This is a question that plagues me. I like to know why I do the things that I do. But when I walk into a bookstore or a library, or browse new suggestions on Amazon, or look at my shelf that has all of the “waiting-to-be-read” books on it, I start to feel a little panicky for two reasons. First, how on earth will I ever read all the things in the world? Obviously, I won’t, but still, there’s a vague sense of guilt that rises to the surface every time I think about it. Second, and more pertinent to our discussion here, what do I have to write, what could I possibly add to the vast array of books and stories and poems and blog posts and letters, that could be worth anything more than everything that has already been done?
As is often the case when I think about such things, I find that I’m not the first person to have wondered. (Blast! See? Everything has already been done!) One of my roommates, reading O’Connor’s The Habit of Being, shared a passage with me on Sunday. Miss Flannery is giving advice to a friend on accepting criticism and using her skills as a writer for the right purpose, that is, because she’s been given them. If God gives you talents, use them. Develop them. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what the dickens it’s all about; it’s your responsibility to use what you’ve been given, even if you never see the result of it. And, of course, in reading O’Connor’s advice, I was reminded of similar advice I had also been given by one of my writer friends when I put the question to him. If you’re in a rush, I’ve already summed up what both letters are about (chin up and get to it). But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, and you’re one of the thousand and one unoriginal souls who have pondered the same question with varying levels of frustration, they’re a comforting read-through. So, be comforted!
First, my query:
As far as my writing bringing solace to your mind and heart, and perhaps to others’ as well, I am so glad it does, and honored as well. Maybe that sounds formal or stuffy or something, but I really do mean it. Sometimes I feel petty and childish (not childlike) because I wish that more people would read it or say something about it. I guess I just want attention; not a very original or singular desire by any means. But then, on what I like to think is a more noble plane, when I see something beautiful, it calls out to be shared. I want to share. I want people to be excited by the things that excite me. And if I have something that seems worth saying, I want to say it to as many people as possible. I want, I want, I want. Yes, well, maybe the fact that in this regard I want many good things along with the selfish things mitigates the wantingness of it all. At any rate, I am glad to know that I can occasionally give you something in which you find yourself delighted and more at peace, even if only temporarily so.
The response from J.B. Toner (Who, by the way, has had a number of things published in our magazine; he’s a good writer! Look him up.):
Regarding the yearning to have one’s words heard: holy Lord in Heaven above, do I get that. I used to go on rampages through my old apartment after I finished writing a chapter because it would be SO GOOD (everything seems brilliant immediately after you finish writing it, doesn’t it?) and I knew no one would ever publish it, no one would ever see it except a few of my friends that I pestered into reading it. I guess there’s an Old English saying that Tolkien used to quote: Ciggendra gehwelc wile þœt hine man gehere, “Everyone who cries out wants to be heard.” What I keep trying to remind myself is that on the one hand, the temporal hand, every author ends in oblivion—even Homer will be lost when the sun burns out—and on the other hand, all is known to God and the best of what we create will be shared with everyone in the world to come. So I shouldn’t be getting worked up over whether ten people or a million people read my stuff here on earth. Right? Sure . . . . But like Joey says, the great truths are usually not very comforting. Or at least, not right now. Just keep at it. Keep getting better, and trust your time will come. That’s what we do.
I think the closest thing I have to advice is the thing I’ve been trying for years to accept, with limited success: we have to write what’s in us, and just trust that He’ll use it somehow—that one way or another, it’ll find its way to where it’ll do good, and we will very, very likely never know about it. In this world, I mean. Someone, I forget who—St. T of Avila, maybe?—talks about all the people who will come running up to you in Heaven to thank you for all the things you barely remember, that you never dreamed would actually bear any fruit anywhere, but that somehow made a difference to people you never even knew on earth at all. Occasionally, that comforts me. Other times it just makes me go, “Yeah, yeah, great,” and be bitter because I’m writing all this stuff and nobody’s seeing it. So, believe me, I understand. Anyway, in short, I think we just have to offer it up and keep schlepping our tired asses forward down the path. I’m not exactly sure it gets easier, but it does get different—the angst sort of ferments with time into new and interesting transmogrifications—so, at least, there’s that!
I’ll tell you what I keep telling myself when I have fears that I will cease to be, and/or when I consider how my light is spent. When the unknown author wrote Beowulf, it was lost for centuries, copied down in a single manuscript that survived unnoticed in trunks and farmhouses for half a millennium, almost burned up in a fire, and was finally dusted off by scholars and remembered chiefly as a source of information on archaic heraldry and pseudo-history for many decades more. It wasn’t till Tolkien came along and wrote his seminal study of the work that it began to be valued as epic poetry rivaling Homer, Dante, and Milton in its own right. But in the meantime it inspired Tolkien himself so greatly that it became the chief wellspring of his own great works, and those works have become to millions of people (including the hell out of myself) just such an inspiration as Beowulf itself was to him. So, in short—we don’t know where our words will end up, or what use God will make of them on earth. Mostly we just have to trust Him. And it’s really, really hard. But, that’s who we are, and it’s absolutely worth it. So, you know—keep writing. Hard is good.
And from the Lady Flannery (I don’t know who B. is, I’m afraid. Do any of you?):
I asked B. what he thought might be the matter and he said he thought you might be depressed because you had shown something you had written to some young man who made a lot of criticisms of it that you thought were just. . . . Of course B. may be wrong and I hope he was but assuming for the moment he wasn’t, I have this to say. No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel. I feel that you are distracted, particularly when you say, for instance, that it is B.’s writing that interests you considerably more than he does. This is certainly not so, no matter how good a writer he gets to be, or how silly he gets to be himself. The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern. This sermon is now ended. (The Habit of Being, p. 419.)
So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.