sure, is undertaken in two mindsets: process and product. The temporal horizon of the product is then, a future in which we arrive at our goal and finish the process. This is the realm of plans and maps and possibilities. The temporal horizon of process is now. The experience of now is concrete, definite. Decisions made are those demanded by the moment. They can’t be avoided or negotiated. They have the absolute certainty of law.
When I was writing my honours thesis I kept a second file, a document where I stored all the pretty passages that didn’t fit into my great work. There went the sophisticated sentences and poetic paragraphs that I admired, but had the good sense to leave out.
A student of mine once told me this file was called a ‘slug’. Many times I have advised HDR students to create their own slug file so they can make the excisions that need to be made.
Never once have a returned to my slug. Never once have I used an abandoned paragraph to start a new work.
The function of the slug is not to hold in reserve. It is to embolden and inspire. The slug offers you the courage to give yourself fully to the work.