Friday, June 3, 2011


That I converted to Catholicism right around the same time I began writing is no accident, for the two, in my life, are inextricably intertwined. The physical reason I never wrote during my drinking years was that I was too hungover to sit up, but the real reason was that I had nothing to write about, to write from. I had self-pity and depression. I had compulsion, bondage and death without resurrection. I couldn't start writing until I came awake, and almost the minute I came awake I was propelled toward writing.

Writing is my way of going, as Christ did, not against the system, but beyond it. I have strong opinions and I live them out in my vocation as a writer. I can be testy, impatient, driven, but partly because I have an intense desire to give of myself unreservedly. I say no to a lot of things; I forgo a certain kind of social life, leisure and laxity. I have ordered my life around and staked my life on writing. Like my belief in Christ, writing to me is a matter of life and death.

If one person has formed me--as a human being, a Catholic, and a writer--it is the short story writer and novelist Flannery O'Connor. In the preface to O'Connor's collected letters, editor Sally Fitzgerald writes:

"When Flannery went home [to rural Georgia, after receiving a diagnosis of (at the time incurable) disseminated lupus erythematosus], expecting to return to us, she left behind a book, Art and Scholasticism, by Jacques Maritain. I had mislaid it, and brought another copy to send her when I forwarded her things. She told me to keep her copy when I found it, and I have it still, underlined here and there by her. It was from this book that she first learned the conception of "the habit of art," habit in this instance being defined in the Scholastic mode, not as mere mechanical routine, but as an attitude or quality of mind, as essential to the real artist as talent. Maritain writes:

Operative habit resides chiefly in the mind or the will...Habits are interior growths of spontaneous life...and only the living (that is to say, minds which alone are perfectly alive) can acquire them, because they alone are capable of raising the level of their being by their own activity: they possess, in such an enrichment of their faculties, secondary motives to action, which they bring into play when they want...The object [the good of the work] in relation to which (the habit) perfects the subject is itself unchangeable--and it is upon this object that the quality developed in the subject catches. Such habit is a virtue, that is to say a quality which, triumphing over the original indetermination of the intellective faculty, at once sharpening and hardening the point of its activity, raises it in respect of a definite object to a maximum of perfection, and so of operative efficiency. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect.

Flannery consciously sought to attain to the habit of art, and did, by customary exercise and use, acquire it in the making of her novels and stories. Less deliberately perhaps, and only in the course of living in accordance with her formative beliefs, as she consciously and profoundly wished to do, she acquired as well, I think, a second distinguished habit, which I have called "the habit of being": an excellence not only of action but of interior disposition and activity that increasingly reflected the object, the being, which specified it, and was itself reflected in what she did and said."

O'Connor was a genius. On a good day, I'm maybe in the mid-range of the second tier. But that's not what matters. I mean it matters absolutely to the cause of world literature, which is forever in O'Connor's debt. But what matters vis-a-vis my own mission on earth is whether I give 100% of what I have. And in this, Catholicism has proved a perfect and infallible guide. I don't have one part of me that's a writer and another part of me for the rest of my life. The whole goal is to order my day around writing, and to order my life around the virtues that will produce the best writing possible. How am I spending my day? If I'm trolling other people’s work looking for something to despise, my way isn’t working. Why am I not writing? If I'm frittering away my time trying to figure out how to put someone in their place, or how to weasel out of returning a phone call from someone who needs a favor, or wondering why everyone buys books from shallow hacks and nobody notices me, my way isn't working. What possible kind of purity of heart am I going to gain from any of that with which to fuel my writing?

Jacques Maritain on “habit”: (from “Art an Intellectual Virtue”[sic] in Art and Scholasticism:

“Other habitus have for their subject the faculties or powers of the soul, and as the nature of these faculties or powers is to tend to action, the habitus which inhere in them perfect them in their very dynamism, are operative habitus: such are the intellectual virtues and moral virtues.

We acquire this last kind of habitus through exercise and use; but we must not for this reason confuse habitus with habit in the modern sense of this word, that is to say, with mere mechanical bent and routine; habitus is exactly the contrary of habit in this sense. Habit, which attests to the weight of matter, resides in the nerve centers. Operative habitus, which attests the activity of the spirit, resides principally in am immaterial faculty, in the intelligence or the will…Habitus are intrinsic super-elevations of living spontaneity, vital developments which render the soul better in a given order and which fill it with an active sap: turgentia ubera animae, as John of Saint Thomas calls them…

Habitus are, as it were, metaphysical titles of nobility, and as much as innate gifts they make for inequality among men. The man who possesses a habitus has within him a quality which nothing can pay for or replace; others are naked, he is armed with steel: but it is a case of a living and spiritual armor...

Art, which rules Making and not Doing, stands therefore outside the human sphere; it has an end, rules, values, which are not those of man, but those of the work to be produced. This work is everything for Art; there is for Art but one law—the exigencies and the good of the work.

Hence, the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing ceases at the door of every workshop.”

And there you have it. Because writing requires an almost physical nerve, I devote a certain amount of energy to staying in physical shape. Because I don't want to waste time cleaning up chaos, I pay my bills on time, get my oil changed, and put away (for the most part) my clothes. Because the slightest conflict with another human being causes me deep pain, and because I have many wounds and character defects that tend to create conflict, I devote a lot of energy to working with a spiritual director, examining my conscience, praying for my character defects to be removed, praying for the courage to be willing to act a new way, praying to forgive. Because I don't want to go back to the hellish slavery of drinking, and because I'm so eternally grateful that just for today, I'm not drinking, I devote eight or ten hours a week to staying sober and helping other alcoholics and addicts get sober. Because I don't want to willfully put myself in a position to be irritated, bored, nauseated and depressed, I don't watch TV.  I don't drive if I can walk, I don't take the elevator if I can take the stairs, I don't take the flat way if I can take the hilly way. I don't text. Thus I keep the fat off, physically and spiritually, and the weird thing is that these habits of my own make me more resilient, more compassionate, more able to laugh at myself, more free, not less free.  The fact is I've created a life where I get to spend my day doing pretty much exactly as I like. Because as I said, I'd rather be writing.

And because I don't understand or know how to do any of this, I go to Confession and I go to Mass. Not one second of my life would make sense or could be lived without Christ. Through Christ, my loneliness and fatigue and fear and pain  become united to the suffering of the world. Through Christ, my egregious tepidity and Phariseeism and hardness of heart are revealed, grieved, forgiven. Through Christ one more time, I'm called deeper and higher. Through Christ, I'm led to give of myself ever more fully. Through Christ, writing becomes a “habit of being” in which chastity, obedience and poverty are given to me as gifts. By poverty I mean an awareness of my own limitations. In fact, whatever gift I have springs almost entirely from having been tragi-comically forced to acknowledge my limitations, and finding that right in their midst is the laughter, the vitality, the meat.

"Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it," O'Connor observed in Mystery and Manners. That is no doubt true, but so is the possibility that more people aren't reading my/your/our work simply because it's not good enough. Again, the Cross allows me to bear the perpetual paradoxes: the constant discernment of whether I'm trying to be clever or trying to be true, whether I'm more interested in getting a piece off my desk than in excellent writing, my genuine desire for purity of heart versus my also very real craving for validation and my very real need to make money.

Promoting your work is part of being a grown-up and a writer and the main thing here is that you simply can’t be neurotic and weird about it. Part of the deal is you have to step up to the plate and do the best you can, given your temperament, limitations, and gifts, by your best lights, to get the work out there. That you do the work is important beyond belief: whether people get it, or get you, or you present the perfect image, isn’t. You’re proud of your work. You stand by your work. You’re happy to share your work. You’re grateful to all the people who help make your work possible. You’ve given your life to your work. That’s what gives you some kind of instinctive feel as to how to go about getting it out to the world, and the appropriate tone to take when you do.

You can learn the mechanics of getting an agent, setting up a website, and marketing, all of which I've done in the course of my career, anywhere. But what no-one can teach you is how to develop the habit of art. What no one can give you is a devotion to literature which means almost as much to you as life itself. You come to that on your own. If you care enough, and are willing to sacrifice enough, you develop that on your own.

You develop that by letting your desire to write burn stronger than any peer, familial, or cultural pressure, any fear of financial insecurity, any terror of ridicule, failure, rejection, disappointment, doubt, despair, and/or dying alone. 
You develop it by letting your desire become a white-hot flame that consumes in its wake a whole bunch of stuff you didn't particularly, at the time, want consumed. What's left--and this you didn't expect either--is joy.

Which brings me to next and final installment of this particular series: The Writing Life: Part IV: Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.



  1. Yes! Or as we say on Facebook, "Like!"

    Jacques Maritain is not an easy writer, but I do like that phrase "intrinsic super-elevations of living spontaneity"!

    And your workmanlike habits, Heather -- your utter LACK of laziness puts me quite to shame! I stand in awe of the stamina, the production, the energy, of writers of prose! I can't do it! (Maybe I'll show you a bit of prose I wrote, ages ago: oh, the flowery language, the redundancies, the pomposity!) I can handle language eight or at most ten syllables at a time. And even then, I falter and flounder.

    There's a troubled celebrity who often speaks of "winning," but I don't know if the writing life, or any kind of life, is about winning as much as it's about (in the sports idiom) "bringing your A-game." You can't "mail it in," or be half-hearted about it.

    And your beautiful apologia for the sacramental life, esp. for Confession -- yes, wholehearted and enthusiastic concurrence!

    This comment's a mess: that's what I get for trying to write before the morning coffee. But yes, I love Part III, and looking forward to Part IV!

  2. I personally like "metaphysical titles of nobility." I forgot to say coffee helps. And really, I am just obsessively, compulsively driven--I hope at least partly by love.

    “Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;

    Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;

    Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;

    Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;

    Not that which is consolation, but rather that which is disconsolateness;

    Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;

    Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;

    Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;

    Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.

    Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ’s sake.”

    --St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel


    Thanks, dear Dylan. And as I said, my way would not work for everybody. Your way seems to be working beautifully. And long live poetry!

  3. This is the most compelling thing that I have read in ages. I intend to re-read it tonight (actually all of the installments of your series). It's the kick in the a** and mirror to my own life that I have needed. Thank You!!! (Now I'm off to my 'day job', already having made some resolutions, not the least of which are getting my oil changed and pulling the dust covered copy of Art and Scholasticism off of the shelf. Maybe I'll even dust the shelf!)

    Thank you, Thank you!

  4. Even the bodily discipline of exercise seems to improve writing because it trains the body to engage in no wasted motion (the result of oxygen debt) which is also one of the ends of good writing, i.e. no wasted words.

    History seems to show though that while good writing and personal goodness often don't go together, good writing and discipline do.

    Liked much your comment: "EVER-ripe territory for...THE THIN LINE BETWEEN PASSION AND PATHOLOGY!!!"

  5. For what it's worth, here are some quotes from John Updike on the writing:

    "There should always be something gratuitous about art, just as there seems to be, according to the new-wave cosmologists, something gratuitous about the universe. Art, out of its own freedom, should excite and flatter our sense of our own. Professionalism in art has this difficulty: To be professional is to be dependable, to be dependable is to be predictable, and predictability is esthetically boring - an anti-virtue in a field where we hope to be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed."


    "From the admission that a good writer might be a scoundrel it is but a short step to the speculation that a writer is necessarily something of a scoundrel. A raffish and bitter scent clings to the inky profession. Seeing truly and giving the human news frankly are both discourtesies, at least to those in the immediate vicinity. The writer's value to mankind irresistibly manifests itself at some remove of space and, often, time."


    "I cannot do justice to the bliss that attends getting even a single string of dialogue or the name of a weed right. Naming our weeds, in fact, seems to be exactly where it's at. I've been going out into my acre and trying to identify the wildflowers along the fringes with the aid of a book, and it's remarkably difficult to match reality and diagram. Reality keeps a pace or two ahead, scribble though we will. If you were to ask me what the aim of my fiction is it's bringing the corners forward. Or throwing light into them, if you'd rather. Singing the hitherto unsung. That's applied democracy, in my book. And applied Christianity, for that matter. I distrust books involving spectacular people, or spectacular events. Let People and The National Enquirer pander to our taste for the extraordinary; let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner lives of hidden men. The collective consciousness that once found itself in the noble must now rest content with the typical."


  6. Great, Dan, thanks! The scoundrel, the raffish, the bitter...those are givens. The trick for me is to not be TOO bitter, or SOLELY scoundrelly. And I love Updike's observation (I'm paraphrasing) that the real weirdness, what's worthy of glorifying and pondering, is the ordinary stuff of our daily lives...

  7. Love the quote by John Updike:

    ... let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner lives of hidden men.

    Doesn't that describe Flannery O'Connor's work!

    Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened red brick. He was waiting for the geranium.

    Always inspiring, Heather. God bless!


  8. Shortly after I moved here, my landlord baked loquat squares from fruit taken from the tree across the street. They were delicious!

  9. My late father had a book by Jacques Maritain. I think the title was: Art and Existentialsim. My dad was an industrial designer-specifically a furniture designer. But, he could design
    lighting fixtures, faucets, anything. He was
    a dogmatic Catholic who committed suicide.
    A very unhappy man. Brilliant.Completely brilliant. No matter how I tried, I couldn't really bolster him. It would work for awhile
    and then his demons would set in.
    For whatever it is worth Heather, this is
    a brilliant column. One of the most thorough
    comments on writing and being a Catholic and living as you need to live. It's not my style
    but I try -the operative word- to be grateful,
    that no matter what- I don't take a drink.
    Somehow, that has brought me back to the religion I was brought up in and abandoned.
    The comfort-even when days go by, where everything is black-is still 100% better and
    there is always Hope.

    Thank you, Heather for this gift.

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  11. I've been reading your blog for quite a while, but my husband has just discovered you through Magnificat - he read your meditation aloud to me and I was able to point him here. Your writing has, at times, taken my breath away. I've ordered a few copies of Redeemed, further diluting the priest/lay ratio of your readership.

    I'm not a writer by any means, but this post has inspired me - or more accurately, challenged me - to discern the place of creativity and art in my life and to order the rest to the end of pursuing the art.

    My father was a used book dealer and had a signed photo of Maritain. After he died we donated it to to Notre Dame's Maritain Center.

  12. Barbara, thanks for this--you are so right. My whole existence is based on the mercy by which, day by day, the obsession to drink continues to be removed...
    And Nancy, I have a connection with Notre Dame Magazine, and had a chance to tour the campus a few years ago so this is lovely to know they have a Maritain CENTER. I'm incredibly lucky to have both religious and lay and everything in between readers. Though it truly is one of the honors of my life that ANY priest would ever respond to my work...Anyway, I'm very glad to hear from you, and greetings to your husband as well.

  13. Over the last few years--my first three as a Catholic--I've dug into the past greats like G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O'Conner, St. Thomas Aquinas Aquinas, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Dante.

    And I keep having the same thought: "I wish they were still alive. I wish they still spoke fresh things."

    Yet with you, I do. Every now and then I've come across a writer who seems, though I know it can't be true, a reincarnation of past greatness.

    Mark Shea is a modern Chesterton. Peter Kreeft is a twenty-first century C.S. Lewis. Fr. Robert Barron is our Fulton Sheen.

    And when I read your writings, I get this startling, wonderful sense that I'm hearing Flannery O'Conner speak anew. It's like discovering there's a sequel to a favorite book, a beloved story, that you believed was forever closed. It's like finding out that there's a new Narnian chronicle or that we've discovered some missing letters from St. Paul.

    I think you have the same "habit of being" as Flannery, the same habit of art. And from you--and Flannery--I hope to catch the habit.

  14. What a blessing these posts are to me! Great writing (and this is GREAT)nourishes my spirit.

    I've known for years that writing is my calling, but have avoided the habot of writing for much too long. Only in the past three months or so have I been faithful,carving out morning time devoted to my craft, and it feels so great.

    My big breakthrough came when I started calling it prayer. I offer up whatever comes, and don't feel so attached to the outcome.

    The prayer of my writing flows into the noon Mass. Often, when I sit there in the quiet before we begin, I think of the guy in "Chariots of Fire" who said, "When I run, I feel His pleasure." I feel His pleasure when I write - who could ask for more?

    Thanks for so generously sharing your gifts with us.

    Kathy Kalina

  15. Brandon and Kathy, thank you both. I love the idea of writing as prayer. Simone Weil said something like "Absolute attention is prayer," and since writing requires absolute attention, there you go. And Flannery O'Connor said something like (I'm REALLY paraphrasing) that, when writing, she somehow "disappeared" and yet was also most truly herself...

    I do think as we form the "habit of art," the habit of art forms is all mystery...I'm glad you're both finding your way as well, and to have you as readers.


I WELCOME your comments!!!