The following is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing graduation ceremony in Santa Fe, NM on August 9, 2014.
I’ve been thinking that in the rapidly changing, cutthroat literary marketplace—where it’s easier to get published but harder to make any money or sustain a career—that my usual commencement “blah blah blah,” 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.
No, it’s time to loosen the tie, roll up the sleeves, and get practical. So, while I’m going to follow my usual pattern and speak on topics suggested by the texts we’ve been reading together, I’m junking the literary essay for the much more profitable format of bullet-pointed self-help advice. You graduates deserve nothing less.
I’m proud to present to you “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Creative Writers,” as inspired by Aurelius Augustinus. That’s the given name of the guy we know as St. Augustine—the chap who wrote that autobiography known as The Confessions. I figure if I’m going to turn this guide into a bestseller, better to ditch the “saint” bit—so he can be a little more “relatable” to today’s readers.
So here goes.
1: Don’t be loquacious.
For Augustine, the worst thing you can be as a writer is loquacious. Unless, that is, 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 ol’ 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.”
OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away here. 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 from (and that’s where many of the best writers start from), 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 point is more or less a variation on the first. Augustine was trained in rhetoric and literature and loved above all things the high literary style of Roman writers like Cicero. But he also recognized that great writing is always a mixture of high and low, elegant and gritty, clean and dirty, 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, well, all too accessible. He eventually came to believe that the beauty of the scriptures is that they are open to everyone while containing many layers that repay deeper interpretations.
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.
OK, 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 still powerful 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 and moved and had his being.
True, he could indulge in a little irony and make fun of literary classics like Virgil’s Aeneid (the other classic text we studied at this residency), 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.”
As we learned, 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 every human being to perceive her life as a spiritual epic whose destiny is the New Jerusalem.
Augustine couldn’t have achieved this if he didn’t read and interact at the deepest level 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, holding themselves separate from and above the hoi polloi.
We don’t judge great books, they judge us. Maybe a truer way to put it is that while we read those books, they ultimately read us. Write in such a way that your books will read your reader’s lives.
The humility that faith requires—the recognition of our fallenness and vulnerability—led Augustine to realize that the only way he could write and connect to his fellow human beings was openly, 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, rather than connecting as one heart reaching out to another.
Gregory Wolfe is the founder of Image and the Director of the Center for Religious Humanism. He also serves as Writer in Residence and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University.He has published essays, reviews, and articles in numerous journals, including Commonweal, First Things, National Review, Crisis, Modern Age, and New Oxford Review. He received his B.A., summa cum laude, from Hillsdale College and his M.A. in English literature from Oxford University. His website is www.gregorywolfe.com.