“The Catholic writer really only needs three things to succeed: faith, hope, and ingenuity.”
–Dana Gioia, the Catholic Writer Today
As an admirer of this powerful essay and the brilliant, influential man who wrote it, I submit today that this statement is inaccurate. I wholeheartedly agree with Gioia’s implicit assumption that God can do all things. The second part of the statement holds true. I’d like to call to question instead the subject of the sentence, in the singular: “the Catholic writer,” and submit instead that community absolutely must be involved if any of us are to succeed. The work that Gioia himself has done as an advocate for Christian writers demonstrates that a different outlook on the process is far more likely to succeed. And as a Protestant, I would like to expand the phrase to include not just Catholics but all Christian writers. Taking these two enormous liberties, I offer my revision:
The Christian writer in community only needs three things to succeed: faith, hope and ingenuity.
I propose that the body of Christian writers, if we can support one another in our independent or collaborative efforts, can absolutely flourish by the grace of God and our own meager faith and talents. But the singular Christian writer, if left to her/his own devices, is likely to give up, or to create art that is inferior to what God can make possible.
The Catholic Writer Today is an otherwise-thorough essay about revitalizing Catholic literature in the present day. Gioia expresses his dismay at how very little space in contemporary American letters is occupied by overtly Catholic writers, when Catholics are “the nation’s largest cultural minority” (28). His concise lament offers some wonderful sound bites, and I am very fond of one in particular:
The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences, two vast impoverishments—one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the arts world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred, the breaking and discarding of two thousand years of Christian mythos, symbolism, and tradition has left contemporary American art spiritually diminished. (25)
For Gioia the strength of the “profound and truthful worldview” born of a tradition that spans two millennia is an advantage that Catholic writers ought to make better use of. For this reason and a number of other compelling ones, he calls upon this nearly-silent demographic to write write write, encouraged by the conviction that God will bless their work and restore the national attention that Catholic writers once knew.
Gioia’s own career is an exemplar of the selfless, community-focused action that empowers other Christian writers. As chairman of the NEA for six years, he worked to spread its funding through all geographic regions of the country, to give opportunities to as many groups as possible, regardless of how their cultural background or religious beliefs lined up with his own. During that time he provide live theater experiences to communities who might never have had the privilege, and started a national literacy program. He has also been a tireless advocate for fellow Christian artists—whether Catholic or not—and was awarded the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame for his service to the Catholic Church and to society as a whole. I’m guessing that we all owe a debt of thanks to advocates like Gioia.
Dear friends, fellow writers, and readers, I submit this blog post as a Christian writer putting the craft aside for a season. We have a new baby arriving soon, and I have a full-time job. I pray I’ll have the chance and calling again to try my hand at creating art, or to help others create art, that honors God. I suspect that I am not among the members of Gioia’s primary audience; I think he wishes most to speak to the next Dante or Flannery O’Connor, and that non-Catholics and lesser talents like myself may be secondary readers. Nevertheless, my own experience is not unlike most creative people’s, including even the literary giants: creating art is an oceanic commitment of time and resources, with no guarantees. What I have to show for this in written artifacts falls pitifully short of what I’d hoped to achieve in the time I’ve invested. However, my vision for what can and should be is sharper than ever. I am eager to start up again, and soon. For this I have the tireless efforts of friends, colleagues, and teachers to thank—past, present, and future.
This is true for so many writers: we need each other, even if we prefer to write alone. We need good readers, encouragement, childcare. We need writing retreats or grants to take uninterrupted time away. We need someone to kick us in the pants when we get lazy. We need friends who are ready to call out our bad habits. Maybe deadlines, too, and someone cares to see what we produce when the deadline has arrived.
This blog, After Flannery, such as it is, was invented in the same spirit: we hoped to create a place where friends could publish reflective commentaries. Where we could celebrate the writing that we love, and discuss what it means to be both Christian and literary. We—Allison and I—crave that kind of dialogue, and we are still looking for ways to make it happen.
The Catholic writer–or any writer–needs faith, hope, and ingenuity. Yes. And. Gioia’s selfless actions say what his essay omits: our own solitary fervor is most likely not enough, and God rarely calls us to act in complete isolation. Solitary though writers’ work often is, we need to spend the resources God gives on each other’s behalf. If we support one another, then from the community of believers who create art will emerge the kind of unmistakably great art that Gioia calls for.