Writer’s Desk: Merton on Ignoring Criticism

Thomas Merton, who was born this day in 1915, was one of the 20th century’s only mystics whose voluminous writings on spirituality and philosophy were read with as much eagerness by the general public as by his fellow Catholics. As a prominent Catholic who directly engaged with Eastern religions and philosophies later in his life, and an eager debater, Merton was used to criticism as well as acclaim.

merton1A note of warning about being too cautious comes from Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, collected in Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing:

If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.

Note Merton’s focus on service. He is saying that if you’re going to write anything worthwhile, you have to ignore your inner censor, but in addition to that he sees worthy writing as being something that helps others. Whether he meant that in the strict sense, of advocating for people’s rights, or in the broader definition of expanding minds and perceptions (even just a little) with your art, the message seems to be the same: If nobody hates your writing, you might be doing something wrong.

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