Writing Lessons

Advice You’ll Never Outgrow

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By Paul Elie


 

“Go deeper.” Those two words were at once invitation, exhortation, and an opening up of the bottomless inner space that real writing is all about.

I was already a writer of a kind: magazine articles, essays, and plenty of pieces of catalog and jacket copy at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where I had become an editorial assistant and then an editor. Now a proposal for a book of my own was on the boss’s desk, and I was waiting for his reaction.

The proposal was for a group portrait of four writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, modern American Catholics all. I thought it neat that they had all come to the fore (as I put it, I think) in the years after World War II, and I spelled this out in the proposal—the idea that a so-called “School of the Holy Ghost” had emerged as if out of nowhere (I think I put it that way, too) to figure significantly in postwar American writing.

The boss was Jonathan Galassi: editor-in-chief, poet, translator, and instinctual seeker of the fresh and authentic text. He had shown an interest in the authors I was writing about, in part because the story of FSG, and of Robert Giroux in particular, was entwined with those authors’ stories. And he had shown some interest in my writing—those essays and magazine articles.

I got back from lunch to find the printed proposal on my desk with a sticky note: “Let’s talk,” or some such.

I went into his office and waited for a phone call to end. He stood. A smile, a cock of the head, a pat on the shoulder. He liked it, he said—liked it a lot. Then: “Go deeper. You need to go deeper.”

I asked him what he meant, and he explained, roundabout but in such a way as to draw clear lines between the literary text and all the other kinds of writing that washed up against the pilings of our office. What I’d written was too journalistic. It made too much of superficial connections. It was boosterish in style—it was trying to put the idea of a “school” of American Catholic writing over on us instead of trusting the material. And (again, all this was conveyed indirectly) it didn’t get to the bottom of what made these people a school, or what made them Catholic writers, or what made them Catholics at all, or why what they believed mattered to them or us.

Roger Straus liked it too—and Jonathan and FSG signed up the book. And day and night for a thousand days and nights I sought to go deeper, starting by moving my point of entry into the story back nearly half a century—to the moments where those four writers themselves turned, in their different ways, to literature and to religious belief in their own efforts to go deeper. And somewhere in the middle of those thousand days and nights, I concluded that the experience of depth—intellectual, emotional, spiritual depth—is the central literary experience. It is what makes literature literature, and what makes us read literature, and write it.

“Go deeper.” It’s not advice a writer can outgrow or set aside as unnecessary. Augustine asked, “Who understands his sins?” Likewise, what writer can truly say, “I’ve gone deep enough”?

Paul Elie is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach. He posts pieces daily to the Georgetown website everythingthatrises.com.

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