Sunday, January 30, 2011

(Belated) New Year's writing resolutions

This is a very personal post, one that perhaps shares too much, so please forgive the many instances of the vertical pronoun which follow:

Yesterday, in congratulating The Crescat on getting into the top 30 Catholic blogs, I half-quipped, half-whimpered that neither of my blogs had broken into the top 200 yet. Poor, pitiful me.

Then, today, I ran across this article from the late philosopher and novelist Ralph McInerny, “On Being a Catholic Writer”. Among the interesting insights he shared, he left a bit-slap for me (and for hundreds of other would-be pundits):

“The dilettante writes to amuse himself, an easy task, but the serious writer seeks to interest a reader. … No one owes you a reading. It has to be earned.”


“Asking a writer how he feels about critics,” someone once said, “is like asking a fireplug how it feels about dogs.” There’s a world of difference, though, between being a serious writer—a writer who gets read—and what Louis B. Mayer called “a schmuck with an Underwood”. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Mark Shea from my position of almost-complete obscurity, even though Shea writes for several blogs and speaks for Catholic Answers for a living. It’s easy for me to grump about lousy homilies because I’m not the one in the ambo trying to light a fire under Catholic butts.

Strike that last bit. I am the one in the ambo … or, rather, the lectern (I’m not ordained, so technically I can’t preach). I don’t get paid to do this because I don’t have the audience to make it pay; I don’t have the audience to make it pay because no one owes me a reading—I have to earn it. As Alfred North Whitehead put it (in a different context), “Truth without interest is irrelevant.”

Why do I want to write … to get paid? Not precisely; at least, that’s not my direct motivation. George Burns once said that retirement is doing what you want to do, and getting paid to do it: “I’ve been retired for seventy-five years.” (He was ninety at the time.)

I write because I have things I want to say. I write because I want to contribute to certain ongoing national and international conversations. I want to explain, defend, attack, argue, commiserate, quip, instruct, clarify, prove and disprove. (The short version of this is: I’m Irish.)

But beyond that, I see my people, my nation, my world going horribly, horribly wrong, descending into a demonic madhouse, careering insanely towards collapse. And I know why: we have not only forgotten God, we’ve set up an unholy host of false gods in His place … some of which have been given His name in mockery.

I’m not so egotistical that I believe my voice alone can stop or even slow the process. And I know there are others who see the same thing I do. But I can speak with them; I can add my voice to theirs. Like my vote, perhaps my voice is the one which helps us pierce the clamor and be heard.

In sum, I believe writing to be my charism and my apostolate. I thank everyone who has stuck with me so far as I’ve stumbled along trying to find my voice along with an audience. And I’m not quitting now. But if I’m going to be taken seriously, I have to take my craft seriously.

So here are some resolutions I’m going to try to put in place from here on out:
  1. Shorten the posts. I’ve been shooting in the range of 1,500 words, exclusive of footnotes. I’m going to try to trim it down to 750-1,000, inclusive of footnotes, which will no longer be used for asides.
    1. When you run out of things to say, shut up. This is a slightly different rule: If I run out of steam at 659 words, no need to strain for ninety-one more.
    2. If you're coming up on 1,000 and haven't run out of things to say, stop there and start trimming off the fat.
  2. Save sidebars for new posts. If people want to know what I mean by x or how y relates to my argument, they’ll ask.
  3. Omit needless words.
  4. Structure the posts. No more wandering, discursive intros; no more trying to cram the substance of the argument into the last two or three paragraphs. The format I’m going to try will have three parts: 1) What’s the problem? 2) Why is it a problem? 3) What do we do about the problem?
  5. Punch up the first paragraph. Like the old commercial said, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. The first paragraph is the hook that grabs the reader; the third or fourth paragraph is the wrong time to get interesting.
  6. Stick to English as much as possible. It would be ironic for a Catholic blogger to avoid using Latin. Occasionally, referring back to the Greek texts helps me unpack a concept. But there’s no need to say “le mot juste” when I can just as easily say “the right word”.
  7. Have some fun, for Pete’s sake! My normal conversation is lighter, with more one-liners and dry understatements, fewer polysyllabic words (like “polysyllabic”). This is a blog, not a doctoral dissertation; no need to make it sound like one.

These are some initial guides. Any further suggestions?

Your humble(d) blogger,
Anthony S. “Tony” Layne