Thomas Merton on The Christian Writer

by Mike Duran · 20 comments

Thomas-MertonThomas Merton wrote often about writing. When he entered the Trappist monastery in December 1941, Merton renounced secular life—which included a very promising literary career. He gave all his journals, poems, and a novel-in-progess, to his mentor, a Columbia professor, for safe keeping. Merton expected to write little, if anything, ever again.  However, he almost immediately was assigned writing tasks by his Abbot. Among these was an  autobiographical essay The Seven Storey Mountain, which surprisingly became an international best-seller. The book made Merton famous, and for a time, he struggled with the compatibility of dual vocations as a monk and a writer. Eventually, Merton came to accept his new calling, even using it as a source of creative tension. His thoughts on writing, though decades old, remain uniquely relevant for the Christian writer. This excerpt was taken from The Sign of Jonas (shout out to pastor friend Dave Jacobs for calling my attention to this quote):

We who say we love God: why are we not as anxious to be perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service of God? If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in him take pains to write so well. I’m not talking about grammar or syntax, but about having something to say and saying it in sentences that are not half dead. St. Paul and St. Ignatius Martyr did not bother about grammar but they certainly knew how to write of God.

Imperfection is the penalty of rushing into print and people who rush into print too often do so not because they really have anything to say, but because they think it is important for something by them to be in print. The fact that your subject may be very important in itself does not necessarily mean that what you have written about it is important.

A bad book about the love of God remains a bad book even though it may be about the love. There are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books. Then men pick up these books and say: if the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much. (pg 59 and 60)

Guy Stewart July 5, 2013 at 9:06 AM

For me, this is perhaps one of the most important things you have ever brought to light.

Thank you.

Jessica Thomas July 5, 2013 at 9:21 AM

Thomas Merton is not on my list of favorites at the moment, so I am not sure how to take this quote. Can I listen to or take his advice on writing (as it pertains to one’s walk with God), when I have serious concerns about his theology? Don’t have an answer for that question. I’m sure it will bug me for some time to come, however.

Jessica Thomas July 5, 2013 at 9:32 AM

Well, hmmm, that didn’t take nearly as long as I thought…

First of all, there is no such thing as a “perfect” book, and trying to attain such as a writer is a recipe for *stress* and potential lack of enjoyment in the writing process. Yes, we should work hard, but not for perfect writing, but because we want to honor God.

Second, a “bad” book that accurately portrays the gospel of Jesus Christ is better than a “brilliant” book that skews the gospel. I’m not saying the full gospel must be portrayed in every book. Just saying, writing can be ‘beautiful’ but if it’s gross misrepresentation of the gospel, I don’t think the writing holds much, if any, value in the grand scheme.

D.M. Dutcher July 5, 2013 at 8:10 PM

I agree with you. I don’t think being perfect is possible, and perfectionism will more likely than not prevent good books from being written. I don’t like how “we need to be perfect so the unbelievers don’t sniff at our clumsy efforts” vibe in the last part of the post either.

Rebecca LuElla Miller July 5, 2013 at 10:27 AM

Jessica, I agree with what you say. Completely.

Still, that doesn’t mean Merton was wrong in what he said about writing because he’s primarily talking about having content (as opposed to what that content should be–i.e. right theology): “I’m not talking about grammar or syntax, but about having something to say…”

For far too long Christians, in an attempt to get out from under the “preachiness” label, have disavowed saying anything at all. The importance of our stories somehow magically spring up from our worldview or from the characters themselves. Never mind that all the rest of writing fiction is hard work! Saying something meaningful “just happens.”

That way of thinking is nonsense. I think Merton has exposed a hidden motive many writers don’t want to admit: “people who rush into print too often do so not because they really have anything to say, but because they think it is important for something by them to be in print.”

Becky

Kim Kouski July 5, 2013 at 11:08 AM

Love that post, Becky. I’ve been thinking a lot about those who say Christian writing is just plain yuck and inferior to secular writing. I believe that Christian Writers almost have to write a bit differently than the world. Yeah, we still need to follow techinique, but I also think we have to be a bit more censored than the secular writer. My audience is Christian so they don’t want to read cursings, sex, supernatural stuff and I don’t want to give that to them. So I have to ‘get around it’. I’ve learned that using technique really helps get around it, but if one doesn’t know technique, they don’t know how to get around it, and the story falls flat. There’s ways to getting around sex, cursing, etc and still have an awesome story that still is ‘human’. I think that being a christian writer means I have to work harder and study more as I’m more on the stage than I am when I’m not writing. This sentence also hit me: why are we not as anxious to be perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service of God? There’s so many ways to get around the ‘unmentionables’ in writing and it all comes from technique. Anyway, I’m just rambling at this point. 🙂

Jessica Thomas July 5, 2013 at 1:29 PM

I think I’m in a bit of a rebellious mood, or burnt out maybe. Or just thinking out loud. But doesn’t much “Christian” writing lack because Christians tend to overthink the whole thing? As if we want God to dictate our every little decision, even our hand as we write. In striving toward the unnattainable we put up legalistic prison bars around ourselves, perfectionism being yet another.

You say, “…writing fiction is hard work”. This is the truth of it. Rather than philosophize about the act of writing, and worrying about how my work is received, I might rather simply work hard at my writing, read my Bible every day to seek a better understanding of God, and then see what happens next. I might try that, in fact. 😉

R. L. Copple July 5, 2013 at 5:50 PM

If you are concerned about preachiness, you could always review my “7 Top Ways to Ensure Your Story is Preachy” post: http://blog.rlcopple.com/?p=491

Almost 2 years old by now, but still relevant. (Warning, it is satirical.)

Kim Kouski July 5, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Great article, Mike!! I lead a writer’s group and I also teach writing skills and I can attest that it is so important to know HOW to write. Learning new writing skills is like adding a new tool to a toolbox. My dad always said use the right tool for the right job. He’d have a fit if I used a wrench as a hammer or a butter knife as a screw driver.

Writing a book that is impossible to read is like giving your second best to God. I love this quote: “Imperfection is the penalty of rushing into print and people who rush into print too often do so not because they really have anything to say, but because they think it is important for something by them to be in print.” No truer words have ever been spoken. Having a book published by a traditional publisher simply means more work, not fulfilling a need. Let Jesus fulfill all your needs, not seeing your name in the bookstore. Yes, I love to write and learn new things, but nothing beats being in God’s presence.

A writer in my group pointed out to me that I have problems plotting out a story. And he’s right, I do. But the book is with the publisher and it’s too late to turn back now. I have to now learn on the fly, no longer do I have that luxury of taking my time to learn. So my advice to newbie writers is always learn technique, learn what works, what doesn’t BEFORE signing a contract. Find and perfect your writing ‘mojo’ now, don’t be so eagar to jump into the publishing world. Take your time, perfect, perfect, perfect that writing skill, always learn something new each month. Stretch yourself and pray that God leads you, but don’t be like a race horse biting the bit to run that race. It will always be there for you.

I know of a writer who for 5 years others have told him to stop rambling in his story as his plot is being lost. He refuses to listen and he keeps losing his plot and the story gets tedious and practically unreadable. So yes, technique is as important as God’s spirit moving through the writer. There’s a proverb I always use with my group: Prov 22:29:
Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will stand before kings;
He will not stand before obscure men.

God expects His people to be the best out there. So I agree with this article. Be the best that you can be. Don’t think you don’t need technique because of ___. I’ve seen first hand how a lack of technique can make a story unreadable, no matter how much God is in it. Shivers!!!

Keanan Brand July 5, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Amen, Kim!

I wish more Christian writers would “get it”: It’s not about the sermon (everyone has one, even those who aren’t believers, because everyone has a worldview and a strong belief about SOMEthing). It’s about the writing.

Get the writing down, make it excellent, and then even people who are of differing faiths, opinions, worldviews, etcetera, will read your work and acknowledge it, even if they never come around to your way of thinking or believing.

Our excellence is a window on the overarching, exceeding excellence of God. But if our work is poor, what then is our reflection of Him?

Kim July 5, 2013 at 3:43 PM

Agreed, Keanan. 🙂 If you’ve ever read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you’ll see a wonderful sermon. Same thing with Tolkien. I’m reading LOTR for the first time, I know! and I”m falling in love with it. I’m now understanding why folks are so much in love with this book. A saying goes: When I hear a noise in my darken house, I’m hoping it’s an orc so I know Middle EArth exists. Yet Tolkien has his own sermon in there, Good Vs Evil. A great sermon, but it’s disguised by Elves, Hobbits and Wizards. That’s my goal, to have a great sermon disguised by writing well, a great plot and wonderful characters. The thing is some publishers have been more concerned about content, aka the sermon as opposed to technique. Now we, the writers, are seeing, hey, I want those tools in my tool chest!! And the publishers are seeing the $$$. We can have a great sermon, but it needs to be intervened by writing well and using your tools that God has given you. 🙂

Eddie Jones July 5, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Thanks for the post, Mike. As a small publisher, I agree with Merton. Too often the words I read in proposals rarely strike me as excellent: only adequate.

R. L. Copple July 5, 2013 at 3:05 PM

There are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books. Then men pick up these books and say: if the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much.

This is the gist of what he’s talking about. “Perfect” doesn’t mean absolute perfection as in like God, but that something is perfect for its purpose. IOW, it does what it is intended to do. A lackluster book about God does not glorify God, but heaps disrespect on Him instead. If we claim to be writing for God, then we had better have something worth saying and said in a manner that glorifies rather than produces scorn by those who read it because it is not told well.

Therefore, I’d not say a badly written book about God and the Gospel is better than a secular book that is anti-Christian (unless it is also written badly), but equal to it. Because they both accomplish the same message.

But, we’re talking in generalities and principles here. If God can use a donkey, He can use a poorly written story. But that is no excuse for giving God inferior tools to work with.

Kim July 5, 2013 at 3:34 PM

Therefore, I’d not say a badly written book about God and the Gospel is better than a secular book that is anti-Christian (unless it is also written badly), but equal to it. Because they both accomplish the same message.

Ouchie!! That is awesome. I want to print that out and put in on my computer. No, I’ll tattoo in on my arm. Awesome, dude!!

Jessica Thomas July 5, 2013 at 4:51 PM

I think I’d have to know what “badly written” means in that case. Hastily self-pubbed by a newb writer who flunked spelling and grammar? In which case I’d agree. Otherwise, I think you have to take the IQ and maturity of the intended audience in consideration. Some of the best books aren’t going to speak to the masses. Hope that doesn’t sound condescending. I think it’s just a fact.

R. L. Copple July 5, 2013 at 6:05 PM

I view “badly written” more on a bell curve from bad to good. There’s some subjectivity there, to be sure. Granted, “Dick and Jane” would sound badly written for an adult sci-fi audience. So there is that. There is also a lot of what a writer might consider “bad” that the masses eat up like cotton candy. But they do what Thomas was talking about: engage the reader with life-filled emotions and meaning.

On the far left end of that bell curve is writing most anyone would consider bad, not even taking into account grammar and spelling. In the middle is a bunch of “normal” writing. On the far right is writing that most people go, “Wow!”

What I think Thomas is talking about at the end of it all is a story that grips the reader. No matter how many writing rules you break, if you can do that, you’ve written a good story. Perfect in that it accomplishes its purpose as a story: to make whatever meaning it holds come alive. Not lifeless. Whether that happens for a small niche or for the masses, it would be good writing. Without it, it becomes “badly written.”

IOW, bad or good writing isn’t based on what I think it is, what I like or don’t like, but whether the book engages its audience effectively or not, whoever they might be.

Jessica Thomas July 5, 2013 at 6:21 PM

I’m perhaps unfairly assuming that an enlightenment seeker like Thomas Merton had a snobbier definition of “good fiction”. Stereotypically, I’m thinking literary, with so much subtle nuance that it becomes out of reach for many. I could be wrong. Maybe he read genre fiction…I’ll never know.

Kim July 5, 2013 at 6:21 PM

But they do what Thomas was talking about: engage the reader with life-filled emotions and meaning.

And that is not easy to do. That’s where technique comes in handy. It’s easy to say, Linda fell in love with Pete. It’s harder to show that emotion of falling in love since love is so personal and different for everyone. Good writing is hitting that chord and bringing up those emotions. That’s what Thomas means: Hit the chord. Make people feel something, good or bad. You have to dig, dig, dig deep inside of you, the writer, to bring out those emotions. It’s not easy and sometimes very painful. Sometimes the writer has to go to the ‘dark side’ of humanity, which is very hard and hurtful. But it’s worth it in the end.

Kat Heckenbach July 6, 2013 at 12:48 PM

I’ve been holding off on writing a reply to this because so many thoughts have been jumping around my head. I do love the quote, “people who rush into print too often do so not because they really have anything to say, but because they think it is important for something by them to be in print.” Yes, too often that happens.

But the rest feels like the same-old, same-old argument. Christians are supposed to be “better” writers than secular, as if for some reason being Christian means you’ll automatically have more talent than secular authors–it’s just your choice to use it, to “strive for perfection.” But the fact is, as Rick said, and I’ve said multiple times, there is a bell curve. Of talent and intelligence for writers, Christian or not. And as Jessica said, of intelligence and maturity for readers. And it’s not just talent, intelligence and maturity–it’s personal taste, the *kind* of book someone wants to read. Some people don’t want to read a strong message, they just want to read a story about someone they can relate to or escape with or whatever.

Anyway, I’ve just simply moved past the idea that “Christian fiction” – or secular fiction for that matter – will ever all be great. There will always be a bell curve. There will always be more mediocre books than good books, much less great books–no matter how you classify good and bad.

Melinda February 15, 2015 at 10:19 PM

I love the part of the quote that calls of the Christian tendency to pretend to be perfect. I think what he is saying is do the best writing you can. Learn, grow, write for His glory rather than for your story. I believe your perspective on what he is saying is scued if you dont understand where his mind was. He was a writer who gave it up to be a monk. Despite his belief, he was saying that God gave him the abity so why stop to please Him. Wouldn’t he be more glorified in his workmanship expressing that artistry.

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