Reader’s Corner: John Lewis and Thomas Merton

On Bloody Sunday in 1965, the late civil rights icon John Lewis (who passed away last Friday) was marching with other voting-rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when they were attacked by a mob of police and vigilantes. Many marchers were hospitalized, including Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull.

Lewis had planned to be arrested, so he had a backup with a few essentials: fruit and some books. One of the books was The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer whose work Lewis studied during the civil rights movement.

Later, Lewis said the books were never recovered:

I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.

Writer’s Desk: Give It Time

In 1948, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to Thomas Merton in which he offered the following bit of advice from one writer to another:

Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?”…

Wall Street Journal

You might disagree with Waugh’s usage of “plebeian” here (he was, after all, one of the great snobs of English literature, a genre already replete with the type). But the point remains solid: Take a second. Look again. That sentence you thought was carved with beautiful simplicity like a jewel could now show itself to be a bit baggy, in need of a little more carving.

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.

Weekend Reading: November 13, 2015