Dale Ahlquist is President of the American Chesterton Society, and publisher of its flagship publication, GILBERT. Dale is also the creator and host of the popular EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense, and he is the author of G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, and The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton. He is popular speaker, having given more than 600 lectures at men’s conferences, diocesan events, and prestigious institutions including Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Notre Dame, Oxford, the Vatican Forum in Rome, and the House of Lords in London.
Dale’s essays have been published in numerous magazines and website, including The Catholic Servant, Chronicles, Crisis, Catholic Rural Life, Christian History, St. Austin’s Review, The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, The Great Books Reader, Christian Higher Education, Faith and Reason, Recusant History, Ave Maria Law Review, Envoy, and The Distributist Review.
Dale is also the co-founder of Chesterton Academy, a new high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has been rated one of the “Top 50 Catholic Schools” in the nation by the Cardinal Newman Society. His pioneering work in classical, integrated education has helped develop a curriculum that is capturing the minds of parents across the country (see his recent CWR essay “How do we teach beauty?”).
He recently corresponded with CWR about his work as an author.
CWR: How would you describe what you write?
Dale Ahquist: I have the privilege of writing about everything because I write about G.K. Chesterton, who wrote about everything. I’ve written books, television and radio programs, and a pile of journalistic essays and reviews. My goal is to make Chesterton more accessible to today’s audience because he points people to God. However, in addition to my writing about Chesterton, I have written over twenty plays, and they’ve all been given robust performances that have been well received. I will be publishing these soon.
CWR: G.K. Chesterton is such a huge influence on your life and work, in terms of writing is it possible to say where he ends and you begin?
Ahquist: I certainly try to make it seamless. It is a compliment to me, of course, when readers say they underline my words as much as the Chesterton passages I am quoting. But even when I’m not quoting him, I suppose I’m quoting him.
CWR: What has Chesterton to say to writers of 21st century?
Ahquist: He gave some famous advice to young writers: they should write one essay for “The Church Times” and another essay for “The Sporting News” and put them in the wrong envelopes. It is one of his typical paradoxes, and the point is that too many writers follow a formula associated with a particular genre or even a particular journal, and no one finds that writing very interesting or memorable. It is good to startle. In terms of technique, Chesterton is a precise writer, who always finds the right word, and yet admits that any writer is always struggling with a fallen language like a man wrestling inside the folds of a fallen tent.
In terms of content, Chesterton simply tells the truth. That is why so many find him compelling, and so many find him irritating.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent in research compared to the actual writing of an essay or book?
Ahquist: Most of my research involves hunting down a particular Chesterton quote, and the reason that often takes a long time is that I stop and read so many things that I’m not looking for. I write first drafts very quickly, but then I re-write the final version rather slowly, but that is almost a pleasure. No, it is a pleasure.
CWR: When and where do you write? Is there a set routine?
Ahquist: I write essays in my study, usually in the morning, and then I have to look after the business of the American Chesterton Society and Chesterton Academy during the rest of the day. When I write a play or the main section of a book, I set aside several days go at it almost full time. When I can, I disappear where no one will interrupt me. But this is a luxury. My favorite place to write is a family lake cabin in northern Minnesota.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for the next project come to you?
Ahquist: I write a monthly essay on apologetics for a Catholic paper and it seems that most of those pieces are inspired by conversations and debates that I’ve just been involved in. My plays are written for schools, and I draw on fairy tales, the lives of the saints, and insane situations from every day life that make for good comedy. As for my writing on Chesterton, one good quotation is the seed for an entire essay. The quotation is a jewel, and I try to put in a worthy setting.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Ahquist: Most writers will say that the most difficult and daunting task is writing the first sentence or the first word. The blank page (or the blank screen) is terrifying. There is a great technique I learned long ago called “leaving water in the well.” When you finish a writing session, always start something else. Start the next thought, the next paragraph, the next chapter, the next essay. Leave something there. Then, when you begin again, you can get right to work.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?
Ahquist: I often listen to choral music while I’m writing, especially ancient chant. But also Zbigniew Preisner. But silence is best.
Since I have the privilege of traveling a lot, I make it a point to visit the art galleries in different cities. I once had an experience at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC, that was worthy of becoming a story. I was alone in a roomful of 17th century art, when a well-dressed man entered and crossed the room very deliberately to look at a particular painting. From my angle, I could not see the painting; I could only observe the man observing the painting. He gazed at it intensely for a long time, an incredibly long time, tilting his head every now and then as if to see it from every perspective. Then he turned and walked out as deliberately as he had walked in. Never glanced at another painting in the room. I made my way over to see what he was looking at. It was a portrait of a woman. She’d been dead for centuries and he was in love with her. A real triumph of art. Great art inspires me at every level, and I’m further in awe when I see how it inspires others.
CWR: Who, besides Chesterton, are your favorite authors?
Ahquist: Scottish novelist Bruce Marshall—another writer who needs to be rediscovered. I am always happy to pick up P.G. Wodehouse, O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and Dr. Johnson. But Chesterton wins the day.
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Ahquist: Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. There can hardly be a better look at a creative mind at work, a writer in total command of his craft, making the impossible look effortless. But it is writing led by the truth. The honest reader should be thrilled by it, but the honest writer who reads it should be humbled even while he enjoys having his breath taken away. And any essay or book of essays by Chesterton is a lesson in rhetoric.
CWR: What is your understanding of the writer’s vocation?
Ahquist: As with any vocation, when we do what we are supposed to do, God blesses us.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?
Ahquist: Be careful. Be charitable. Show good will. And point to God.