My review — “7 Reasons To Read A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor” — of this amazing witness to the intersection between art and faith is available here.
“Pascal in The Rum Diary,” By Way of Beauty
“Literature: The Hope of Walker Percy,” by Fr. Damian Ference Word on Fire
“Midnight in Paris: A Parisian’s Review,” Becoming Madame
“The Writer’s Job,” by Tim Parks The New York Review of Books
“Be Brave,” Barbara Abercrombie Writing Time
“My Life’s Sentences,” by Jhumpa Lahiri NYTimes.com
“The Library as Incubator Project,” slideshow from Poets & Writers
Art and Faith, Authors, Books, Comics, Faith, Film, Free Comic Book Day, Heroes, Inspiration, Marvel comics, Reading, Shakespeare, Spiritual lessons, Stan Lee, Superheroes, The Avengers, Virtues, Writers, Writing
Yesterday two unrelated events unexpectedly converged and got me thinking….always a dangerous enterprise.
Event 1: It happened to be Free Comic Book Day, an event my 10-year-old son, Skippy, has been waiting for since LAST year. We went as a family to the local comic store, which we visit periodically throughout the year, and all received a free comic book — there were many to choose from and we all chose Marvel Super Heroes. Skippy was outfitted for the event in a new Avengers tee-shirt from Old Navy and afterwards was treated to the big surprise — a trip to see the new Avengers movie at the local cinema. We all had the BEST time and if this film isn’t the equivalent of Star Wars for this generation of kids, I don’t know what is.
Event 2: It also happened to be Cinco de Mayo, which we celebrated with a fiesta dinner with friends at their home. While there, I was introduced to and chatted with a woman who is also a high school English teacher, though at a private academy where students must test in and are exceptionally brilliant. Somehow during the conversation, my son’s tee-shirt was noticed and I mentioned the comics and The Avengers and … was met with a completely blank look. This woman affected to know nothing AT ALL and merely said to me, “What is that? Some kind of super…thing… or something…?”, persisting all the while in a horrifically blank stare. Now this woman seemed nice enough and I’d like to believe that this was not the insulting slight I was beginning to perceive it to be — that she knew all about the comics and the film, but that it was all beneath her notice and completely devoid of any intellectual value. How could you NOT know, assuming you do live here and not in a cave in the Antarctic? I mean, my husband and I haven’t had television for over 20 years now, and while we missed out on the whole Seinfeld, ER, and Friends crazes, we did know about them…..sooooo…what was really behind the woman’s feigned ignorance?
The fact that this woman might have been silently calling me on the carpet for allowing my son to stoop so low as to be exposed to things that couldn’t possibly have any redeeming value in her eyes got me thinking, and not for the first time, of the potent and powerful message the right super heroes can send to a young mind, and in fact, to all of us, if we’re open to listen. I was unable and unprepared to articulate any of this in my conversation last night, but next time, I’ll be better prepared with an adequate defense for why I allow my son to read comics and watch his favorite characters coming to life on the big screen or in various animated series. (Note: This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. However, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied).
2. Weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because it teaches humility;
3. Temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle, even for the best of men;
4. Compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;
5. There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, oppression and brutality, and saving one’s friends and loved ones. Super heroes revive the nobility of martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;
6. That each individual is possessed of unique gifts, some of which don’t always count for much in the eyes of society or those in power, but with which the individual is particularly charged — as a debt of honor — with perfecting and using for the greater good;
7. Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences — it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done through their pride and self-serving ambition;
8. About evil in its many guises, another reality and truth which a world without faith is apt to forget exists. Shakespeare reminds us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth — he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero, where evil is often masterfully disguised and played out under subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;
9. Evil within is ultimately manifested without — one becomes what one is on the inside.
10. That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that is achieved.
The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a spiritual one. Yes, you read that right — a spiritual lesson. Cap’s line in the new movie when he’s told the bad guy is a “god’ is confident and quite clear: “There’s only one God, m’am, and I’m certain He doesn’t dress like that.” If you know anything about Steve Rogers/Captain America, you’ll know this statement is quite in keeping with his character and it points to a larger truth in the genre, (perhaps especially with the Marvel characters, whom we are partial to in this house) and that is that while not every super hero believes in God or even has any direct faith at all, every super hero believes in something higher than himself, a higher power, a greater good which points towards truth. In general, they operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth — and this truth is not relative. Watching them wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility” — and Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.”
I rest my case…..
But come to think of it, the Avengers and the X-Men and the Green Lantern Corps don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories — both in words and actions — speak for themselves.
Sir Anthony Hopkins recently spoke at an impromptu gathering of students at Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, California. While his talk emphasized the dramatic arts, Hopkins gifts in poetry, painting, and musical composition also come to bear here. Thus, there is much to be gleaned for artists of all types, including writers. The talk is about one hour in length, and while hyper-speed hackles may bristle at the investment of time, I’ve come up with 10 great reasons why making the investment will ensure great returns for your own creative practice.
1. He does Hamlet‘s “To sleep, perchance to dream” speech off the cuff, beautifully…
2. He wisely and humbly speaks about the necessity of living in the present moment.
3. He is an inspiring model of the consummate artist — something all of us should strive to be, regardless of the type of craft we practice.
4. He reminds us not to look at the end product so much as at deeply experiencing the process of creation.
5. He emphasizes that the artist PRACTICES constantly until he is so comfortable with his medium that he can “relax” in his craft — this does not mean the artist becomes lazy, but rather that the artist becomes open and free of obstacles.
6. He understands the artist must often work in spite of and not because of his “feelings” about the piece.
7. He has a deep understanding of the spirituality of art, especially of Shakespeare, which grows and deepens through age and experience.
8. He intuits the deep level of education and formation the immersion in one’s craft can bring about in an individual.
9. He reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously, while still respecting the intensity of the work and joy in practicing one’s craft.
10. It’s Anthony Hopkins. . . why WOULDN’T you want to listen?
Daniel McInerney recently sent me a link to his thought-provoking piece considering the role and aim of the Catholic writer on his High Concepts blog. It’s a subject to which I continue to give a great deal of thought and have written about here. This topic is also one around which Persephone Writes was conceived and is one of its reasons for being.
Because of this (and because Blogger refused my repeated attempts to post a comment to Daniel’s site), I have decided to provide links to Daniel’s article here, along with my intended comment, in an effort to open up the basis for discussion on this very important issue in Catholic arts and letters today. Please do visit Daniel’s site and read both his article, and this piece by Emily Stimpson which he references, in their entirety.
“I agree with your point about the dearth of great Catholic literature having much to do with the ways in which Catholic writers today approach their craft and you are right in saying we need to choose mentors to whom we can apprentice ourselves in the learning and mastery of our craft — this is essential. Devotion to and growth in the practice of one’s craft is of absolute necessity. The great Catholic writer is simply a great writer. The greatest works of fiction are great because they deal with the truth of the human condition, because the writers of great literary works practice their craft to the greatest depth and breadth possible. The greatest Catholic writers do not need to rely on pious subject matter or overt references to their Catholic faith. They rely instead on something much deeper — this devotion to the perfection of the craft of which you speak, and the assurance that their faith gives them a clear perspective from which to work. It is in this way we can see Sophocles, Keats, Chekov, and George Eliot stand in community with Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, O’ Connor, and Tolkien. Faith does not separate them; devotion to the craft and their common search for truth bring them together.
Great writers write from a world view that looks at the whole of human experience, both the good and the bad. The Catholic writer cannot shy away from difficult topics, characters, or issues. To do so would be to ignore the very great impact these things have on real human beings every day. But the Catholic writer who truly tries to live her Catholic faith and who tries to view the entire world, events, human experience, and history through the lens of that faith, will see God moving and working in every event, will see light and beauty amidst the darkness. This vision and world view will imbue the work, regardless of the difficulty of the topic at hand.
To walk through this interplay between light and darkness and to examine it in truth is a huge responsibility. But it is arguably the responsibility of the Catholic writer in all cases, because the Catholic writer is possessed of a faith which is the fulness of truth. Thus, the problem confronting the Catholic writer is certainly one which reaches beyond craft, to deal with issues of faith and world view and how to articulate these without alienating modern sympathies. To be successful in this endeavor, the Catholic author today must be fearless, as Flannery O’Connor was, in venturing into the darkness to name and expose it. But she did not do this unarmed. And to your point, Daniel, we need to make a commitment to be devoted to our faith first, live and breathe our faith first, educate ourselves and make ever stronger attempts to practice our faith first, before we can even begin to realize what it is to be fully devoted to the practice of our craft. O’Connor and other great writers in the Catholic literary tradition serve, then, as both mentors to the craft and the lived practice of the faith, without which we cannot practice our craft to the fullest extent intended. It is the project of a lifetime and the two — devotion to the lived practice of the faith and devotion to the right practice of the craft — must walk hand-in-hand.
I have no answers, but I believe conscientious purposeful dialogue on this topic is absolutely essential to any revitalization of the Catholic arts. Quite simply, there is no excuse for dropping the baton handed off to us by the generations of mentors who have gone before. There is a sense in which we have betrayed and abandoned our tradition and our history. For my own part, revitalizing change has to begin with me: I must make a daily commitment to grow in my devotion to my faith and my craft and to bind myself ever more closely to those great artists who have gone before, both Catholic and secular, who will teach me to best use the gift with which I have been blessed. And secondly, I have a duty to participate in the conversation and be an active member of the community of which I am a part. It is not a coincidence, nor is it insignificant, that this is an issue now, today, at this point in time. It is a clarion call to action. What are we as humans without great art? We need to ask ourselves what we are going to leave behind us for the generations to come, and what message those works are going to send.
Thank you so much, Daniel, for this post, for raising awareness, and providing an impetus to deeper thought and discussion.”
* Alexandre Dumas got himself in the mood to write with an early morning stroll through the streets of Paris, munching an apple for breakfast.
* George Sand channeled the energy from her escapades d’ amour directly into her writing.
* Victor Hugo wrote in the buff, instructing his valet to hide his clothes in order that he would be unable to leave his work.
* C.S. Lewis scheduled every moment of his day down to the hour/minute — even beer breaks — to maximize his writing time.
* Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up for a few hours every morning.
While my own daily ritual is assuredly less colorful than these others, it is no less effective in enabling me to achieve an openness within which to encounter my work.
An obnoxious alarm does a pretty decent job of dragging me out of bed at 5 a.m. on most mornings. After a valiant effort at my morning meditation, its a solitary coffee and breakfast (Must. Have. Coffee.), during which I spend about 30 minutes reading — this interlude is essential to promote blood flow to my still somnambulent brain. With the house still and silent, caffeinated alertness gradually infuses my being, and at the end of that half hour, I am ready to pay a visit to my novel.
The room where I write is dark. I light a fragrant candle, bless myself, and say a prayer for guidance in my work. The candle and prayer are essential reminders that I am beholden for the gift of my art and that, if what I make is truly art, it will bear light within it.
Then poetry, which at the moment happens to come from The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I read somewhere that a writer should read poem a day to keep one’s use of langauge supple and facile and I think this is wise advice. Prefacing my writing time in the company of a brilliant word-artist is the mental equivalent to stretching before lifting weights. Words used with precision fire strong images and sensations in my mind, speeding access to the as yet undiscovered store of words, ideas, and pictures waiting to be chosen to bring the world I am creating to life.
Then I simply write as much as I can for 15 or 20 minutes. At the end of my allotted writing time, I save what I’ve written, say a prayer in thanksgiving for the work I’ve been able to do, blow out the candle, and walk back to the world outside my imagination to begin my day as mom-teacher-wife and all that entails.
Far from feeling routine, these simple daily habits leading up to and through my writing time immediately prepare my mind, limber up my imagination, and open me emotionally and spiritually to encounter the strange mystery of the creative process. They enable me to persevere in finding my way through the fictional world and characters I am creating. I imagine many creative people, or others whose vocation demands a great deal of focused concentration, can understand what a ritual accomplishes. I’d suppose as well that there are others who may read what I or other writers do and think we’re a bit off. Understandably so, especially if one is contemplating Hugo writing in the nude……..hmmmmm…….
But is it important for a writer to have some ritual attached to the practice of her craft? Not necessarily. Many writers don’t have any particular routine or ritual attached to their writing time and are very successful. Still, it seems the majority of writers do practice some routine behaviors to get them in the mood to write. The only thing these rituals have in common is that they are unique to each writer and they enable that writer to slip immediately into the right mode in which to work, sort of like putting on formal attire might allow one to slip immediately into well-mannered behaviors and sophisticated conversation.
In her book Pen On Fire, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett says that “rituals help us to change modes.” She compares a writer’s ritual and what it accomplishes to her actions upon entering a Catholic Church when she immediately dips her finger into the holy water font and blesses herself. This simple act “helps me transition to a more spiritual place,” writes DeMarco-Barrett. “For writers, rituals counteract inertia and trigger the desire to write.”
The word ritual may seem a bit formal, even religious sounding. Ritual implies the act it signifies as being special and important, worthy of ceremony. We have ritual ceremonies for all of the special and important events in our communal lives as humans: We have rituals surrounding the swearing-in of witnesses, judges, and heads of state; rituals surrounding childbirth and death, commencements and weddings, birthdays and gala benefits. Rituals signify that the event we are participating in is something worthy of notice and that by our participation in the event we are in some sense “becoming” something other than what we are or were before. Rituals signify movement from one state of being to another.
The practice of creating art can and should be elevated to an act worthy of ritual, even if that means the ritual is carried out by the artist alone, unbeknownst to others. The mere fact that an artist has a ritual implies and signifies an awareness of the importance of the creative act and the need to be very clearly present to the mystery inherent in that act, as well as to the mysterious transformation of self within the act.
In her diary, Virginia Woolf touches on this in a subtle, numinous way. She writes: “It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced in the raw. One must get out of life . . . one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain. . . [W]hen I write I’m merely a sensibility.” (Tuesday, August 22nd, 1922) The necessity of the practice of the present moment…rituals can accomplish this: enabling the writer to be focused on the task at hand, with all its attendant requirements, open to the unfolding mystery of creation.
If I believe art is a sacred act, my writing ritual is capable of “transitioning me to [that] more spiritual place” which Ms. DeMarco-Barrett refers to, and in some way opens me to receive inspiration. My writing ritual allows me to escape mental chaos and distraction by placing me in the now, attentive only what flows from some unknown place in my imagination to become the words on the page. It is an experience of seamless, quiet focus. It is the beginning of the practice of the presence of God. My ritual leads me to create from a place of prayer. Writing, and all art, can be a prayer when carried out with an eye towards being in the present moment. Writing rituals and the act of creativity itself are then elevated to something sacred and the ritual signifies the importance of the act.
Certainly, when we examine the rituals of writers and artists on the surface, we may only see idiosyncracies and eccentricities. It may all sound a bit freakish or boring if only taken at face value. But regardless of the oddity or banality of the ritual, the object — the thing signified — is the same: to open the artist to move out of the self and act as a conduit to the act of creation. Odd as we artists may be, it’s company I’m honored to keep.
Do you have a ritual surrounding the practice of your art?
* Writer/poet Kathryn Martins has a beautiful take on the meaning of rituals for writers here.
I’ve been told that it is best to be very specific when making New Year’s resolutions. And typically, I DON’T make them. However, I want 2012 to be spectacular regarding my writing! So I’ve come up with 5 specific goals to help me grow this year.
As of today, I will for sure be juggling 5 different writing projects: my novel, two blogs, an investigative article, and a collaborative writing/art project with two artist-friends. In order to keep myself from going mad, I have had to spend some time really thinking about how to stay organized and how to manage the wee bit of time I have. My novel is my number one priority, but that leaves me with four other babies to tend. I have decided to allocate a week out of the month for each project. To keep focused, I bought a small whimsical desk calendar, which I’ll be hanging on the wall, and color-coded my projects. My novel will get a minimum of 15 minutes a day, every day. The other projects will be tended to on a rotating basis throughout the month, starting this week with my other blog (one tiny violet), followed by my collaboration project, this blog, and ending up with my article.
In order to make sure I keep my commitment to working on my novel daily, I am going to try to write in the morning, early, after my meditation. I have heard this works for other writers and figured I should give it a try. It is the only guaranteed time I have any given day. I might as well make use of it. As a test, I have done this the last three mornings and it’s been good. As far as the other four projects, I will do as much as I can with the time I have. But I am guessing time on task will vary depending on how chaotic the week is.
Finally, to keep myself semi-sane, I have a small Moleskin notebook for each project. When ideas come to me for blog posts, the article, or the collaboration, I have a place ready and waiting to receive them. It is absolutely exhausting to carry inspirations around with you, with no place to put them. I’m hoping the notebooks will free up a bit more space in my brain to attend to tasks at hand.
“In the beginning was the Word,/ and the Word was with God,/ and the Word was God./ He was in the beginning with God./ All things came to be through him,/ and without him nothing came to be.” — John 1:1-3 I need to reflect on the great gift and power of the written word and the meaning of my vocation as a writer. I need to be more deeply mindful of the source of my gift and practice the presence of God before, during, and after my writing time. Whatever I write will be allowed to come in to being through Christ. Without Him, I am nothing and will make nothing, and especially nothing of beauty and grace. Writing in the morning after I have first made my meditation will help in this I think. And I have a new library candle on my desk to be lit only during my writing time to keep me mindful.
Monday, January 2, 2012 will officially begin the second year of my wonderfully symbiotic writing relationship with my beloved sister-in-ink, Veronica (the writer formerly known as “M. Bailey”). Last year at exactly this time, we had our first “writing group meeting.” It matters not a bit that we are only two. What matters is how our writing has grown by leaps and bounds since we have been working together.
We met bi-weekly for all of 2011 and, on critical examination, we both agree that this was our most productive year ever as writers. We supported one another through paralyzing dark times, rejection, new ideas, tough character dilemmas and plot difficulties. We started or revived our blogs and just worked together to start to explore and craft lives as writers. In the past, both of us have variously buried our gifts and talents. In 2011, we made a promise to uncover them and let the sun shine on those buried parts of our selves and see what would happen. The result has been glorious! I can honestly say that were it not for Veronica’s support, encouragement, and insight I never would have had the courage to finally start my novel, nor would I have experimented AT ALL with blogging. She is truly heaven-sent and is such an inspiration to me.
Beginning this coming Monday, we will commit again to another year of sistering one another along on our inky adventures. Who knows where we will end up?
One of the books I read this year was Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. She had the marvelous idea of sending those artists and writers, editors and publishers — anyone really who has been an inspiration to you or whose life/work you are grateful for. I thought this was a beautiful idea. It seems that so often, we do not recognize those whose work has really had an impact on us. And, as an artist myself, I know it means the world to know that my work touched someone in some way. As artists, we cannot work in a vacuum; though so much of our work happens in isolation, it is meant to be shared, as a gift, with others. And when we are given a beautiful gift, the polite thing to do is to say “thank you.” So I made it a point to visit my favorite paper store to pick up some characteristically purple-accented envelopes and flat cream cards. Ms. See suggests writing one charming note every day. I don’t think I can do that. But I can write a few a month to writers and other artists whose work I admire to tell them “thank you” for the gift of their art.
As a teacher, I have always taken it as a serious professional responsibility to keep current on what is going on in my profession. In other words, I make it a point to do my professional reading with some regularity. Other professionals do the same. As a writer, I also need to maintain a professional outlook on developing my skills so that I can become the best writer I can be. This means reading great literature, apprenticed to the masters in my field. But it also means reading books and magazines about the art and craft of writing and then practicing and refining my own technique in light of what I have read. And it isn’t just for me — I have to develop myself professionally because I am a teacher of writing and literature. Deepening my skill set and literary awareness will benefit me and my students.
In order to maximize my time, for the first time this year I made a detailed reading list of both literary and professional titles which you can find here. And I’ve taken subscriptions to both The Writer and Poets and Writers.
Do you have any goals or resolutions for your writing in 2012? I’d love to hear them. Please share!
Cheers! And Happy New Year!
“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” — John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Today is the Feast of All Saints. And yesterday was the birthday of John Keats. As random as it may sound, I see an important connection between these two events. But what could this Romantic poet, who lost his Christian faith, and the saints have in common? Simply, they all sought the same thing: Truth by way of Beauty. That they found this truth in different places does not make the message of one or the other less relevant, nor does it make their work any less beautiful. Both — the saints and the literary tradition within which Keats worked — offer the apprentice writer models and mentors to learn from.
Thinking of the great literary tradition of poets and writers who have inspired me, Keats represents all that is beautiful in the literature I have read and learned from. George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, A.S. Byatt, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Paul Bowles, Jane Austen, Henry James, Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Virginia Woolf have been some of my best teachers and have become some of my dearest friends. While none of these writers necessarily wrote from the perspective of faith (and some were entirely without faith), their work still aspires to the creation of beauty and the examination of man’s search for truth. As such, they are apt mentors in guiding the imagination to its appropriate end.
Recently, I have also discovered the vast heritage of the Catholic literary tradition. I am happy to be able to add Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Michael O’Brien, Evelyn de Wohl, Tolkien, Lewis and others to my list of mentors and friends. As a “new” writer of fiction, I find it helpful to stand behind these writers and artists skilled in the gift of conveying beauty and truth through language, watching how they think and move and weave their way towards something ineffable which they feel compelled to try to put into words.
The saints form another circle of witnesses in the great tradition of writing as a means of exploring and communicating Beauty and Truth. St. Therese of Lisieux was a poet and a playwright; St. John of the Cross was a poet and artist; St. Maximilian Kolbe was a writer, editor, and publisher; St. Edith Stein, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales — the list goes on and on — all were writers, poets, artists, and scholars using the gift of language to convey the truth about man’s experience of grace and his search for God.
In his book Journey With Therese of Lisieux: Celebrating the Artist in Us All, Michael O’Neill McGrath imagines a writer’s seminar, with St. Therese apprenticed to two of her favorite saints and mentors: John the Evangelist and St. John of the Cross. He asserts the importance of approaching learning about the craft of one’s art through a mentor/apprentice relationship: “Saints lead us to other saints, just as writers and artists lead us to their own models and mentors. If we want to fully understand what makes a favorite artist tick, we need to explore his or her loves and inspirations. Copying the work of the masters is a time-honored method of learning to draw and paint. We learn from those who went before us, using what we need in the development of our own personality and style.”
As I ponder what it means for me to embark on this new phase of my writing life, I find that idea of apprenticeship is the only one that makes sense. It isn’t that I will seek to write like someone else — ultimately, I must rediscover my own identity as a writer. But I can and should learn from those who have gone before me. As masters of the craft, they teach me HOW to go. Like a child who learns everything she needs from the adults charged with her care, so I see myself learning from the great writers, both the religious and lay people, who have gone before me.
Doubts still often plague me. I wonder what I am doing and why, not to mention how I am going to manage it. I have more than once asked God to take away from me the ideas and characters and scenes that people my imagination if He doesn’t want me to do something with them. Alternatively, I beg Him to guide me and show me the way if, in fact, I am meant to pursue these figments of my imagination and somehow make them real.
When I am tempted to think that writing anything is useless, or a waste of time, or selfish, I am reminded of that indeed my very faith and all Truth and Beauty comes to me by way of the Word, both through the hearing and reading of Scripture. Truth and Beauty are conveyed through history, poetry, song, story, and parable. In his book, Tolkien and Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, Colin Duriez writes that J. R. R. Tolkien thought deeply about God’s gift of imagination as expressed through language. Tolkien believed that “through the Gospels ‘art has been verified.'” Tolkien thought that “human storytelling — whether preceding or subsequent to the Gospel events — is joyfully alive with God’s presence,” leading him to argue “that the very historical events of the Gospel narratives are shaped by God, the master storymaker, having a structure of the sudden turn from catastrophe to the most satisfying of all happy endings — a structure shared with the best human stories. The Gospels, in their divine source, thus penetrate the seamless ‘web’ of human storytelling, clarifying and perfecting the insights that God in his grace has allowed to the human imagination.” Ultimately, Tolkien argued for a theology of story or a theology of langauge. I have to believe that God can and does bless the human use of language to convey truth through story. But I also believe that the intent of the writer must reflect the belief that the aim of art is to raise one’s mind, heart, and soul to God, to the search for the Author of Truth and Beauty.
This does not mean, however, that the Catholic writer does not explore difficult or even disturbing topics in an effort to demonstrate the truths of forgiveness, conversion, and grace. Indeed, we are obligated to examine and explore the truths of our existence, our sinfulness, our exile, our search for God in all its facets. But it’s HOW we go about this that matters. The Catholic writer is bound to portray the truth of the things she writes about such that evil, for example, is always evil and may not be presented as a vehicle for humor or as acceptable in any form. Not all writers who claim to be Catholic write with this in mind. There may be various reasons for this. But not thinking it through seems to me dangerous. It seems there is a prevailing, and steadily growing, force among artists in our culture that thinks it acceptable to frolic and play on the edges of the abyss and that no harm will come to them or others from their forays into darkness. Catholics are not immune to this. Being a Catholic writer in the tradition, I think, means confronting the tendency to bend to and participate in this prevailing force. I can only speak from my own personal experience: I believe quite strongly that there are some subjects not fit to write about, which cannot be viewed as viable through the lens of faith, and which in no way raise the heart, mind, and soul. One needs to choose one’s path of tradition and mentors carefully, because much is at stake.
In the past, I never imagined myself as part of a group of other writers. Now it seems to me essential that I align myself with this group, for it is the only way I know of to stay the course and remain true to my gift. For a long time, I abused my gift and did not write anything that would raise one’s heart and mind to God. I did not write anything that could have been considered a work of beauty and grace. I wrote things that could, and perhaps still do, harm others. I have to take responsibility for not only what I wrote in the past, but for what I write in the future. As Keats writes about the function of the Grecian urn: “When old age shall this generation waste, thou shalt remain.” The truth is our work lives on long after we are gone. It is the responsibility of the artist to ensure that the work be “a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'” I am responsible to account for the fruits, good and bad, that come from my labors. I owe it to God who gave me my gift, to myself, to the others who practice the craft, and to those who may encounter the work I do, to choose wisely and walk the paths of truth, beauty, and light. Ultimately, it seems to me now, that this is the only goal.
And even if no other earthly person reads or cares about a thing I’ve written, I know that God will see it — indeed, He sees it now, in my mind, before I ever commit it to paper. Will He be pleased with what He sees? I have to make an effort to acknowledge and appropriately use His gift to me, rather than betray that gift. It’s what He thinks that matters. If I write anything at all, whether it is published or not, I have to be able to see myself apprenticed to and participating in the tradition of creating beauty through art, learning from and being supported by that great cloud of witnesses.
This post is dedicated to Rose, M., and Christina, fellow pilgrims and apprentices on the Way of Beauty.
M. Owen Bailey and I have pulled a total Thelma and Louise.
We signed up for NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month). Billed as “thirty days and nights of literary abandon,” the goal of NaNo is to write a novel from beginning to end between November 1 and November 31.
Crazy, you say?
Why yes, I respond. Insanely so. Be that as it may, M. and I have signed up and are in for the long haul.
I honestly don’t believe that I can put down 500,000 words in 30 days, not with all I’ve got going on. And while I admire the committment and tenacity of those who are in competition to pull this off, I am not so interested in the competitve part as I am in using this as an opportunity to practice finding and using chunks of time to write each day.
I do believe I can do SOMETHING this month. I do believe I can write for some TIME each day, maybe a PAGE each day, maybe even a SENTENCE each day, to further my goal of getting a draft of my novel done. I’d say I’m relatively safe from delusions of grandeur at this point. A snail’s pace is good enough for me. God uses everything, nothing is wasted, and the fact that I am proceeding at a snail’s pace is just another moment of grace. My friend Rose, who is an artist, talks with me about taking “baby steps” towards finishing our work. My time does not belong to me. The reality is that God is permitting me to use His time, and whether He allows me a little or a lot, it is the right amount. I have to make the best use of the time I am given, and not worry about the amount.
There was a time when the thought of doing anything like this would have made me sick to my stomach with nerves. I’m happy to be able to say I’m partcipating in NaNoWriMo at all. Now, I’m just along for the ride, taking the plunge, ready to see where it takes me.
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