When do you write? What’s the process you go through when you write?
Following the 30th October post on how he started writing, we asked Monsignor Paul Grogan more about this. He has recently written a book for CTS on the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Writing may not be an easy task, but it is highly rewarding…
I write best in the morning, like most people I suspect. I am always tempted to scrimp a bit on prayer in the morning so that I can get down to the task in hand, but I know that never ends well.
If I don’t start the day properly, giving God due time, then writing about him becomes merely an exercise in raw, ugly ambition and, unsurprisingly, the right words do not come very easily, if at all.
As I found all those years ago when I was a student, it is only when writing expresses a relationship – in this instance mine with God – that it becomes meaningful and life-giving.
I make lots of notes from my reading first.
Then I put the notes aside and I think to myself, “What are the key three things you want to say in this part?” I write those points down – they usually come quite easily – and I draw a mind map around them.
Then I write a linear plan, which I follow pretty slavishly.
The following day I quite often abandon that whole line of thought and quietly despair, but only for a time. A dragon looms over me and I can smell his evil breath and I go to bed feeling tired and peculiarly lonely.
The next morning, the dragon no longer has the advantage: hours of light lie before me which I can use to construct a new argument
and when the mental connections come, mysteriously, almost unbidden, I become aware that in a small way I have won a significant victory. I have used my mind to bring order out of chaos (and God has helped me to do this).
Two key learnings
I went on a personal development day at Leeds Trinity a couple of years ago which has helped me greatly in my writing. Fortunately for me nobody else turned up for this course so I had the instructor to myself. I learned two key things.
Firstly, the confusion is good.
It is a sign that the mind is processing ideas and data. We need to throw ourselves into acquiring knowledge undeterred by the nauseous sense that we are wasting our time because nothing seems to be fitting together.
The most important time is when we go and do something else in the evening. In these moments what we have read is processed in our sub-conscious.
Then suddenly the next day we have an idea based on what we had read before, an idea which is totally new. It’s always amazing when I stop plodding – mentally speaking – and then for a short while (and sometimes just 30 seconds is enough) I go into what Captain Kirk used to describe as warp drive, an intellectual “whoosh” which leaves me feeling invigorated. Straight afterwards I start to plod again, though more cheerfully now.
Secondly, I learnt a technique which has proved invaluable. It’s the “one hour rule.”
Like many of us I can become distressed because I think I do not have enough time to get a job done or else I can think, “I only have an hour, so why bother even starting a task? This “rule” helps me to maximise the possibilities that 60 minutes afford.
I resolve not to answer the door or the phone and I set an alarm to alert me to the end of the period: that way I’m not distracted looking at my watch.
Then, I begin and it’s often as if I am going into a different state of being. Indeed it sometimes feels like meditative prayer. As in prayer, after a while I can feel frustrated; but, as in prayer, there is nothing to be done: I have to press on.
Slowly the mind quietens itself and it becomes more capable of comprehending what it’s focusing upon.
I can only manage three such hours in the day. Afterwards I feel tired but profoundly satisfied. Even if I haven’t made all the progress I would have wanted, I feel very peaceful because I know that I could not have done any more.
Pieces of advice
As a very minor writer myself, I have two pieces of advice for prospective writers.
Firstly, find somebody who can encourage you. In other words, be humble enough to recognise that you can’t do it by yourself.
Secondly, don’t worry whether a particular piece makes the grade or not:
the act of creative engagement is inherently valuable, pleasing to God and personally up-building.
Most of our disappointments are just a manifestation of pride so we don’t need to be too worried about them.
Towards concrete acts
I am particularly interested in how CTS publication can help people to do act in order to express their faith.
I have a sense that young people in particular want to know how they can demonstrate to themselves and to others that they are disciples of Jesus. This is a big cultural shift. Some of the best CTS pamphlets explain a particular moral teaching of the church with great concision and they express a pleasing ecclesial self-confidence that makes our faith seem especially attractive.
By themselves however they are insufficient. I do not want to be merely convinced of the truth: I want to be a twenty first century Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (albeit, admittedly, rather older than he ever became!). One of Blessed Pier Giorgio’s friend poked fun at him for saying the rosary in the street. “I am trying to remain Catholic” he said, or words to that effect.
In other words this great man – whom St John Paul II declared to be a model for young people throughout the world – knew that he had to be constantly building his faith through acts which opened his heart to grace.
Hence I love CTS books that describe both how we may love our faith, most especially through developing our lives of prayer, including saying prayers, and how we may live our faith, in particular through growing in virtue through the performance of good acts.
I think – and I don’t mind being a bit controversial here – the single most significant act of new evangelisation which the Catholic Church has engaged in in the last twenty years has been the reintroduction of Friday abstinence as a public penance. People I know find it a bit difficult to integrate this new practice into their lives; some ridicule it. It’s got an incredibly rich significance though; the discipline says:
I do in order to become more who I am.
To use an expression of Chiara Lubich, foundress of the Focolare Movement,
it requires me to say a small “no” in order to say a more complete “yes” to Our Lord.