When one examines the books, stories, letters, essays, poems and other examples of the written word that are remembered and referred to again and again throughout the long ages of history one comes to the almost inescapable conclusion that time has a way of helping us poor mortals separate the chaff from the wheat.
In the Old Testament we see written words that have been held sacred for thousands of years. Why? Because they revel something important about us - to us. They speak of humanity's relationship with God. They speak of God's will for individuals. They speak of God's love and wrath and the powers that exist beyond us. They enchant, frighten, draw us in, and out, towards something much bigger than our own little perspectives.
If you notice the writing elements of those authors whose work is still on best selling lists,classics lists, or reading lists,they seem to do much the same thing. They observe, ponder, discern, evaluate, question, and involve readers in the greater questions of our existence, questions that help us see ourselves as more than simple cogs in the great wheel of life. Yet, they do not all write essays pontificating on virtue, nor do they all write fantasy novels which take us out of our world and explore the metaphysical realities of good and evil. Letters, short stories, essays, novels of all types and genres, and even parables and fairy tales have enchanted readers over and over again throughout the ages. How do they do it? And how can we mimic their success?
Consider ancient writers like those who put the bible together or the works of Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, Sir Thomas More, and more recent additions such as Milton, Emerson, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Shaw, GK Chesterton, HG Wells, Tolstoy, Jane Austin, Tolkien and others that you can think of. What made them great? What made their works last? What can a Catholic author learn from their millenniums of experience?
First of all, we need to realize that they did not necessarily write for, or to, a specific audience. They may have written in a particular language to reach a specific community, or they may have made references their readers or listeners would have understood, but I doubt they would have changed the essence of what they were saying if an odd group of barbarians happened to walk in and offered to read over their shoulders. No, what they wrote about was what they knew to be an honest reflection of the human experience from their point of view. Good writers are honest first and foremost and they tend to be unusually good observers. In order to be honest and to pay attention one must care. So there you have three qualities of great writers; they strive for honesty, they care enough to pay attention to the world around them, and their writing reflects something that they value.
There are all sorts of excellent books out there about how to write a novel, how to make your writing fresh and different, how to break into the modern writers market and what kind of editing and stylistic changes will help you sell your work. Those are great books and will help a number of attentive authors become better writers. But in my opinion, the first act of a truly great writer is to become aware of your own level of honesty. Honesty is a dangerous thing. Admitting your own weakness and your own turbulence is not the kind of thing most people want to share with the world at large. But to write honestly means to relate to the world at large with authentic human experiences, in greatness as well as in smallness.
To be a Catholic writer one is especially called to this universality in that we are called to reach all people of all ages. One isn't trying to speak only to the youth of today but to the hearts of all men and woman who are capable of being honest enough to relate to the burdens of a lover, the tragedy of slavery (in all its insidious forms), the agony of addiction, the hope of redemption, and the doubts involved in true discernment. Faith may be blind in that it takes a leap beyond reason to accept God on His terms but there is no faith without the ability to utterly reject truth. Good writing, by its very nature, is universal. Catholicism also, by its very nature of being wedded to truth itself, is universal. God's message for humanity is for one and all. How He goes about reaching through humanity, to humanity, is one of His greatest marketing achievements.
In our society today we are practically smothered by the distracting realities of small unimportant things; toys for all ages, clothing options, food temptations, diet concerns, health fears, household appliances that do everything but breath for us, computer technology which nearly does all our thinking for us, and a great variety of blood rushing, exciting opportunities which leave us, in the end, drained and exhausted in mind and spirit. We live in a world of pagan faith. We believe that if we play hard enough we will be happy, that if we own enough we will be worthy of our existence, that if we ignore or bypass suffering we won't have to deal with it, that we have a right to happiness and all the pleasures we can acquire while roaming across the landscapes of our lives.
Our pagan world demands that we do the exact opposite of what great writers have been doing throughout the ages of human history. Authors, caring, honest, reflective authors, see where we are at and they ask uncomfortable questions. They point to disturbing truths - not truths thy they have come to in some poignant moment of blinding revelation, but to the very truths that have been hounding the footsteps of humanity since we first woke up and realized that we weren't alone.
But the most important aspect of a truly great writer, a writer who speaks to my heart, my mind, and my soul, is someone who is aware of their own journey, someone who is trying to do more than just write a great story or reveal a great truth, but a person who understands that this life time is our opportunity to gain merit. There will come day when we will die and our opportunities for growth and understanding will end. One day we will stop and life as we understand it now, will end. And what we will be, is what we will be forever. God's plans may be beyond our sight but what we have done with what we have been given reflects a very particular opportunity. When we are alive we have the chance to become better people, to grow closer to God, learn through observation and study, and to become more noble human beings. Great writers instinctively understand this and they feel a rush to get their words down, to become what they are called to be because the passion of God's love for us is reflected in their love for Him and all that He has created.
So go ahead and write a novel for the masses, write a letter to a friend, write an essay for your teacher, write a blog or post on the internet, but make every word you write be an honest reflection, not of destructive gossip or a sterile complaint, but a delving into the deep and lush soil of our shared human experience. And who knows, maybe the Creator of the greatest story ever told, will want to read your words again and again...