Fr. George William Rutler is a well-known preacher and prolific author, having written hundreds of essays and over twenty books. A former Episcopalian pastor, he entered the Catholic Church in 1979, studied in Rome, and then was ordained to the priesthood in 1981. In addition to an honors degree from Dartmouth, Fr. Rutler has received advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University, the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, the University of Oxford, and others.
He has also been the host of several programs on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and is presently pastor at Church of St. Michael the Archangel in New York City. He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about his work as an author, reflecting on the creative process, writing routine, influences, and advice for budding authors.
CWR: Although you have written many books, you specialize in the essay. Is there a particular reason for that?
Fr. George William Rutler: I use the essay form since it is the most convenient way to write concise studies on a relatively regular basis. The essay form also encourages, or actually requires, that a writer be precise in his ideas and his expression of them.
CWR: How long does it usually take to write an essay, from conception through to publication?
Fr. Rutler: Each instant is different, but it usually takes a couple of days to ruminate about thought and another day to write them our, and – often to the distress of editors – a couple of days to correct and amplify. The question of how long it takes, however, is not unlike asking how long does it take to prepare a sermon. The answer may be be a day or two, but the real answer is years of rumination or, more precisely, a lifetime. That is why, when one writes, one finds oneself recalling thoughts long forgotten, but which are appropriate to the moment.
CWR: Regarding your recent book Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942–1943, given the scale of the undertaking and the subject did you ever feel overwhelmed?
Fr. Rutler: I’d not say overwhelmed, but I certainly was astonished by the events and personalities of which I knew nothing, at least nothing more than the usual academic history of those times. Indeed, it was the astonishing drama of those events that moved me to record them lest they be lost to most people.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent in research compared to the actual writing of an essay or book?
Fr. Rutler: That is impossible to answer since, as I said before, the time involved draws on life experience which cannot be measured. Historical books understandably require more time, just for research and ascertaining accuracy. It used to take me much longer than now, because we have the inestimable resource of computers. For instance, I am sure that I could have done half a dozen doctoral dissertations in the time that it took me to do one thirty-six years ago. The problem now is discerning what information is solid and useful. Writing on spiritual matters is more intuitive, and does not require the same sort of research.
CWR: When and where do you write? Do you have a set routine?
Fr. Rutler: One envies academics who have schedules, I suppose, more predictable than that of a parish priest. I think I am most glib at writing in the mornings, if such times are available. It is a curious phenomenon that one seems to be more productive when the time available is more limited. It also helps to have to meet publishers’ deadlines. If I have been thinking of a subject, not infrequently do I wake up in the night with some ideas.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for projects come to you?
Fr. Rutler: One of my heroes, perhaps my chief one, is Cardinal Newman. He said, not without much exaggeration, that he always “wrote for a purpose.” That is, he had so many responsibilities that he rarely indulged writing about subjects of abstract interest and usually wrote when required to do so for a reason: to answer a question, to address a contemporary problem, or to explain a mystery of Faith according to the liturgical calendar.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Fr. Rutler: I used to, but not now. I suppose in part that is because I do not have the time to ruminate about what to write, and also because the subject has already presented itself by circumstances.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—influence or feed your creative process?
Fr. Rutler: It is my boast that I have never had a cellular phone. That would be one among many distractions that interrupt meditative thought these days. I get many ideas, or at least I calm my thoughts, by playing the piano or violin, and listening to music. Since my principle bias I suppose is history, I get much inspiration from historical documentaries and books. Otherwise, I rarely see films. For a priest, the events of each day are the chief inspiration for topics to write about. The Lord also provides some suggestions when one is praying. It is important to understand that in writing one is addressing individuals, and not a vague and abstract universe. That is what Saint Francis de Sales meant by his motto: “Cor ad cor loquitur. – Heart speaks to heart.”
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Fr. Rutler: I rarely if ever read novels. One has no bias against them and, in fact, just today I had lunch with one of the world’s most famous novelists and we got along marvelously. But, as a parish priest, and one in Manhattan, each day in my life is more compelling than any novel. As I do not enjoy many films produced since the days of Myrna Loy, Greer Garson and C. Aubrey Beardsley, I prefer authors who wrote when English was still golden. I’d list Swift, Gibbons, Macaulay, Dickens, Wodehouse, Waugh and Muggeridge. And Newman before all.
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Fr. Rutler: The books by the authors I mentioned, and of course The Divine Comedy in a good translation if necessary, and the sermons of Bossuet and the modern Ronald Knox, who was the most creative and witty preacher of the last century. I had the rare privilege of growing up with the Authorized Version (King James) Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. For style, they were incomparable schools of English and our own Washington and Lincoln could not have written what they did without such resources. Books I would not recommend are most modern translation of the Bible such as the New American Bible, because their diction and polemical bias (e.g. gender neutralization) are appalling and paralyze any cultivation of good English.
CWR: What is your understanding of the writer’s vocation?
Fr. Rutler: The writer, like any artist, is called to bring people closer to God through beauty expressed, truth told, and virtue taught. Simple as that.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?
Fr. Rutler: I have learned that everyone not only has a story to tell, but is a story. However many books one writes, the subject is the same: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the Son of Man that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:4).