Monday, January 28, 2008

Rich Culture Nourishes Catholic Writers

Interview With Author Gregory Roper

By Carrie Gress

ROME, JAN. 28, 2008 ( Good Catholic writers need to be sustained and nourished by a rich culture, and look to the great authors of the past for inspiration and guidance, says author Gregory Roper.

Roper, author of "The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing" (ISI Books), is an English professor at the University of Dallas.

In this interview with ZENIT, he discusses what future Catholic writers can do to become great Catholic writers.

Q: You grew up the in South and attribute your love of language to your father. Why do you think there is such a rich heritage of Catholic writers from the South, such as Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy?

Roper: Well, this is a phenomenon that has been studied extensively, precisely because there have been so many fine Southern writers, and because Southern literature was one of the first, like the Irish literature of the early 20th century, to show that a specific, grounded, regional literature could be universal and speak to universal truths. But a strange thing has happened: People have realized that all great writing is like this, grounded in the specific, regional voice of its time and place. Whether it is Homer or Shakespeare, Gabriele d'Annunzio or James Joyce, the vibrant voice comes out when it is grounded in the particular accents and idioms and phrasings of a people.

But to comment specifically on the South: I wonder if, because it was rural, agrarian, underdeveloped, and just plain hot and often humid, Southerners just moved more slowly, took their time more than other early 20th-century people. While T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky were showing a world increasingly hurried and dislocated and fragmented, Southerners were still sitting and talking, telling stories.

I'll never forget my grandmother bustling about the kitchen, an entire state's genealogy in her head, telling us stories about relatives we never knew we had, or my grandfather, seemingly asleep, toothpick in his mouth, in white cream recliner, correcting her on a minor point regarding which third cousin was married to whom. That tie to the concrete in which we find the universal -- that is, the image -- is what makes southern speech so vibrant.

Q: There seems to be a dearth of good Catholic literature in the world today, and with the ever-growing text-messaging culture, writing well seems to be threatened all the more. What other factors do you see working against the art of writing?

Roper: That's a complex set of issues, but in some ways the answer is very simple, and I say it on the first pages of "The Writer's Workshop": People don't read. Or they read, but they only read e-mails and self-help books, not the rich, sustaining literature that gives them a world in language.

My students who are already pretty darned good writers by the time they come to me all report the same thing: There was reading in their homes. There were magazines scattered about; there were regular trips to the library. Most of all, there was reading out loud, so they learned from mom's dramatizations and dad's different voices the beauty of words and the flow of a well-crafted sentence.

These students know how a sentence works; they know what a paragraph sounds and feels like; they know the rhythms of prose, and how different writers sound. As they matured, their parents directed them to better writing, and it grew with them. Most of them can't tell you where they learned to write, but when you press them, this is the one factor that is always, always present. Conversely, for those who struggle in their writing, the one factor is almost always that they grew up in a family, and a wider culture, with very little reading.

Another problem is simply the poor state of teaching of grammar and usage in schools. You simply can't write well without the basic tools, just like you cannot play an instrument well without being able to play scales and arpeggios and knowing the fingerings. But if you do know those things, and know them cold, you can then move on to make music.

This is where John Paul II's wide concern with the culture at large was so significant; he saw that good theology, like good arts, good literature, comes from a rich, significant culture, and really can't come about from a thin, harried, rushed, impatient culture, or one that doesn't have a grasp on truth in its schools and other cultural organs.

Good Catholic writing will come from thoughtful Catholics, sustained by the culture of this new exciting "JPII Generation," who will put words on a page to say the truth. I don't think we should be worrying specifically about creating a Catholic literature, but about creating the culture that will nourish those who will write.

Q: Your book suggests that people can learn to write or improve their writing by imitating the greats, such as Dante, Virgil, St. Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer? How is this effective?

Roper: The way it has always been effective for 2,500 years ... and not just in writing, but in every art. By working with a master -- a master cobbler or blacksmith or violin maker or writer or musician -- you get careful, up-close time with real craft; if you slow down and take apart how it works, you can see how the writer crafted effective, beautiful, evocative sentences. You start to see how this vibrant, vivid voice makes a person, a scene, an argument, come alive. This is how all arts have been learned, and it's only recently we've forgotten that.

Part of the idea for this book came when I found myself in the afternoons coaching women's soccer. Now soccer is an enormously fluid sport; it never stops for 45 minutes, and the situations are changing all the time; the coach can't come out, stop the action, and tell the players what to do. The players have to see, understand and do it themselves.

How could I teach players how to move, to get open for a pass, or better yet, how to run to set up a teammate to receive just the perfect pass? I had to think, how did "I" learn to do that? It came, I realized, from watching professionals and others over and over again, so that I "just knew" what to do.

So I had to break this down for the players into discrete small "moves." I played videos showing them pros doing this -- then we'd walk through, imitating an overlap run, a flat pass, a pass to split the defense. And they got it -- they started to see how you move on a soccer field, how the whole thing, done well, becomes a beautifully improvised ballet. I began to realize, this is what I have to do with their writing -- break it down by showing them the real greats doing these moves.

Q: What about those who say that there is nothing creative, and therefore, worthwhile in such an exercise? That writing is best done in free form.

Roper: I would say they are the victims of a kind of debased Romanticism that is sadly all too present in our culture. And that they are just historically ignorant of how writers have always worked.

How did Virgil create the greatest Latin epic except by modeling the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" -- and yet in doing so creating something entirely new in the "Aeneid"? How did Shakespeare create "Hamlet," "King Lear," and others except by adapting and creatively engaging with his sources? The greatest art is always imitating, adapting, commenting upon, and creatively talking back to the work it is imitating.

This is precisely what T.S. Eliot taught us in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and it is what the Church knows is what makes authentic Catholic tradition at once so faithful and so vibrantly new at all times.

Q: What role does logic play in good writing?

Roper: One of the most thrilling things to me about the Holy Father's papacy so far is his call to clear thinking, to logic and the West's tradition of philosophical understanding, testing, verification, understanding. Good writing is good thinking and vice versa; there's no way around it.

Again, some early reviewers for other presses thought this book was only about style or the dressing of good thinking, but I am trying to suggest that nothing could be further from the truth -- how you lay out your words is crucially how you are thinking; form and content are inseparable, and the students start to see this as they shift from one writer's voice to the next, taking the same content in new directions.

Good, clear thinking can come from working with these writers. For many of my students, some of whom have never encountered Aquinas before, the Thomistic proof is a revelation and a challenge to them -- that someone could be so careful in his thinking, could so meticulously and fair-mindedly lay out his opponents' views first, and then engage so fruitfully with his opponents' views in order to arrive at the truth! It is a real turning point for them. My hope is that they begin to see and dedicate themselves to the truth by seeing Aquinas' dedication to it.

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