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The Plight Of The Author

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By DONALD DeMARCO

Our parish bazaar was in its second day. Most of the more attractive items were gone on the opening day when crowds of treasure seekers stormed the church basement. Our pastor urged us to sweep clean any trinkets that remained. And so, after Mass, my wife and I made the short journey downstairs to inspect what others had passed over. My expectations were low. Nevertheless, while I was rummaging through the book section I found, to my chagrin, two of my own books. They were clean, unmarked, and presumably unread.
Hilaire Belloc would have been grievously disappointed. The great essayist had said, though with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
The next venue for my rejected offspring would be oblivion, or what was referred to in our town as Mount Trashmore. Not wanting that to happen, I turned to the lady standing next to me and offered to autograph the books if she might be inclined to obtain them.
Naturally, she did not believe I was the author. I was now cast in the embarrassing role of an impersonator who was in the habit of signing books written by other people. She did not know me and was reluctant to believe who I claimed to be. I asked her to meet my wife. Surely my spouse of fifty years would vouch for my identity. One might say that this is a low point for an author. I was a stranger in my own parish who may or not have authored two unimpressive books, but was willing to forge his name to someone else’s work. I had become a kind of Antonio Salieri who was motivated by his envy of Mozart.
I offered to purchase the books for her, but my friend was finally convinced I was the author and seemed pleased to pay the bargain basement price for them and carry home her signed copies. How to Survive as a Catholic in a Parochial World and Hope for a World Without Hope could now serve the purpose for which they were originally created.
John Steinbeck, no slouch as an author, once said: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” If I had any illusions left about my writing, they would have been shattered in the basement of St. Francis Church.
Nothing is more passive and yet more powerful than the word. There is profound meaning to the notion that in the beginning was the Word. The lifetime motto of journalist Eddie Doherty was “All my words for the Word.” Words take on special significance when they correlate to the Word. Christ, Himself, never wrote anything.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, this was fitting since the excellence of the teacher corresponds to the excellence of his mode of teaching. Thus, Christ inscribed His wisdom on the hearts of His hearers and not on parchment. Nonetheless, he left to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the task of spreading the Gospel message through the use of the written word.
Even from a secular perspective, the importance of the word is given its proper recognition. Historian Arthur Schlesinger regarded William Shakespeare as the most influential person over the last 500 years. The distinguished author ranked Shakespeare ahead of Columbus, Newton, Galileo, Lincoln, Darwin, and Gutenberg. Words achieve legal importance in wedding vows, oaths, contracts, and signatures.
St. Augustine’s entire life was turned around because of the instrumentality of the word. When he was at a low moment in his life, lying under a fig tree in a state of despair, he heard a voice saying to him “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!” (Take, read. Take, read). Interpreting the voice as of divine origin, Augustine opened St. Paul’s epistles at random and cast his eyes on the following words, “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.”
Augustine felt an immediate sense of relief, as if his long struggle had finally come to an end. God’s words were the means by which his conversion was accomplished.
At the same time, words can deceive, distort, and disvalue. To be honest with himself, the writer engages in strenuous soul searching. According to Henrik Ibsen, the great Norwegian playwright, “To live is to war with trolls in the heart and soul.” But “To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.” How does the writer, using the medium of mere words, begin to do justice to the reality he endeavors to express? Jacques Maritain confesses that “pouring truths into the mold of our truest words seems to be treason to truth.” “In utter loneliness,” adds Steinbeck, “a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.” For T.S. Eliot, “Words strain crack and sometimes break, under the burden under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, will not stay still.”
The writer, if he is serious, must accept failure, misunderstanding, rejection, alienation, and obscurity. He writes because he is convinced that the light he reveals is worth more than all the difficulties he must endure. There are the occasional breakthroughs, however, which are more than enough to keep the writer going.
On my desk, and as a permanent sign of encouragement, is a photograph of a young girl handing St. John Paul II a copy of my book, The Many Faces of Virtue. She traveled from Ohio to the Vatican to bestow this gift, and had the thoughtfulness and generosity to mail me the photograph. St. John Paul was hardly in need of a book about virtue, but to know that someone could be moved by the written word to travel to Rome and present this gift to the Holy Father is, for me, both humbling as well as gratifying.

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