This talk was transcribed digitally and will be edited shortly.
Today I’d like to talk about a topic that I think will be interesting to many students, maybe some adults. Because in modern circles, schools like to talk a lot about writing. And people go to college even major in English. And yet we never find any great writers being produced people can publish their own novels or whatever. But we don’t see any real, great works of poetry, or writing. And we should wonder why. If we go back, especially to Victorian England, we’ll find that many people wrote many people wrote poems, many people wrote, novels and essays and short stories. And there seems to just have been tons and tons of material. We look at a writer like Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen. And as we go through their stories, we’re just caught up in the characters and the plots. And we have to step away from the book at times and ask ourselves, where did they get this from? How do they come up with these characters? How do they come up with these stories? Where do these things come from? Is there a way that we could produce stories like these today? If so, where would this material come from? Where would these ideas and characters and plots? Where would these things come from? If we want it to be poets and writers, today, one of my hopes for the future is that when I’m finished with my work, in the classical Liberal Arts Academy, or at least most of the work I’ll have, if God wills some time, before I pass away, to devote a few years, just to writing, not to research, not to teaching, not to translation work, all of the work of my professional life, but to the opportunity to simply write freely, and put to work, all of the the theory that I’ve gathered throughout my career, I have all kinds of ideas for things I’d like to write about. But there’s no way that I’ll ever get to these things while my life’s principle work still occupies all of my time, but for students and other Christian adults, the time may be available. leisure may be available to to take up writing. And I’d like to offer some help in this talk. And imagine that a student asked me the question, Mr. Michael, where can I get ideas for stories and poems and novels? Where do these ideas come from? Where can I go from material that I could use to? To think out some great story? Or draft some novel? Or write a great poem, not some little fourth grade poetry assignment, but a real a real poem, maybe even an epic poem. We’re just this material come from. in this talk, I’d like to answer that question. When we look at the life, the intellectual Life that we’re supposed to be living, especially anyone who would like to write. We think of the intellectual life that we should be living. We would be immersed daily in a number of different sources of wisdom. First and foremost, we’d be immersed daily, in Sacred Scripture. Secondly, we’d be immersed in the Liturgy of the hours, praying through the Psalter daily, singing the hymns and canticles of the church. Our minds would be filled with prayers and songs, and Proverbs, laws, great historical narratives. And not just any sources, they’d be divinely inspired sources, literally divine source material. If we just lived, the intellectual life, we should live day by day, we’d be storing up this treasury of ideas, characters, lines, phrases, expressions, metaphors, other figures of speech, and so on, just by reading and meditating on the scriptures every day and saying prayers, we’d have all that. One of the reasons why Christians can’t write today is because they don’t do that. They don’t have that treasury of knowledge, that literary Treasury and let’s just consider the literary benefits of a devout Christian life, that treasury of ideas is simply not present in the soul of Christian people. And therefore, they don’t have the source material in in mind, to draw from, to begin from, to write anything. In addition to the sacred scriptures, and to the prayers and hymns of the church, we have the writings of philosophy, which again, provide us with many, many ideas from which poems and novels and essays could be drawn from. Now, the sources that I would recommend are not those that most schools teaching the so called great books even get into there wasting time with the gratification of a love of reading. As I always quote, john Henry Newman, for criticizing, the love of reading is not real study. And the books that they read, are great works of literature. That’s true. But they’re not the kinds of works that make great writers. So if I were to recommend some sources for students who want to study, but want to study for the sake of being able to write in the future, what would I recommend? The first source that I’d recommend would be Aesop’s Fables. We have in the classical Liberal Arts Academy, I think close to 400 fables. available for study. That would be one starting place. I’ll explain in a few minutes how to use these sources. But continual daily weekly reading through Aesop’s Fables would be a good preparation for future writing. Another source that we teach in the classical Liberal Arts Academy that you won’t find in many other places, if any, is theophrastus. His characters were theophrastus. Right to a character sketch based on different vices and draws out their character, that would be a second source for sure. The sirt the third source would be Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle’s ethics and that may surprise some that I would mention Aristotle’s ethics but we have to always realize that writing is a work of rhetoric, and rhetoric is based on ethics. rhetoric is based on ethics because ethics helps us to understand what makes people act the way they do. And when we look at these stories, like the characters of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen’s story, we look into Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s in need, and we see these profound stories and lifelike characters. writing those stories is impossible. Unless a person has a masterful knowledge, of human nature, of different characters, of moral philosophy, and so on. And so we have to, we have to respect the learning of these authors and realize that they’re not just simpletons who sit down and start writing and spend a lot of time writing and pestering people to read what they’ve written. These are very, very intelligent people who make use of great studies and experiences to craft their characters and stories. Real wisdom is necessary for credible storytelling. Where we don’t have real wisdom, the storytelling becomes becomes ridiculous at times, because anybody who has wisdom, can see through the fake story and what’s in it. That’s not credible. A real master can tell a story that a wise man would applaud. An example of this would be Sophocles famous play. Oedipus Rex, which even Aristotle considered to be one of the greatest stories ever told. stories like this are found in the Bible as well. We’re one of the things that moves us is the credibility of the story. Like the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament. Hardly anyone can read that story and find any cause for doubting. Its true history. It’s a story composed by God himself, who writes with historical events, and real people. But it’s a model for us of credibility, which is one of the defining marks or distinguishing marks of Sacred Scripture is as you read, the stories are credible, even if the content is incredible, or extraordinary or marvelous. You find as you’re reading it, that it’s credible. And that’s one of the marks of its truth. But in our own writing, credibility, requires great learning and that’s why I recommend study of Aristotle’s ethics so we can have a have a real understanding of, of human nature, and the will, virtues and vices, and so on. And again, I’ll talk more about how this material is used in a bit. Outside of Aristotle’s ethics, I would recommend the study of natural philosophy Aristotle’s history of animals Eris, cfrs, this is history of plants. Play, Pliny’s natural history, study of natural history, because anything that’s written about, of, of natural objects, again, needs to be credible. And when you read the writings of master authors, you take these things for granted. You don’t realize that they talk about plants and animals, and geography and places. They talk about lakes and rivers and oceans and mountains, forests. And as you’re reading these stories, you don’t even think of how accurately they speak of these things. We get lost, for example, reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, we get lost in the storyline, not realizing how a master author speaks of all of these natural objects in a credible way. We take that skill, and that, that that labor and attention to detail for granted, we take that learning for granted. We imagine that the difference between us and them is just that we haven’t given writing a shot. We haven’t spent any time on it. But if you sit down to write you’ll find that writing. Writing well. Most of what people do and call writing is just useless self expression that no one is interested in. But writing true writing is just like drawing. There are many people who imagine that they know what a hummingbird looks like, or a rose or a river. Until it’s time to draw one. If we give them a blank sheet of paper, and say, Do you know what a rose looks like? Well, here, here’s a piece of paper and a pencil, draw a rose, we suddenly find that we think we know what a rose looks like. But we don’t know it well enough to draw one. And the inability to draw doesn’t reveal a lack of drawing ability, as modern people say, because they take learning for granted. It reveals an actual lack of knowledge of the object itself. We think we know it. But if we’re asked to make a mark, where the legs actually are on the dog or the wings on the hummingbird, or how the beak is shaped on the hummingbird, all of a sudden, our drawing doesn’t look right. We don’t know it as well as we think we do. And the same happens with writing. We think we know things and think we understand things. But when it comes time to actually write the story. We say I’m not a very good writer, as if we have the knowledge, but simply can’t write it down. And we deceive ourselves saying these things. The truth is, we don’t know the subjects that we pretend we’re about to write about. So if we’re going to write about any plants or animals or natural bodies or geographical features or places we need to study, natural philosophy, geography, natural history, and so on. Don’t take the knowledge of writers for granted. Another source that I would recommend will be the Catechism of the Catholic Church. any topic in a story that would be addressed, will need to be written of accurately there are many people again, who imagine that they’ll write some Christian song or a Christian poem, or a Christian story. And when they say they’re going to do this, they’re thinking about what meter they’ll use, what rhyme patterns they’ll use. And what they fail to ask is whether they actually know the Christian teaching that they imagine that they’re going to write about. And they say, Well, I’m not a good writer, or I’m struggling with this poem. Where the reality is, is they don’t know the subject well enough to write about it. And if your teaching is going to have any religious content, you need to know it thoroughly. You need to know that doctrine in depth for example. Some Christians have the opportunity at some point to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, where we find Dante poetically taking a journey through the realms of the dead. He goes through hell, through purgatory, and through paradise. And he describes all that he sees there, and we take it for granted. That what he describes, is theologically credible, theologically possible. We take his theology for granted, and assume that he’s just a clever guy writing some story. But if we don’t know, if we don’t know Catholic theology, we can’t write a story like that. The theology comes first. The story simply draws from the masterful knowledge of Catholic theology. We have to study. So I’ve given a list of a number of sources that would give any student years worth of work. And I doubt that any student will master these and be looking for more. So let’s talk now about how these sources can be used in writing. As I said, these are sources, sources of ideas of characters of plots, and so on, but how can they actually be used? It’s very difficult to prepare and compose stories from scratch, and very few great authors have ever done. So. The idea that someone sits down with a blank sheet of paper and just starts brainstorming is not realistic. We’ve been provided with so many sources, to inspire our stories. And we simply don’t know how to use them. Homer and Virgil and others used to refer to the Muses as spirits that inspired By their compositions. And this is a beautiful idea, this idea of the human author being inspired by some divine muse, who gives him the ideas and helps him as he composes a poem, or a novel, or even a history of some kind. It’s a beautiful image, this idea of the Muses, and yet we have true muses. Not that they’re actually spirits of poetry or spirits of literature. But we have the Holy Spirit, who has given us an incredible treasury of source material and inspiration for storytelling. Let’s consider the sacred scriptures. Now, when most people read the scriptures, they do so in the context of a church lectionary where the focus is always on the Gospels, the Psalms, maybe some historical passages, maybe some more of the New Testament, the book of Acts, some of the epistles and so on. But much of the Bible is rarely ever touched by Christian people. The first place that we should look is to the law of God, the books of Moses, or any book in Scripture that teaches us God’s commandments, with the corresponding blessings and curses. And the reason why is because a million in one stories can be composed from the law, and its blessings and curses. The story could be written about a man who disobeys the law, and suffers the consequences or about a man who obeys the law and enjoys the blessings. Very simple sources for stories. And, in telling these stories, the sources of our story would be divinely inspired, adding some real value and richness to our writing. So we could use the laws as source material for stories. And I gave a few simple examples, but they can be more complex than that. There can be plot twists and suspenseful steps of the storyline, such as the story of Joseph which I mentioned before, where a man obeys God does good, suffers evil, unjustly. And the question is, how will this good man be vindicated? How will this good man received the blessing it looks like? The Blessing is not true. And meanwhile, God works mysteriously behind the scenes to pull off this amazing story of indication. And again, this is with real historical events and real characters, real persons. But our stories can be simple, simple stories of obedience and blessing of disobedience and punishment, or they can be more complex stories where justice appears to not be served, and then suddenly enjoys a fulfillment. For a story in the other way around where a fool seems to prosper until his fortune changes and his folly catches up with him. These stories can be based on God’s laws on God’s commands. Even complex fictional stories, complex fictional stories like stories of wizards and witches and curses and spells, can all find source material and the true blessings and curses of Gods can commandments. Many, many interesting storylines can be drawn from the law. Another great source of material will be found in the Proverbs and the wisdom books of Sacred Scripture. When we look at the book of Proverbs especially, we see hundreds there are 31 chapters of Proverbs in Solomon’s Book of Proverbs, hundreds of Proverbs. And in each proverb, we have the moral of an unwritten story. Let me say that again. In every proverb, found in Scripture, we have the moral of a story that is yet to be written. And therefore, a simple exercise can be to take a proverb and turn it into a story. For example, we could take a proverb like, Train up a child in the way he should go. And when he is old, he will not depart from it. And we can tell a story about a boy who was raised by parents who train him in the way he should go. And when he is old, he grows up and lives according to the teaching, he received and enjoys all of the benefits of the teaching and discipline of his parents, or of a school teacher or, or any significant influence in his life. Or as I said, Before, we can make the story a bit more complicated. We can tell a story like that of the prodigal son, where a boy is taught, trained up in the way he should go while he’s young. And then when he becomes older, he departs from it. And it appears that this proverb is going to go unfulfilled, his parents are let down. Maybe they question whether God keeps his promises, it appears that all of their work was spent in vain. But then, in the end, that son returns to the teaching of his father. And the proverb is fulfilled. Proverbs can be used as the morals of stories. And we can, we can weave proverbs within proverbs to make more and more complex stories. The more experienced we get with them, the more we study and reflect on the Proverbs and understand the details of them more and more. Fully, the more interesting and complex our stories can become. And again, they can have at their root, a divine source of inspiration. The books of Proverbs, the book, of sirach, and wisdom are filled with content for stories to be written. The Psalms. Likewise, the heart cries of King David, a man after God’s own heart, can be adapted into new stories that are comparable to the actual historical life of David, and yet are creative and different. And yet they can draw from all of this material in Sacred Scripture. In the Gospels, likewise, we have all of the parables of Jesus. We have his teaching like the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see God the other Beatitudes where we see God’s blessings promised to people have different characters and different habits. Scenes of Christ. The parables of our Lord can be used as outlines and sketches for stories to be written. For example, as I mentioned before the parable of the prodigal son. While it’s a beautiful story in itself, it’s also the pattern for a more detailed story, or a story in a different context set in a different time in a different place. In different circumstances. We can adapt, inspired stories, and produce new stories of our own, that again, enjoy a divine source. So there’s many, many sources of poems and stories and novels, to be written, even fables of our own from the sources found in Sacred Scripture. When we go to the prayers of the church and look at prayers, prayers are very interesting. Because there are expressions of desires and hopes. And those expressions, the prayers and hymns, even Creed’s of the church, can be turned into stories can be turned into stories. For example, we could take the Lord’s Prayer, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And we could tell a story based on the Lord’s Prayer, about how God’s will is done on Earth in relation to what the angels and saints do in heaven. And we begin to see the model for a Christian story like Dante’s Divine Comedy in such meditations where we take our meditations down into the details. We can say, What do the angels and saints do in heaven and the poet by means of his poetic license, which is comparable to the license enjoyed by a scientist, to carry out research that might be controversial. So the poet enjoys some license to explore a theme and go into details. That might be controversial. And yet, they’re not intended to be dogmatic, or even didactic in teaching a lesson. They’re simply intended to let the truth lead us, where it leads us and see what details emerge. If we follow the truths today, their practical or logical end points. And so simple meditations on prayers. Prayers written by saints prayers, written by the church, well known prayers like the Hail Mary, can be the source of many ideas for stories and poems, even works of art and songs. As for Aesop’s Fables, before I said that the the Proverbs of Solomon could be used as sources as as the morals of stories yet to be written. The fables provide us with stories of usually of animals that have a certain structure and plot and Laurel We can draw from a fable, the structure of the story, and the plot of the story and the moral of the story. But we can tell that fable tell the story of that fable teach the moral of that fable from a much more elaborate story than a simple fable, we can turn a fable into a much more detailed story, we can combine fables, to tell even more complex stories, fables within fables, morals, within morals. And we can draw our sources and our ideas from the fables. When we need to invent characters, we can go to see a friend this is characters and study the individual characters and their habits, their identifying features. And we can use the study of the characters to really develop our own characters. If we were to tell a story, let’s say about a man who is who is treacherous. We have to craft a credible character for this man and the credit and the character needs to remain consistent in every appearance. We can go to Thea Francis’s character we can study those characters who might be classified as treacherous. We can learn from theophrastus their habits what what moves them to behave as they do, we can understand the principles, the vices that underlie their behavior. And then we can concentrate on those principles of the characters as we develop our own characters, and seek to make them consistent. In scene after scene, as the circumstances of the story change, we can show our characters to be consistent. Again, we take these things for granted when we read the great writers. For example, if we take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and think of a character like Mr. Bingley, every place, we meet him in the story, his character is predictable. Because we get to know him. We get to know the principles of his character. And when a new scene develops, and Mr. Bingley emerges in the scene, we can we can predict what he’s going to say, predict how he’s going to act predict what he’s going to do. And we find that our predictions are right, because Jane Austen keeps her characters consistent through her stories. The same is true of a character like Mr. Collins, the clergyman, his awkward, clumsy, rude character is consistent and principled. And in scene after scene, even when locations and other characters change, his character remains always the same. And that’s the work of masterful writing through a through a study of principles of character, and habits. We can learn that sort of thing from theophrastus characters, and use the study of theophrastus to help us to craft characters of our own and keep them consistent or to simply borrow characters from theophrastus this collection I talked about natural philosophy and natural history. We can study certain animals look at Aesop’s Fables. He took a knowledge of Natural History use that knowledge to treat animals with their unique characteristics as as personalities and to tell stories where he personifies, or, or makes human like different animals based on their true characteristics. It’s what’s so amazing about Aesop’s Fables. We live in the country and we, we live in daily contact with many of the animals that Aesop used in his stories. And it’s amazing how realistically his fables speak of the characteristics, or personality personalities, as it were of different animals. A person not familiar with animals can’t write those fables, we take his knowledge for granted. But the study the study of certain plants, or a garden, or a visit to the beach, a study of the ocean study of a certain forest, maybe the woods behind your house, or the road you live on are some, some place where you spend a lot of time and get to know the details of the place, the place can become the scene for a story and the details of that place can provide the details of that story and make it credible. If you merely if you merely invent a story from scratch, you’re going to find that it’s it’s not going to be credible. And the great writers didn’t do that. For example, Virgil traveled all over the Empire so that he could collect inspiring places and scenes and, and images for the composition of his in need. He took him over 20 years to compose. He didn’t sit down on a Saturday afternoon and write a story. That’s not how writing works. But natural history, natural philosophy can also provide sources of story material, scenery, characters, details, and so on. knowledges of plants and their different powers and medicines can be very significant in storytelling. So much there to think about. Now another source of material for writing would be history. And in the study of history, there’s a number of things we can do one, one form of writing that is very, very enjoyable, but rarely undertaken because it requires knowledge and is difficult to make credible, is historical fiction. historical fiction takes a historical event, of which certain details are known and fills in the missing details. This is really the work of a poet who invents the content of his stories. But to be credible, it requires a lot of reflection. Some research and study. For example, we don’t know the details of Alexander’s conquests. We don’t know the details of individual battle scenes in any of the major world wars. There are so many details that are missing in all of these stories. All of these events can become the sources of historical fiction, where a writer imaginatively connects the dots by providing fictional but credible content where it’s lacking. historical fiction is very interesting, very helpful. Because in meditating, whenever we meditate, that’s the work that our minds have to do. We have to connect the dots we have to fill in the blanks. We have to put the puzzle together. Based on what pieces were given, that’s the work of meditation. And that’s the work also of historical fiction. A very helpful, very entertaining and potentially helpful way to learn and reflect on world history. The writing of biographies is very helpful. Many biographies that are written are written by people who know nothing about the actual character or context of the subjects life and the biographies are, are useless. Whereas at other times, a writer seeks to bring the subject to life through his biography, and make it a true story of his life. A story of life of the actual life, and character and personality and experience and spirit of the subject of the biography. All of the different genres and forms of writing are in a bad way today. Most attempts to write are simply exercises and self expression, which no one is interested in reading. This idea that authors were just talented people who threw their ideas onto paper and it went viral is simply simply false. That’s that’s not how the great writers compose their works. It wasn’t mere talent. It was art, it was study, it was work. They took great pains to put their works together. And when we read them, we take all of this work, all of their study all of their effort. We take it for granted. And we attribute it to talent. And then when someone wants to write something, they sit down and just hope that talent produces something interesting. And then they try to force it upon others. No one’s interested in anyone else’s self expression. So if we want to become real writers, if we want to see a revival, in quality writing, masterful writing, writing that can compare with the great works of literature of history. We need to learn to study and think and live like those master writers, and not think that people who watch television and play video games are going to sit down and just spill out beautiful stories onto paper, when their experiences are limited to the common life of a suburban child. When their literary knowledge is limited to that of a normal high school student, when their knowledge of divine things and morals and history and laws, human character plants and animals, medicines, flowers and herbs. If our knowledge is common, our stories will not be uncommon. In fact, there will be no stories. One other recommendation I’d like to make is that children realize and learn that. In modern science, we can talk about heliocentric astronomy, where we envision a world where the sun is at the center of the solar system and the planets rotate around the sun in some kind of mechanical system that inspires no beautiful images or scenes. When it comes to composition, writing and poetry, we need to abandon the heliocentric model which is of interest to scientists. But it’s not enough is not of interest to poets and writers. And we need to learn to view the world through the eyes of ancient people. According to the Aristotelian system of the university, Ptolemaic universe, the platonic universe, we need to learn to think of the Think of the earth, and the heavens, as we see them with all their beautiful images, and movements and colors, because this is the world that we see, this is the world that the trees and the flowers see. This is the world that the animals see. All living things. See the geocentric world as Aristotle and Plato and Ptolemy and inspired prophets and apostles did. They don’t see a heliocentric scientific universe, they see an earth centered, poetic universe. I recommend that you read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I recommend you do so in the classical Liberal Arts Academy because I provide assignments that direct you in these studies and meditations and when you read the writings of Homer pay attention to all of the effort he makes to describe the natural scenery. Pay attention to the images he uses, to the descriptions, he gives to the topics he speaks of, learn to see the world like Homer does, learn to see the world, like often does, like Virgil does, like Dante does. Not like scientists and mathematicians, in modern schools do learn to see the world as a poet, as a painter, as a sculptor, as a gardener, as a traveler, learn to see the world in a way that’s more appropriate for poetry, and stories, fables, myths, and so on. There’s a reason why there are few or none or fewer, no, I should say. Quality writers quality poets, it’s because the beautiful world that God created, is no longer seen and paid attention to because we’re trying so hard to think of things the way the scientists and mathematicians want us to think of them. But that’s not the stuff of poetry and literature. That’s not the stuff of our hearts. It’s not the stuff of our senses. In order to cultivate in ourselves, the spirit of the great poets, we need to learn to look at the world, as the poets did not take some study. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that what I’ve shared in this talk is, is inspiring and beautiful. It’s what one of the things that motivates me, in my work in restoring the classical liberal arts and studying Sacred Scripture and classical philosophy. As I said, I I hope that God gives me the opportunity later in my life to have some years for leisure when I can do this work of poetry and writing myself, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have that opportunity. Because I can easily see the work that I have to do. Lasting my entire life. Perhaps I can help students, or other Christian adults. Think about these things and learn these things and study these things through A classical Liberal Arts Academy. And while I may not get the opportunity to write myself, I may be able to enjoy their writings. And I’d be perfectly happy if that was the case. But if there are going to be future generations of great poets, and novelists, essayists, mythmakers and fable writers, they’re going to come from these sources. They’re going to come from these methods of invention and composition that I’ve described in this talk. The study of the classical liberal arts is the foundation, classical philosophy, Sacred Scripture, devout Catholic prayers, on and on. If students don’t commit to these studies, we’re never going to see these writers develop. But if they do, as I always say, if they do, if we do find students who commit to these studies, we’re going to see these things develop within one generation. Because the truth and the arts are very simple. They’re very close to us. They’re natural, much closer to us much more natural than modern education, modern natural sciences, and mathematics, which are very abstract and remote from our actual hearts, and lives. So I hope that this provides some inspiration, gives you some ideas. I would love to talk about these things in more detail, I can provide you with access to all the resources that I’ve talked about in this talk. If you’re interested, please get in touch. 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