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The Creative Catholic: Fr. James V. Schall S.J. on the art and vocation of writing

“One does not read books about how to write. One writes books that hopefully someone will read. Well read books are not well read for nothing. Read them.”

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. giving his final lecture at Georgetown University in December 2012 (YouTube)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. is no stranger to most readers of Catholic World Report, or readers of numerous other Catholic publications and sites as well. He is one of the most prolific Catholic authors of the past few decades, penning hundreds of essays and dozens of books, including The Mind That Is Catholic (CUA Press), Remembering Belloc (St. Augustine Press), Reasonable Pleasures (Ignatius Press), and perhaps his most famous book, Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press). After teaching political philosophy for many years at Georgetown University, he retired in 2012. He recently spoke with CWR about his life as a writer, how he goes about writing, and the nature of the writer’s vocation.

CWR: You have written so much and so broadly; what is your favorite writing form?

Fr. Schall: My favourite writing form is the short essay, as I have explained in Idylls & Rambles: Shorter Christian Essays and The Classical Moment: On Knowledge and Its Pleasures.

CWR: In regard to your essays, how long does each one take from conception through to completion? Is there a difference to this depending on what the subject matter is?

Fr. Schall: There is no way to answer that question. Sometimes a couple of hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes you never finish the dang things.  It is not the subject matter but what you know about it and what you need to do if you do not know and need to check or find out.

CWR: Do you find it easy to write?

Fr. Schall: Yes, but remember that writing, like speaking and reading and playing sports, is a habit. You have to learn it. It takes time, years. We are habit forming beings. Habits make things that must be done or that we want to do easier. One learns through practice. Lots of mistakes doth a good habit make.

CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to actual writing?

Fr. Schall: There is an inverse ratio. Writing well is an art. Research is an art. The word ‘research’ can be confusing. Not infrequently, the most outlandish positions are ‘well researched’. It is basically a question of truth, not amount of time in justifying the position and citing authors.

CWR: When and where do you write? Is there a set routine?

Fr. Schall: Well, I usually need to have a good computer (i.e., means), but can write most anywhere if something interests me. Some issues are pretty ephemeral so you have to get to them when they need to be spoken of. It is always striking, on reading something that one wrote ten or twenty years ago, how much it assumed for its details something going on at the time that one writes.  I just looked at a piece of mine in which I talked of the Secretary of State, John Kerry—already dated. On the other hand, with no concrete details, something is too abstract often.

CWR: Where and when do ideas come to you?

Fr. Schall: Ideas come from things, from reading, from living the details of life, from conversations, from anywhere there is reality. As Chesterton said, ‘There are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people.’ As I like to put it, a good professor can make a lecture even on bugs mighty fascinating. This is why Samuel Johnson said that the best thing you can teach a boy is how to read. But it does not hurt also to teach him how to shoot a gun, how to speak correct English or Chinese, how to brush his teeth, or the truth about God.

CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?

Fr. Schall: I suspect many of my friends wish that I had. But no, I am not familiar with the concept. But I have never looked on writing as something I ‘had’ to do, even though academics are required more or less to publish. If it is not also a pleasure, it is probably not worth doing.

CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?

Fr. Schall: Everything is of interest and can be a source of truth or interest or need. All I can say is that when it comes to music, art, movies, I see far too little of them. One of my favourite hobbies is to list the things I do not know. As you might suspect, the list approaches infinity.

CWR: Who are your favourite authors?

Fr. Schall: This question is an invitation to not list some of the world’s greatest books in languages I have no clue about. This realization is why we hope that there might indeed be something like a common list of things everyone should know about and read. It was once said that if we took a copy of the Bible and Shakespeare to the famous desert island, we would not miss much. Evelyn Waugh has a novel called, I think, A Handful of Dust, about a man who gets captured by a fanatic in the Amazon and is required to read and reread all of Dickens for the rest of his life. Naturally, like the listener the reader is likely to go mad. At the end of many of my books and after most invited lectures, I try to provide a list of some twenty books to read. But my life would have been duller without Chesterton, Belloc, Pieper, Johnson, Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and I do not know who all.

CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?

Fr. Schall: What books would I recommend to writers? The same books I would recommend to anyone. One does not read books about how to write. One writes books that hopefully someone will read. Well read books are not well read for nothing. Read them.

CWR: What do you understand by the writer’s vocation?

Fr. Schall: The writer’s vocation is to save his soul and that of others by what he writes. This involves, basically, seeking and telling the truth of things.

CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?

Fr. Schall: It is that a writer has no idea whether anything he writes will be read. Writing is an act of blind faith that out there, somewhere, someone will read and enjoy, understand, what it is an author wants to say. The final joy of any writer is when someone tells him that he came across something he wrote and it really made sense, he really enjoyed reading it, he learned something about what is.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.

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