Heather King expounds upon the art and habit of writing, channeling the wisdom of Flannery O'Connor in and through Jacques Maritain. Heather speaks about her experience as a writer in several compelling segments, all available on her blog, Shirt of Flame. Read one of her articles here.
That I converted to Catholicism right around the same time I began writing is no accident, for the two, in my life, are inextricably intertwined. The physical reason I never wrote during my drinking years was that I was too hungover to sit up, but the real reason was that I had nothing to write about, to write from. I had self-pity and depression. I had compulsion, bondage and death without resurrection. I couldn't start writing until I came awake, and almost the minute I came awake I was propelled toward writing.
Writing is my way of going, as Christ did, not against the system, but beyond it. I have strong opinions and I live them out in my vocation as a writer. I can be testy, impatient, driven, but partly because I have an intense desire to give of myself unreservedly. I say no to a lot of things; I forgo a certain kind of social life, leisure and laxity. I have ordered my life around and staked my life on writing. Like my belief in Christ, writing to me is a matter of life and death.
If one person has formed me--as a human being, a Catholic, and a writer--it is the short story writer and novelist Flannery O'Connor. In the preface to O'Connor's collected letters, editor Sally Fitzgerald writes:
"When Flannery went home [to rural Georgia, after receiving a diagnosis of (at the time incurable) disseminated lupus erythematosus], expecting to return to us, she left behind a book, Art and Scholasticism, by Jacques Maritain. I had mislaid it, and brought another copy to send her when I forwarded her things. She told me to keep her copy when I found it, and I have it still, underlined here and there by her. It was from this book that she first learned the conception of "the habit of art," habit in this instance being defined in the Scholastic mode, not as mere mechanical routine, but as an attitude or quality of mind, as essential to the real artist as talent. Maritain writes:
Operative habit resides chiefly in the mind or the will...Habits are interior growths of spontaneous life...and only the living (that is to say, minds which alone are perfectly alive) can acquire them, because they alone are capable of raising the level of their being by their own activity: they possess, in such an enrichment of their faculties, secondary motives to action, which they bring into play when they want...The object [the good of the work] in relation to which (the habit) perfects the subject is itself unchangeable--and it is upon this object that the quality developed in the subject catches. Such habit is a virtue, that is to say a quality which, triumphing over the original indetermination of the intellective faculty, at once sharpening and hardening the point of its activity, raises it in respect of a definite object to a maximum of perfection, and so of operative efficiency. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect.
Flannery consciously sought to attain to the habit of art, and did, by customary exercise and use, acquire it in the making of her novels and stories. Less deliberately perhaps, and only in the course of living in accordance with her formative beliefs, as she consciously and profoundly wished to do, she acquired as well, I think, a second distinguished habit, which I have called "the habit of being": an excellence not only of action but of interior disposition and activity that increasingly reflected the object, the being, which specified it, and was itself reflected in what she did and said."
O'Connor was a genius. On a good day, I'm maybe in the mid-range of the second tier. But that's not what matters. I mean it matters absolutely to the cause of world literature, which is forever in O'Connor's debt. But what matters vis-a-vis my own mission on earth is whether I give 100% of what I have. And in this, Catholicism has proved a perfect and infallible guide. I don't have one part of me that's a writer and another part of me for the rest of my life. The whole goal is to order my day around writing, and to order my life around the virtues that will produce the best writing possible. How am I spending my day? If I'm trolling other people’s work looking for something to despise, my way isn’t working. Why am I not writing? If I'm frittering away my time trying to figure out how to put someone in their place, or how to weasel out of returning a phone call from someone who needs a favor, or wondering why everyone buys books from shallow hacks and nobody notices me, my way isn't working. What possible kind of purity of heart am I going to gain from any of that with which to fuel my writing?
Jacques Maritain on “habit”: (from “Art an Intellectual Virtue”[sic] in Art and Scholasticism:
“Other habitus have for their subject the faculties or powers of the soul, and as the nature of these faculties or powers is to tend to action, the habitus which inhere in them perfect them in their very dynamism, are operative habitus: such are the intellectual virtues and moral virtues.
We acquire this last kind of habitus through exercise and use; but we must not for this reason confuse habitus with habit in the modern sense of this word, that is to say, with mere mechanical bent and routine; habitus is exactly the contrary of habit in this sense. Habit, which attests to the weight of matter, resides in the nerve centers. Operative habitus, which attests the activity of the spirit, resides principally in am immaterial faculty, in the intelligence or the will…Habitus are intrinsic super-elevations of living spontaneity, vital developments which render the soul better in a given order and which fill it with an active sap: turgentia ubera animae, as John of Saint Thomas calls them…
Habitus are, as it were, metaphysical titles of nobility, and as much as innate gifts they make for inequality among men. The man who possesses a habitus has within him a quality which nothing can pay for or replace; others are naked, he is armed with steel: but it is a case of a living and spiritual armor...
Art, which rules Making and not Doing, stands therefore outside the human sphere; it has an end, rules, values, which are not those of man, but those of the work to be produced. This work is everything for Art; there is for Art but one law—the exigencies and the good of the work.
Hence, the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing ceases at the door of every workshop.”
And there you have it. Because writing requires an almost physical nerve, I devote a certain amount of energy to staying in physical shape. Because I don't want to waste time cleaning up chaos, I pay my bills on time, get my oil changed, and put away (for the most part) my clothes. Because the slightest conflict with another human being causes me deep pain, and because I have many wounds and character defects that tend to create conflict, I devote a lot of energy to working with a spiritual director, examining my conscience, praying for my character defects to be removed, praying for the courage to be willing to act a new way, praying to forgive. Because I don't want to go back to the hellish slavery of drinking, and because I'm so eternally grateful that just for today, I'm not drinking, I devote eight or ten hours a week to staying sober and helping other alcoholics and addicts get sober. Because I don't want to willfully put myself in a position to be irritated, bored, nauseated and depressed, I don't watch TV. I don't drive if I can walk, I don't take the elevator if I can take the stairs, I don't take the flat way if I can take the hilly way. I don't text. Thus I keep the fat off, physically and spiritually, and the weird thing is that these habits of my own make me more resilient, more compassionate, more able to laugh at myself, more free, not less free. The fact is I've created a life where I get to spend my day doing pretty much exactly as I like. Because as I said, I'd rather be writing.
And because I don't understand or know how to do any of this, I go to Confession and I go to Mass. Not one second of my life would make sense or could be lived without Christ. Through Christ, my loneliness and fatigue and fear and pain become united to the suffering of the world. Through Christ, my egregious tepidity and Phariseeism and hardness of heart are revealed, grieved, forgiven. Through Christ one more time, I'm called deeper and higher. Through Christ, I'm led to give of myself ever more fully. Through Christ, writing becomes a “habit of being” in which chastity, obedience and poverty are given to me as gifts. By poverty I mean an awareness of my own limitations. In fact, whatever gift I have springs almost entirely from having been tragi-comically forced to acknowledge my limitations, and finding that right in their midst is the laughter, the vitality, the meat.
"Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it," O'Connor observed in Mystery and Manners. That is no doubt true, but so is the possibility that more people aren't reading my/your/our work simply because it's not good enough. Again, the Cross allows me to bear the perpetual paradoxes: the constant discernment of whether I'm trying to be clever or trying to be true, whether I'm more interested in getting a piece off my desk than in excellent writing, my genuine desire for purity of heart versus my also very real craving for validation and my very real need to make money...
Read the rest of Heather's beautiful post on her blog, Shirt of Flame.