Tag Archives: writers

Love Your Work

If we love our work, we will treat it with profound respect.

Flannery O’Connor was one of the great originals. She could be honest, profound and outrageous all at once. So I value her opinion more than most people’s.

In Mystery and Manners, a book of her essays, she proposes, “If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

O’Connor explains, “If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

O’Connor contented that writers ought to push their talents to the outermost limit of the kind of talent they have.

Modern writers, she argues, “…are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself…. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

We need to love our work for its own sake, to take it to the outer limits of our current talent and ability, but not beyond.

And we need to disallow the temptation to use it as a vehicle for preaching or propagandizing except insofar as the stories themselves call us to.

“The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art,” O’Connor maintains. “He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

She would have us Christians realize that Christian stories are not necessarily about Christians and their concerns but are simply fiction “…in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”

Saint Augustine’s Agenda

I’m going way out on limb here.

On a road trip I listened to a Great Courses lecture on St. Augustine. A remarkable fellow. Brilliant and charismatic.

At one point Augustine founded a college. But before he could get it fully established, the church snatched him up with offers he apparently couldn’t refuse. Before long he was a Bishop. About this time a schism occurred. A group called the Donatists became a threat to the established Catholic Church. Then for years, Augustine’s philosophy and theology was guided by the agenda of overcoming the threat.

Here’s a link to one of his most famous sermons, from a series on the Book of John.

“If any of you should wish to act out of love, brothers, do not imagine it to be a self-abasing, passive and timid thing. And do not think that love can be preserved by a sort of gentleness – or rather tame listlessness. This is not how it is preserved. Do not imagine that you love your servant when you refrain from beating him, or that you love your son when you do not discipline him, or that you love your neighbor when you do not rebuke him. This is not love, it is feebleness. Love should be fervent to correct. Take delight in good behavior, but amend what is bad. Love the person, but not the error in the person: God made the person, but the person alone made the error. Love what God made, not what the person made. If you love one thing, you remove another. When you esteem one thing, you change another. But if you are severe, let it be out of love, for the sake of correction. This is why love was represented by the dove which descended upon the Lord. [Matt. 3:16] Why did the Holy Spirit, who pours love into us, take the form of a dove? The dove has no bitterness, yet she fights with beak and wings for her young; hers is a fierceness without bitterness. In the same way, when a father chastises his son he does so for discipline. As I said earlier, the kidnapper inveigles the child with bitter endearments, in order to sell him; a father, for the sake of correction, chastises without bitterness. “

These days we might call Augustine’s angle tough love. If people misbehave, discipline them, even if it means beating or otherwise punishing them into submission. So this perspective at one point resulted in Augustine’s convincing the Imperial authorities to imprison and otherwise persecute the Donatists.

Here’s another perspective on love, from St. Paul ‘s 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

I have to wonder if Augustine’s position on love arose out of the pure, loving heart Paul describes, or at least in part from a professional agenda.

Who but God knows the answer to that one? I certainly don’t. Still, I can imagine an alternate reality wherein Augustine used his intellectual and persuasive powers in favor of winning souls and amending behavior by other than martial means, and in which the church, so influenced by Augustine, didn’t have the power of his words to justify collusion with government, advocacy of crusades, or inquisitions.

Though I wouldn’t blame the Inquisition entirely on Augustine, I will argue that writers or preachers influenced by practical agendas, political, monetary, or whatever, can be dangerous. Even the best, most sincere humans are not entirely objective or reasonable. In fact, given a powerful enough motive, most and probably all of us can convince ourselves of almost anything, and if we’re skilled with words, we can write or speak persuasively about it.

Preachers are usually beholden to the agendas of their particular church or denomination.

So the world needs independent writers. Ones who are free to, in the words of Augustine, “Love and do what you will,” uninfluenced by any agenda except their own vision of truth.

As Augustine might’ve been if he had passed on the Bishop job and stuck with the college he founded.

Angels and Demons 1

A mysterious force prompted me to read a Frank Peretti novel. I found a deal on The Visitation. After reading that, feeling compelled to read another, I bought This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, both of which I had read long enough ago so the details of the story had escaped me.

For those who haven’t read Peretti or have forgotten, the novels’ main characters are demons who work undercover to accomplish Satan’s schemes; angels who stand guard over the humans who play parts in the great drama; and the saints without whose fervent prayers the angels might get massacred.

Aside from the demons, Peretti’s bad guys are mostly occultists, devotees of various religions and practices such as yoga and meditation, psychologists, public servants gone over to the dark side, and of course lawyers (generally enployed by a group based upon the ACLU).

Politics and cultural issues aside, the books make me crave to know what exactly are angels and demons. I mean, here in reality, are they beings or metaphor? Do they exist apart from us, or are they facets of us?

I’ve attended lots of churches but never yet gotten a straight answer, at least from the preachers.

Some friends and acquaintances have claimed to know all about angels and demons. I have witnessed and even participated efforts to exorcise evil spirits. About therapy, meditation, yoga and other such practices, I’ve heard, from Christians, all kinds of advice and arguments, pro and con.

But I can’t remember a church taking a firm stand on any of these issues that Peretti takes on.

No matter whether I believe his themes and characters are soundly based in reality or if I consider him a screwball, I admire him for stepping into an area of inquiry churches appear reluctant to enter.

Which leads me to believe more strongly than ever that the world needs writers who will, like Peretti, cut loose and share their opinions in story form, thereby nourishing the imaginations of us readers.

About Peretti in particular: I only hope he believes what he preaches. The Bible warns of serious consequences in store for liars, right?

I mean, as Dorothy Salisbury Davis wisely wrote, “Don’t sell your soul for peanuts to feed the monkeys.”

A Masterpiece

Long ago, in Chico, California, I was with students in a taco shop after a creative writing class I taught at the state university a few blocks away.

A student, a black-haired beauty incongruously named Mord, said, “Writing is so hard, I wonder if it’s worth our time to maybe spend our whole lives writing stories and maybe not make any money with them.

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

“I have this dream,” I said, “that if I write enough stories and work hard enough, one of them will be a masterpiece.”

“Okay, but how will you know it’s a masterpiece?”

“Maybe I won’t,” I said. “But somebody who reads it might tell me it moved them to have a better life, or to see the world more clearly.”

Later, in Tucson, Arizona, Jonathon Penner, a writer and professor, asked, “How do you think we can draw the distinction between art and commercial or hack writing?”

I thought a while and said, “Beats me.” But over the years I’ve discovered a better response.

Art, I’ll contend, isn’t the creation but the process of giving all our powers to make a creation as superb and honest as we can. The creation may become what we call great art, good art, poor art, or lousy art. But art it is, if the creator gave it his or her all.

And our powers aren’t only about innate talent or developed skill, I’m convinced. The power we have, the one that can make our efforts transcend our talent and skill and birth a masterpiece, is the power to get inspired.

From Writing and the Spirit

Isaiah’s Rules for Writers (1)

In State of the Union, I suggested that Isaiah, in chapter 61, while prophesying the ministry of Jesus, may have also offered career advice to us writers.

Suppose he did, and suppose a writer who decides to follow the prophet’s advice chooses to start with the assignment “proclaim the good news to the poor.” Now the writer may ask, “What exactly does this mean to me?”

Let’s say she’s writing a novel. In the context of a novel proclaim could mean present by example in the life of a character. The content of the good news she proclaims could effect a change for the better in the character’s actions, situation, or attitude. Since the good news as a whole is way too broad of a theme for a single novel, this writer will need to ask herself exactly what element of the good news she feels most passionate about. Maybe she deeply values freedom. Perhaps freedom from fear, or greed, or lust, or vanity.

Basic knowledge about her novel’s main character and the good news she means to present can give her what is commonly called a story arc.

The story arc in the film Tender Mercies: Mac is a country singer whose life has fallen into ruins on account of guilt and alcohol. Then a woman’s love and faith help deliver him from overpowering guilt. His life rises out of the ruins. Here the good news of freedom from guilt is proclaimed in a simple story so well done it won five Oscars.

Suppose our writer wants to proclaim a piece of good news that Jesus offered during his Sermon on the Mount: the merciful are blessed because they will receive mercy. Say a character’s conflict is that she suffers under an abusive husband. Maybe she flees to protect herself and her children. Now the writer could imagine a dozen ways the character and her kids might get blessed with mercy. As soon as she picks one way (or more), she has a story arc.

Warning: the story arc isn’t a roadmap. It’s more of a compass, to consult when lost or unsure of the direction.

When a good ballplayer steps up to bat, she quits thinking about her swing and just swings. Likewise, a good writer stashes analysis and preconceptions in the back of her mind, then lets go and lets the story take on a life of its own.

Okay, We’re Ransomed, Now What?

We Christ followers believe we were ransomed, bought out of imprisonment, and granted freedom.

So what does this mean to us writers (and by extension to every believer)?

I suspect the answer depends upon our level of gratitude. The casually grateful can, I suppose without much pang of conscience, proceed to follow the money, the acclaim, or whatever they prize. The moderately grateful are likely to now and then use their work in a way that honors the gift of freedom. And the radically, wholeheartedly grateful may echo the attitude of William Cowper when he wrote, “There is A Fountain Filled with Blood”, “Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.”

I know writers who profess to Christian faith yet whose work gives not a shred of corroborating evidence. No doubt part of the reason is, characters who act in ways Christ advocates are generally not very dramatic.

An early novel of mine features two sisters. One is beautiful in every way, thoughtful, gentle and giving, a lay sister with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The other is prideful, impulsive, thoughtless, seductive but disloyal. I sent the manuscript to a friend who a successful writer friend. He suggested I get rid of the good sister. He loved the bad one.

Writing in honest accord with our beliefs is a challenge and a half, and it may become a liability if our goal is to prosper or even survive on our writing income.

Often I have felt the need to choose: either write something with which I hope to earn a big check, or work at a day job and write the stories I feel called to write.

“Feel called” is a tricky concept. If we choose to apply it, wisdom dictates we ask ourselves some tough questions, so many in fact I’ll leave the topic for now and pick it up again later.

For now, perhaps this poem by Billy Collins will inspire us with more wholehearted gratitude.

Clerks and Errand Boys

The other day I read about a writer for Guns and Ammo magazine who was abruptly fired after an article of his questioned the notion that any regulation of guns was unconstitutional. Apparently advertisers suggested that if the writer stayed, they wouldn’t.

One Friday evening I attended church and heard the pastor utter a phrase that astonished me, given his evangelical audience. He said, “Look, if you think ‘My country is always right and the enemy’s always wrong,’ you’re not getting that from the Bible.”

On Sunday, I returned to see if he repeated the phrase to the much larger and generally more traditional audience. He didn’t. For a couple weeks I was furious, until I began to look at the log in my own eye and realize that I, like everyone who speaks or writes for a living, to one degree or another plays to his or her audience.

As do we all, whether our audience be a public, a boss, or an institution.

Still, whenever I’m reminded of how much our careers depend upon not only upon what we do or say but also upon what we don’t do or say, I recall the Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.

A soldier named Willard has been sent into the jungle to terminate Kurtz, a renegade American army captain who appears to have gone mad and resorted to the most savage tactics.

Here’s the scene:

Kurtz: You are an assassin?

Willard: A soldier.

Kurtz: You are neither. You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

I had the privilege of meeting the author Kurt Vonnegut when I was studying at the University of Iowa and he came for a visit. At a party, a few of us were in the kitchen when Mr. Vonnegut offered some theories about how the world works. A big issue at the time was the price of gasoline. He said, “Suppose you work at a gas station and I come to buy gas and you charge me a dollar a gallon, and I argue that you’re out of line charging so much, and you say ‘I have to charge you that much, because that’s the price my boss set.’ You see, that’s a lie. You don’t have to charge that much. You don’t have to keep that job.”

Certainly there are rebuttals to his argument, but they all are pragmatic, and they lead me to think about another fine author, B. Traven (who, by the way, appears in my upcoming Tom Hickey novel The Good Know Nothing). Traven argued that we always have a choice. If, with a gun barrel pressed to our temples, we are commanded to do something, we can refuse, and die.

Which makes me think of our challenge as writers, or students, or employees of any sort. Because the degree to which we cater to our audience, even though the effort may oppose our own aesthetics or values, may well determine our material success or failure.

I’m not advocating that we should approach our work idealistically, pragmatically, or with a moderate dose of each attitude. That has to be a personal decision.

But I am suggesting that we would do well to recognize our freedom and now and then stop to ask “Am I an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill?”

Or what?