The following is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative writing graduation in Santa Fe on August 9, 2014.
IN THE RAPIDLY CHANGING, cutthroat literary marketplace—where it’s easy to get published but harder to make any money or sustain a career—my usual commencement address, based as it is on old-fashioned rhetorical devices like carefully elaborated arguments drenched in a heavy sauce of gravitas, just won’t cut it anymore. So I’m abandoning the literary essay for the more profitable format of bullet-pointed self-help advice. I’ve decided to share with you “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Creative Writers,” as inspired by one of the authors we’ve studied, Saint Augustine. He was a bestseller in his day.
#1: Don’t be loquacious.
For Augustine, the worst thing you can be as a writer is loquacious. Unless you are, as he puts it, “loquacious with verbosity.” In fact, the phrase “loquacious with verbosity” is a loquaciously verbose way of saying “wordy.” That’s how Augustine jokes around.
To be loquacious is to use a lot of words to say very little or to use big words when you could use little ones. Don’t use multisyllabic Latinate words like “loquacious” when you can use nice, monosyllabic words like the Anglo-Saxon word “word.”
Anyway, you get the idea.
But at a deeper level I think Augustine is also saying that it’s important for your words to be grounded in truth—in what Henry James called “felt life”—that form should always be tethered to content. Or, to put this another way: as writers, your love of language and form, even if that’s the place you start (and that’s where many of the best writers start), should nonetheless generate a search for the meaning your form wants to say.
Saying something well is only worthwhile when you have something to say.
#2: Learn how to balance the high and the low.
This is more or less a variation on point #1. Augustine was trained in rhetoric and literature and loved above all things the high style of Roman writers like Cicero. But he also recognized that great writing is always a mixture of elegant and gritty, refined and common. As a young man, he had a hard time believing in the truth of the Bible because its language and subject matter often seemed messy and all too accessible. He eventually came to believe that the beauty of the scriptures is that they are “open to everyone” while containing layers that repay deeper study.
Augustine believed that it was often better to be humble and enter through the low doors and “narrow openings” of biblical realism so that the reader could enter into a more spacious realm. May your writing be inspired by this insight.
#3: Engage the culture.
Okay, that’s a terrible cliché. I’m working on a better phrase. But here’s what I mean.
Even though Augustine became a Christian and felt a strong impulse to criticize the tidal force of paganism and “worldliness” in his time, he did not retreat into a religious subculture or ignore the cultural and literary legacies that shaped the society in which he lived.
True, he could indulge in a little irony and make fun of literary classics like Virgil’s Aeneid, but as a person of faith he subscribed to another early church father’s saying that “wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s.”
Augustine’s Confessions to a great extent models itself on the Aeneid while at the same time transforming it. Both are epics featuring fallible heroes who resist their vocations—their destinies—but the Confessions, as the story of an ordinary man, demonstrates that faith in Christ enables all of us to perceive our lives as spiritual epics whose destiny is the New Jerusalem.
Augustine couldn’t have achieved this if he hadn’t read and deeply interacted with the books that were compelling for his generation. Which writers will you read, engage, and transform?
#4: Play the fool.
When Augustine became a Christian he understood that what he had formerly considered wisdom was foolishness and vice versa. He had wasted a great deal of time trying to be clever, hanging out with a group of people who thought they knew better than everyone else.
I’ve said before that we don’t judge great books, they judge us. Maybe a truer way to put it is that while we read those books, they read us. Write in such a way that your books will read your readers’ lives.
The humility that faith requires—the recognition of our fallenness and vulnerability—led Augustine to realize that the only way he could connect to his fellow human beings as a writer was by revealing his flaws and showing how grace worked through them to bring healing and understanding.
Being a writer demands a high level of cleverness, but you will never move your readers if you turn your writing into self-justification or mere virtuosity. Unless you are willing to play the fool, caper about and be honest about your woundedness, you’ll leave your reader out in the cold.
#5: Make your writing a prayer.
This may sound overly pious but I don’t mean it in a pietistic way.
I’m not suggesting that you imitate Augustine, who wrote the entirety of the Confessions as a single, continuous prayer. But what he did in that book offers us some clues about how to be better writers.
Every prayer, even the short ones we blurt out in times of need, is shaped language: consecrated speech. In prayer we search for words to express our need, seek help, and give thanks. The very act of prayer is thus a search, a journey.
Augustine peppers his Confessions with questions, and I can’t think of a more spiritual form of devotion than questions that are posed with passion and genuine openness to the unknown, the unexpected sources of grace.
What if everything you wrote was a prayer to God and a prayer for communion with your reader?
#6: Choose incarnation over ideology
The Confessions are full of philosophy and theology, which can sometimes be a chore to get through, but those heady abstractions entailed plenty of flesh-and-blood consequences for the protagonist. In many respects Augustine’s time is vastly different from ours, and yet it’s surprising just how contemporary his story sounds. As the Roman Empire came to an end, the cacophony of religious sects and political parties made for all-out culture wars.
Both as a Manichean and as a Platonist, Augustine had felt the particular pleasure of self-righteous enlightenment that is the hallmark of ideology. But because ideology is an artificial system imposed on reality rather than a picture built up from a long, loving gaze at reality, it is dangerously abstract.
Ideology offers a sense of separateness and righteousness, which is why for so long Augustine found the messy, muddled Christian church, with its doctrine of Christ as fully human and fully divine, too distasteful to embrace. This church, whose first two leaders were a reformed betrayer and a reformed persecutor, seemed hell-bent on mixing large doses of mercy in with justice, and appeared to believe that its adherents should live out their lives embracing the ambiguity of human conflicts and cling to mystery rather than certainty.
Augustine’s conversion was ultimately a surrender to this muddle, a willingness to affirm the created order in all of its brokenness as the dwelling place of God’s spirit. Which is why the keynote of Christian faith is not moralism but the encounter with a presence that loves us, warts and all, all the way to our destiny.
When writers are doing their work properly, they restore our sense of living within the ambiguity and mystery of the world. The writer’s hope is that the more she pays attention to creation, the more the hints and signs of grace will flash out.
#7: Follow your restless heart.
Few professions are more given to agonizing about vocation than writing. The writer seems eternally willing to doubt herself, even after a string of successful publications.
There are times when, as in the Aeneid, it seems that we will never get beyond all the obstacles that stand in the way of our vocation and that, even if we do move past them, the cost will be too high—to our humanity, and to those around us.
And there are times when, as in the Confessions, it seems that our anxiety and sense of loneliness as writers will never go away. Augustine said to God that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” and there are times when we long for rest, even if it means giving up what we thought we were called to do.
You may be tempted to think that your restlessness is the enemy, but believe me when I say that it is not. That restlessness is God’s gift to you, that insatiable desire, that hunger of love, which has been planted deep within you. Without that restlessness you would never seek for true rest; instead, you’d accept stagnation.
Augustine came to see that when memory and desire meet, the imagination—the urge to give shape to our experience and move from fragmentation to unity—is at its peak of creativity.
So I say to you graduates: follow where your restless hearts lead you. As long as you heed Augustine’s advice—to allow your desire to embrace the world without attempting to possess it, to seek the infinite within the finite—your heart will speak to the hearts of others.
So let me end with some words of Augustine, words that might not make you the authors of future bestsellers, but words that are good, true, and beautiful—and certainly not loquacious.
But when I love you, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God—a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.