Dr. Anthony M. Esolen is a professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and a prolific author of books and essays, as well as a translator. Prior to joining the faculty at Thomas More College he taught at Furman University and Providence College. He has translated into English Dante’s Divine Comedy, Lucretius‘ On the Nature of Things, and Torquato Tasso‘s Jerusalem Delivered. His books include The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He is the author of over five hundred articles in such publications including The Modern Age, Catholic World Report, Chronicles, The Claremont Review of Books, The Public Discourse, First Things, Crisis Magazine, The Catholic Thing, and Touchstone, for which he serves as a senior editor. He is also a regular contributor to Magnificat.
He recently answered some questions from CWR about his work as an author, his routine and influences, why he doesn’t care much for research, and how he once suffered from writer’s block.
CWR: You have written so much and so broadly . What is your favorite writing form?
Esolen: That’s a hard question to answer, because the different forms give different kinds of pleasure. Right now, I suppose it would be the longish essay, on a topic of my choosing, with sufficient space to develop the topic from a variety of angles, or to refer to incidents in history or scenes in great literature to help the reader “see” what I want to say, rather than just register it as an abstract thought. But I have had a grand time also writing short historical essays or anecdotes or dramatic scenes for Magnificat, on “How the Church Changed the World,” with a clear form expected and with a narrow “window” for numbers of words and characters. The beauty of that is that it forces you to trim all the fat away, and you have to make a scene come to life as quickly and tersely as possible. And then translation is a joy—and involves, I suppose, a wholly different part of your mind, the part that enjoys solving puzzles—a kind of mathematical work with language.
CWR: How long does each project take from conception through to completion? Does this differ depending on what the subject matter is?
Esolen: I spend a lot of time “writing” without ever typing a word—thinking, organizing, comparing, dividing, and so on. When I get around to the actual work, I tend to be pretty fast. Now, you can’t do that preparatory work when it comes to translation of poetry; there, you are confronted with passage after passage, and you must go where the original poet takes you. That kind of work is deliberate, and painstaking. Still, you can see your progress, and every twenty lines or so feels like a considerable achievement.
CWR: Do you find it easy to write?
Esolen: Most of the time, yes. Not always, though. When the subject itself is a tangled mess, every way of beginning seems like a false start, and you end up having to append reservation after reservation or alternative after alternative. When that happens I sometimes decide to ditch the subject or to limit myself to discussing only a part of it, even going so far as to tell the reader that it will be only a partial treatment. Otherwise I do find it easy, but that’s because I have in my mind the rhythms of many centuries of English writers before me, and because I have determined not to put on airs. It’s strange but true, that it’s a lot more laborious to write clotted or utterly puffy sort-of-English bureaucratic blather, such as Orwell abominated, than to say what you mean in a straightforward way.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to actual writing?
Esolen: I have to confess that I don’t care for research. I do it, and the research I like best is when I’m writing about the Catholic scientists, explorers, statesmen, artists, thinkers, and saints for Magnificat, and I get to read their letters or look at their paintings or trace their travels on a map of the world. My main weakness is that I don’t like doing “secondary” research, that is, reading what other people have had to say about the subject. I do it, though not a whole lot of it. It’s sometimes modestly enlightening; more often it’s either tedious or not to the point or, these days, politically tendentious. I should add, though, that when I’m writing about literature or theology or Scripture, my “research” is to immerse myself in literature and theology and Scripture, in the original languages as often as possible, and that I find to be immensely rewarding. I do that all the time, whether I have a project in hand or not, and so I’m ready to go when the projects come.
CWR: When and where do you write – is there a set routine?
Esolen: Not really. I like best to write where I have our thousands of books ready to hand, so I can pull George Herbert down from the shelf, or Chesterton, or Shakespeare. I write at all hours. I don’t write continuously for more than two hours at the most, though; after that, I think I forget what I have done, I start repeating myself, I lose the track of a chapter, and so on. Then it pays to re-read, to “put” it back in your mind, and go do something else, letting it stew for a while, so that you can come back to it fresh, and not pursue a path that might be wandering from the main highway. You can be “writing” while you are mending the shingles on the barn or digging a garden, because you are thinking. That’s when really felicitous expressions can come—if you are imagining yourself speaking to an interlocutor, or addressing an audience.
CWR: Where and when do ideas come to you?
Esolen: They come to me constantly. I read a book or watch a movie or see the inevitably stupid article in a newspaper, or watch people at a restaurant chatting with their small children, or pray the Church’s hours, and the ideas come. It helps me to have read and taught such a broad range of literature, for so long. Dickens, Dante, Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, and so on—they’re all at my elbow, like good friends, all the time. It’s hard not to “see” things when so many incredible geniuses have gone before you and are so many additional pairs of eyes and ears.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Esolen: Yes, and this is a strange thing to talk about. I have returned to writing original poetry, in a big way, after a nearly uninterrupted hiatus of twenty years. During all that time I felt that I had exhausted my poetic instincts, and that there was nothing left that I could do in that vein. My biggest project of this last year has been a 4.333 line poem that is a collection of 100 poems of various kinds—focusing on the life of Christ, and all of them in traditional meters. The funny thing about my writing of poetry is that I cannot do it on the computer, or in cursive. I have never been able to do that. I must print it, and if you ever saw one page of my “foul papers” you would recognize a second such, instantly. It’s the same when I translate poetry, though then I can do it with the letters slanting forward—but printed, always only printed.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. First, depending on what you are doing, you really may want to write by using your hands to make the letters; you are giving yourself an intense and personal memory of your words, a memory that is both visual and kinetic. You then feel the words in your bones in a way that is not possible on the computer. You will also have a record, even if it has scratch-lines through it, of what you first wrote before you revised, and that’s a valuable thing to have, because sometimes a revision is not as good as the original, or you forget what you originally had in mind. Nor should you underestimate the power of different physical actions. If you are “blocked” at the computer, maybe you should try shutting it down, and getting out a piece of paper and a pen. If you are “blocked” with cursive, try the slower and more deliberate printing. Help yourself to see your words—see, with your eyes—in a different way.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?
Esolen: A good deal. I’ve recently written a book about Church hymns, called Real Music (TAN Books). I am no expert in classical music, though I like it very much. My family and I have made ourselves modest hobbyists of English-language films from about 1930 to 1965. I’m a little bit of a dilettante when it comes to Renaissance and Baroque art, and so I do like to use paintings to help people see things.
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Esolen: The great poets and novelists: Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Milton, Herbert, Browning, etc. I am immensely fond of Chesterton, and my thinking on social and political issues is dependent upon him and upon such true conservatives as Russell Kirk, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Burke. Gilson, Pieper, Maritain … so many to choose from!
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Esolen: Everything you like. Do not read a book, ever, just so that you can say clever things about it. Read books for instruction and delight. If you don’t care for novels, read something else—but read good writers, not garbage. Much of what has been written since the advent of mass marketing is garbage.
CWR: What do you understand by the writer’s vocation?
Esolen: To learn to see the obvious, first; to accept with gratitude when God gives you the sight of something that is not obvious; and to share with others what you have seen of the truth. The writer’s vocation is to tell the truth.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?
Esolen: That of the writing of books there is no end, and that nothing is new under the sun. A wise man said those things long ago … and good writers know it.