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James C.G. Conniff

I WAS BORN, WITHIN RIFLE SHOT OF FORDHAM University, in New York City's northernmost borough, the Bronx, a "sweet Auburn" now gone almost entirely to residential ziggurats. There at St. Barnabas', and later for many rewarding years at St. Aloysius' and among the Jesuits at St. Peter's in Jersey City, New Jersey, I learned most of whatever it is school has to teach. In Jersey City, home of wonderful friends and neighbors and a hotbed equally of Catholicism and the Democratic Party, I learned also something which has since stood me in good stead and will not, I trust, work to my eternal detriment: the art and science of politics. For the past decade I have lived happily with my wife and seven children among the warm, generous-hearted people-Catholics and Protestants and Jews-of Upper Montclair, New Jersey. One of the children is in heaven where, forever part of this family, he intercedes for us all.

Like any professional, I write for a living-that is to say, on assignment, and for specified fees, or in the case of books, under contract. I have been doing so for more than three-quarters of the twenty odd years since I made writing my career. The output has included seven books (with four more under contract, and another three about to be), somewhere between 700 and 1,000 magazine articles and short stories (Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, Better Homes and Gardens, Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, True, Coronet, Sports Afield, etc.), and a wealth of work as a consultant enabling industrialists and businessmen to put their brochures and stockholder reports into (1) correct and (2) readable English prose. My clientele is by now, thank God, world-wide. Many have become cherished friends as well as valued clients. From time to time, some who were hard pressed have made partial payment in the coin of prayer which is, I firmly believe, legal tender in heaven. Almost invariably, they have also sent new clients my way.

I mention the business-administration approach to all areas of writing solely for the benefit of those who wish to write. Contrary to widespread information, truly professional writing is not a sometime thing, but a regular career every bit as demanding, in its sphere of operation, as are law and medicine in theirs. Recognition of this basic fact is indispensable to survival-spiritual as well as economic--for the day-in-day-out practitioner of letters who must produce rather than just dream or talk about writing. A hard, practical philosophy-independent of how well you may feel or the imagined spontaneity of your "inspiration"--will, when linked to devotion to the Holy Spirit, almost without exception prove to be the dividing line which in this field separates the professional from, not the amateur whose dedication is honest, but the addict of self-deception.

In the learning stage (which is lifelong), anyone who really wants to write should be prepared for contradictions. I owe much to my father, for example, because in readying me for this work he reinforced a rich reading program already well along by starting me on my Latin when I was seven. By the time I reached St. Peter's College High School, in Jersey City, Latin was my second language. (It still is.) Along with Greek and the rest, what a boon to a writer! Yet today my father frets because they're so slow about getting the Mass into English.

From shrewdly perceptive Jesuits Father George Johnson (God rest him), and earlier from Mr. Bernie Boyle and Mr. Tom Doyle (both now priests), I learned about writing much that does not appear in books. I remember with awe and affection a springtime walk along the muddy Patapsco River in Maryland, near Woodstock College, during which Father Ralph Sturtzer, S.J., kindly urged me to think about writing something neither of us then knew a real talent was already at work on--The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel. And I remember also with amusement and gratitude, not too many years later, some advice from Ed Stanley-now a top figure in programming for the National Broadcasting Company--when he was editor of a national magazine and I was doing a piece about then Archbishop Speliman for him. "For the love of God," said Ed on seeing the first draft, "stop writing as if you were still at Fordham !"

I hope all the work since then has been for the love of God. I have certainly tried to make it so. At any rate, I think, I have long since learned to wash my prose of the academic jargon Ed had in mind.

Although a writing career has afforded me the privilege of working with many well-known people-Danny Thomas, Roy Rogers, General Don Flickinger, Sid Caesar, Governor Foster Furcolo, Arlene Francis, Gwen Verdon, David Wayne, Kate Smith, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, to name-drop but a few-probably the outstanding experience for me along these lines was the recent collaboration with the former Postmaster-General James A. Farley on a life of his old friend Governor Al Smith (1959) for Farrar, Straus & Cudahy's Vision Book series. Jim Farley is unquestionably one of the really great men of our time. I regard his friendship and the opportunity of having gotten to know him so well as one of the richest rewards of my calling. That tells you nothing about the priceless insights into the integrity and humor of Alfred Emmanuel Smith, but the book may.

Another deeply satisfying association was with one of the keenest-minded Catholic editors of this age when I was writing The Story of the Mass (Wyn, 1954) and The Story of Easter (Dauntless Books, 1957). Both books continue to flourish, year in and out, and may he flourish too: Father Paul Bussard of The Catholic Digest. The same goes for another burning figure of editorial acumen whom it has been my pleasure to write for: Father Ralph Gorman, C.P., of The Sign. Not least in this litany of praise is my old friend John Donahue, editor of the Knights of Columbus national magazine Columbia, with whom I have enjoyed the enormous stimulation of working closely this many a year.

The Church, its great sinners and heroic saints (sometimes in sequence one and the same) provide inexhaustible story material for the writer not hampered by what my friend James Brendan Connolly described to me shortly before his death as "false awe." That is not the same as lack of reverence, however, and I hope I may have partially demonstrated what both Jim Connolly (God rest him) and I mean in books of mine like The Good Shepherd Story (Graymoor Press, 1957), The Bishop Sheen Story (Fawcett, 1953), and The Holy Life of Eugenio Pacelli: Pope Pius XII (Fawcett, 1954).

I hope further to demonstrate it in a remarkable series for which I am under contract: the four volumes used in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes written in today's language to get Christ's message across to today's teenagers. One volume is finished and ready for publication.

For almost ten years I have been at work on a book with an unusual approach to the influence of the Jesuits in North America, from Jogues and Marquette to Robert Ignatius Gannon and John Courtney Murray. It may take another ten years or longer to complete.

Another long-term project, in no way directly connected with the above, is a deep-probing book on the role of the priest in our unique American society-with a provocative working title from Cardinal Montini' s challenging phrase, "Stranger in Life." It too will take its time a-borning.

In immediate prospect, with contracts on the brink of signing, are books on micrometeorology and the dramatic origins of neurophysiology. As I meant to say earlier, this profession is anything but confining. Then there is a third book which I am at the present not free to talk about. But if it works out as we hope, it should open wide a vast number of Catholic eyes and rock a lot of complacency elsewhere.

To close on a definition: writing is the exacting art of making rebellious words do a trained will's precise determination-no less, and oftentimes much, much more.

And on a note of Faith: unlike the saints, I find God in my distractions (who are also my soundest inspiration, may He bless them always): Dorothy (Donnelly) Conniff, Greg, Sue, Debbie, Cindy, Dick, Mark, and Bobby.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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