Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Giants, Saints and Friends: Models for Life and Writing

"Have I told you how much I admire you? How much I thirst to know more and imitate your writing, your life, your way of seeing the world? Did you know that when I read you, you help me see deep into my heart and draw out beautiful things there? Do you know how much I long to leave a legacy like you, in my own God-gifted way?"

Emerging from my writing and books for a breath of air, I have been musing lately about my favorite authors, those who have inspired my own writing in some way. I will list the top few:

  • ROBERT FROST (since I was a child, I’ve treasured his poetry and it has grown with me)
  • OWEN WISTER (notably, in his novel The Virginian)
  • WILLA CATHER (notably, in My Antonia)
  • T.S. ELIOT
  • ST. FRANCIS DE SALES (patron saint of writers)
  • P.G. WODEHOUSE (his novels taste like candy after a long, hard day)

How does my writing somehow reflect the light these literary giants have shed on me? I’ve been trying to figure that out and appreciate what it is that they inspire in my own writing and personal life. I have a few ideas, certainly not an all-inclusive list, but a few musings, which for now will serve as a candle in the dark.

Robert Frost is my beloved, New England nature poet. Frost is a model for me through his nature poetry, and I see his style reflected in my own writing. He is a nature poet though only in so far as nature is a way to contemplate human character and feelings. In other words, the natural world becomes a window into human nature for Frost. Consider, for example, his poem “Tree at My Window” in which he compares “outer weather" with the "inner weather” of the heart. My first blog entry titled “Stopping by a House on a Sunny Afternoon” was emblematic of his “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Moreover, when I write about nature, it is in order to help me understand the human heart and the nature of the soul.

Dante Alighieri reigns high on my list of inspirational authors – the best writer who ever lived. Through his use of Christian allegory and numerous metaphors and similes, Dante is able to leap even a step further than Frost, from human nature to the mystery of God. Not only making nature a window into the heart of man and woman, Dante also sees in the physical world of arts and sciences evidence of supernatural things. Dante uses the physical, natural world to explain supernatural mysteries and reveal divine truth. Dante grasps fully the meaning of a “sacramental world.” He also saw and sought to reconcile the religious myths of Greek antiquity with the truth of Christianity. I see myself striving to achieve the same end in my writing as Dante: seeking to discover and share the divine truths that this sacramental world points to.

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot. Eliot, like the best writers, wrote with a sense of urgency and prophesy about the times. I see Eliot as embodying the poet-prophet, which I relate with in my own personal writing mission. His masterwork poem The Waste Land is filled with a substantial amount of quotes from The Divine Comedy, which reiterate Eliot’s admiration for Dante, a poet-prophet himself. Eliot was both American born (in St. Louis, Missouri) and English raised (attending Harvard and Oxford). Eliot reminds me of the prophetic call that summons every writer.

Owen Wister wrote my favorite novel of adventure, love, the human character, evil, good, romance and a person becoming a conqueror over himself - what does that mean? To understand being a conqueror over oneself, consider Virgil’s words to Dante after he has ascended the mountain of purgatory and stands in the earthly paradise. After Dante has mastered his vices by practicing virtues, Virgil tells him, “I crown and miter you over yourself” (Purgatorio Canto XXVII).The main character, the Virginian, in Wister’s novel accomplishes a similar personal achievement at the end of that novel. His testing in manhood, which makes up the plot of the book, might be compared to Dante’s testing in the journey of The Divine Comedy. Called on to action by the beauty of the woman he loves, he is tested and tried and becomes a worthy man, master over himself. Like Dante, he experiences an "earthly paradise" and communion with the one he loves in the end. For the Virginian, that earthly paradise is a honeymoon on a mountain island, lush with woodland beauty.

Like Frost and Willa Cather in her novel My Antonia, Wister gives the natural world a significant role in the novel. The Wild West almost has its own character and personhood, capable of affecting change in the human characters who pass through it. Wister shows how the wilderness is man’s teacher. I agree and find nature to be an excellent teacher. I credit Wister with the parts and pieces of good writing: plot, character development, dialogue, action, suspense and description.

Finally, last but not least, Flannery O’Conner is a truly remarkable woman writer, a fearless warrior of words, who was in the world but not of the world. A misfit bound for heaven. The sheer boldness of her fictional stories and her use of what she called “large and startling figures” amazes me. She is my favorite woman writer, more so in her principles and personal life than in her created works (I admit, I find it hard to read her fiction and easier to read her essays). I don’t begin to compare my writing style with hers, nor would I say we have similar personalities. I find her beautifully strange and wonderfully different!

If O’Conner were officially recognized by the Church as a saint in heaven, she would be receiving many requests from me for her intercession! I find in O’Conner a writer who I can admire spiritually, and since my writing is often spiritual in nature, it’s important to me to have a spiritual role model in the writing vocation. While St. Francis de Sales is a wonderful patron of writers, he remains a man, while O’Conner is a woman. I feel so challenged by her rigorous spiritual and prayer life, her acceptance of suffering, her dedication to writing, her trust in God, her dry sense of humor, her passionate defense of the Faith and her love for the Church. If O’Conner embodies a motto it is: “Live simply. Write extravagantly.” However, I’m afraid that if I had met her in person before reading about her, I probably would have mistakenly judged that I didn’t like her and been a bit taken aback when she greeted me at the door in her down-to-earth, vernacular “Howdy!”

These are the giants and saints, my friends, who lead the way before me.


  1. Thank you for the insight into your writerly heart. You continue to be an inspiration to me, both as a Catholic woman and a writer.

  2. now I have some reading to do!