Friday, April 28, 2006

Mary Kochran discusses "What It Takes to Be a Writer"

St. Peter's helper, one of my co-contributing writers over at the CCDB, writes:
I found this article written by Mary Kochan of Catholic Exchange. It seemed appropriate to the task of CCDB... if only to plant the seed of faith. Here are some of her insights on Catholic writing.
"Of course, if your goal is to become specifically a Catholic writer, then a solid education in your faith is needed and so is living your faith. The point of being a Catholic writer is not necessarily to write things that are identifiably Catholic, but to bring our sacramental understanding of the world to your writing, to do all things for the glory of God, and to be grounded in your commitment to the truth about things."
Catch her insight over at Catholic Exchange!

Here's more of a taste:
Reading Broadly and Deeply

To be a good writer one must be a good thinker and to be a good thinker, one must be a good reader reading good writing. To find good writing, you should read both broadly and deeply.

To read broadly, means to read in a wide range of subjects. The purpose of this reading is to make your mind alive to the world of ideas and to give you examples of many different kinds of writing in many different areas of knowledge. This may be compared to the physical activity of stretching to increase flexibility.

Even if you are hoping to become a writer in your own narrow specialty, you still need to read broadly. Your own specialty, no matter how narrow, fits into a wider context and ultimately that context is the entire human world and the entire physical universe.

To read deeply means to read difficult material that explores subjects in detail. The purpose of this reading is to train your mind to deal with complex thought and to furnish your mind with new ideas — new to you, not necessarily new to humanity.

If you understand everything you read, you are not reading deeply enough. This is comparable to strength training for your mind.

The Great Western Canon

Depth reading should put you deep into history with reading in what used to be unashamedly called the “Western canon” or the “Great Books.”

It includes reading the greatest scientific minds of the past: Euclid’s Geometry, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Newton's Optics. You must not miss the great epic storytellers: Homer, Virgil, Moses, Dante, Milton, and in more modern times, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Asimov, Herbert. The most quoted foundational moral literature should be read: Aristotle, Plato, the Gospels, St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Luther, Calvin, Kant, Kierkegaard, Doulgass, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Frankl, Bonhoeffer, Ghandi, King. And you should grapple with the political and economic thought of (again), Aristotle, Plato, Augustine and Aquinas, as well as Grotius, Adam Smith, the Federalist papers, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek. There are others of course but these should keep you busy for awhile.

Depth reading should also have you reading current in-depth articles outside of your specialty. Some periodicals that will keep you on your mental toes include Smithsonian, The Wilson Quarterly, The Nation, Psychology Today, Wired, First Things, Scientific American, American Prospect, The Atlantic Monthly, Christianity Today, The Economist, Human Events, and The Utne Reader.

A look at the (admittedly partial) list above reveals that it includes Christians and non-Christians, Catholics and non-Catholics, conservatives and radicals, believers and atheists. If you choose to read only those with whom you agree, you will weaken your ability to defend what you believe — even, for that matter, to know what you believe.
She also reccommends one more important practice: Writing!
If you are reading fiction, try to outline the plot and characters on paper. Ask yourself: If I were making a movie of this story, who would I get to play the characters? If I were making a play of it, what dialog would I include in the play? How could I condense the action to fit on stage and still reveal the characters to an audience? Which events described in the book would I present through dialogue in a play? You might want to write an alternative ending for the story, or a sequel. Discuss the story with others. Read what critics have to say about it, both positive and negative, and then write your own review. Be brave: put your review on so other people can read it and respond to it.

If you are reading non-fiction, try to outline the article or book you are reading. If you find this daunting, begin with outlining a chapter of a book, or a subheading — perhaps even just a paragraph — of an article. Present the author’s arguments to a friend, making the very best case for them, even if you disagree with them. If you disagree, write down your disagreements. Make sure you are fairly representing the author’s position; don’t be a mental wimp — engage the best and most compelling points the author makes. If you agree, write a defense (apologetic) for the author’s opinion. In either case, consider how someone with an opposing view might dissect your argument.
Full disclosure: I've worked with Mary before when I submitted two essays to CE. She served as my editor and knew how to coax the very best out of me.

Whether I wanted her to or not!

When I submitted my first draft of the second essay, she more or less told me to cut it in half. I thought she had lost her mind! Well, after splicing and dicing my "darlings", the revision told the true story better than I had imagined. She knows her business well.

Go read the whole thing.