Thomas Aquinas’ Prayer Before Study

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After offering his praises to the “Ineffable Creator,” Thomas Aquinas writes in his “Prayer Before Study:”

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born: sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants; refine my speech and pour forth upon my lips the goodness of your blessing.

Grant to me keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech.

May You guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion. You Who are true God and true Man, Who live and reign, world without end. Amen.

This version is quoted in Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler’s Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words [affiliate link]. This prayer serves as a frame when approaching the writing task.

If you were to write a prayer for your work, what would you ask for? What do you need? What do you hope for as outcomes? Where could you use help?

Artifacts and Internet Writing

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My data I own, my internet presence I rent. It’s interesting to think about how this situation differs from that of my published books and print essays. It’s possible for anyone to download this entire site — that’s what wget does, and I’ve used it to download my old Text Patterns blog to my hard drive — but I’m sure no one else ever has, so if anything were to happen to shut down this site or that old blog, then anyone interested in what I’ve written online would have to hope that the Internet Archive and its partners have the whole thing crawled and saved. 

But if you’ve bought one of my books, or a journal in which one of my essays appears, then even if I were to suffer Damnatio memoriae, you’d still have those texts, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a world in which anyone would go to the trouble of taking them away from you.

So does that mean that I should focus my attention on writing for print publication instead of online venues like this blog? That would make sense if I wanted to ensure that people are still reading my work after I’m dead — but that would be ridiculous for a writer as insignificant as I am. As I often say, it’s quite likely that I will outlive all my work, and I’m just fine with that. So I’ll write in venues that give me pleasure, that seem fitting for whatever interests me at the moment. And then, one day, if I get the chance to set my affairs in order, I’ll hand over to my family a stack of notebooks and a hard drive full of text files, for them to do with as they please. 

Alan Jacobs captures something of how I feel about writing on the web. Amazingly, I’ve been messing around with a website since spring 1998. I designed something on GeoCities. My web presence has had other iterations, more than I can count. Maybe at some point I thought that work would endure, but I don’t think that anymore.

I write for pleasure and for the same reason a lot of other writers write: because I have a desire to connect with other people, a desire to do the work, and a desire to discover what I think through what I write.

As for artifacts, I won’t be handing over text files, but I will leave behind notebooks. As for whether or not there will be anything in them of interest of value, that will be for others to decide.

Talent Is Where You Find It

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I recently finished reading Helen Rowe Henze’s translation of The Odes of Horace (University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). I found this inside the book jacket:

Helen Rowe Henze is the author of four published collections of poems and of many individual poems published in periodicals and newspapers. A resident of Kansas City and in secretarial employment there, she confirms the truth of the adage, “Talent is where you find it”–in Venusia or Missouri.

You job and your vocation are not always the same. You don’t always earn regular pay from your life’s most important work. People are deep wells.

There are many translations of the Odes. But I’m glad my public library led me to this one.

Finding the Song in Conversation

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In How to Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy writes:

We’re able to form really complex stories off the top of our heads. Conversation comes from our subconscious–we search for language, tell stories, express ourselves in a way that’s organic. I think that’s the starting point for writing anything. If you’re able to express yourself as a human, you’re able to mine that ability to create other modes of expression, to mine that ability for songs. To me, that’s the best evidence that everyone can write a song. Maybe not everyone can make a chord progression, but everyone can make up a story.

Tweedy demonstrates this by relaying a particularly spirited conversation he recently had, marking in bold snippets from that conversation, lifting those portions, and then rearranging the pieces until they had the rhythm and feel of a song.

A pretty nifty writing exercise, if you ask me.

Writing Witty With Russell Baker

In this interview with Adrienne LaFrance of the Atlantic, the now deceased New York Times columnist and host of Masterpiece Theater Russell Baker offered a few nuggets on work, writing, politics, comedy, and journalism. I extracted a few of my favorite portions.

LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?

Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.

LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?

Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.

On writing as labor:

Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.

On changes in the political scene in Washington:

LaFrance: When I covered national politics, the longest-serving senators would always tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. That’s not really true, is it? Because if you look back at the history, there’s always been fighting.

Baker: Well there has, but not like now. It’s another world. At one point I covered the Senate for several years. I knew everyone. The Senate’s easy to cover. There are only 100 guys. It’s just the right size.
But the Senate now has become something quite different than what it was when I covered it. It was an important body when I covered it. I started covering the Senate during the Eisenhower years. It was important in any number of policy matters. To be on the Foreign Relations Committee was to be a heavyweight. I mean, [Senator J. William] Fulbright’s resistance to the Vietnam policy had real weight in the events that followed. And that was true on the financial side. The Finance Committee chairman really had influence.

Now nobody has any weight. Nobody listens. As a matter of fact, they don’t have any respect for the job anymore. Trent Lott was the majority leader for the Republicans and chucked the job to become a lobbyist. If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate, he would have been disgraced. A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now. The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story.

When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. [Sam] Rayburn was the speaker of the House. They worked closely with Eisenhower to get things done. It’s inconceivable that any of those men would have taken it upon himself just to frustrate Eisenhower.

Politics is almost a nonstop activity now. There’s not much government that goes on. But with Rayburn and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy —all those people—they governed. Governing is tough. Now they don’t spend much time governing. It’s mostly posturing.

On comedic writing (I censored the curse words):

LaFrance: You mentioned your column, so I want to get your view on comedic writing generally. Do you think that humor is more parts truth or more parts absurdity?

Baker: I don’t know! I don’t know what it is. You know, you laugh, it’s humorous. I am curious about the decline of wit in humor. That may be a cyclical thing. But humor’s much cruder than it was when I was working in that area, when humor required certain cleverness. Whereas now you say a nasty word and the audience will break up. It’s a nervous tic. You just say a four-letter word.

Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says “s***” or “f***,” and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts. When you’ve got to do as much work as he does, I can understand why you go for the cheap laugh.

On the pointless, inconsequential concluding question:

LaFrance: I know we’re running out of time. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?

Baker: Probably! But what does it matter?

 
 

The Knife: Do You Carry One?

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Robert Farrar Capon, in The Supper of the Lamb [affiliate link], on the companionability of a good knife:

We commonly define man as homo sapiens, the knowing animal. Yet long before he left traces of his knowing, he was busy, as men have always been, misplacing tools. It is by the hammers and axes he never quiet could keep in sight, that homo faber, man the maker, betrays his presence in the depths of history. The oldest fingerprints in the world are those on tools; and of all tools, the knife reigns supreme.

No doubt it was not the first. In all likelihood, man bludgeoned and tore creation before he carved and sliced it; but precisely because he was man, it could not have been long before he acquired a preference for sharp stones over dull ones. With that, the knife was invented. The rest was only a matter of materials.

Equally certainly, the knife is not the last tool. We have gone so far beyond it that we forget its supremacy. Our implements have grown so complex that the word tool suggests machinery before it does hand tools–and, among hand tools, it suggests wrenches and screwdrivers (tools for fixing machines) before it does knives. But for all that, the knife remains more common than them all–the one tool used by more people, more of the time, than any other. All the kitchens, and half the pockets in the world, are filled with knives.

The Supper of the Lamb is a cookbook, of sorts. On Amazon, it is also the #1 bestseller in the “Episcopal Christianity” subdivision. I do not know what to make of this.

Nonetheless, Capon is a brilliant writer. This passage on the knife is followed by a digression on the pocketknife. I carry an Uncle Henry knife that looks like this.

John Muir on Autumn’s Arrival: “The Dying Time…the Color Time”

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In the yellow mist the rough angles melt on the rocks. Forms, lines, tints, reflections, sounds, all are softened, and although the dying time, it is also the color time, the time when faith in the steadfastness of Nature is surest… The seeds all have next summer in them, some of them thousands of summers, as the sequoia and cedar. In the holiday array all go calmly down into the white winter rejoicing, plainly hopeful, faithful… everything taking what comes, and looking forward to the future, as if piously saying, “Thy will be done in earth as in heaven!”

John Muir, cited at Brain Pickings