James Gerard Shaw
WRITING IS A DISEASE, A TRADE,
AND AM ART. I HAVE THE disease, work at the trade, and am as
fascinated by the art as a lunatic with the moon.
The disease set in early. When
I was about ten and living in Scotland I showed a "poem"
to my Irish mother who gave me a one-sentence criticism that
says everything that need be said about all the verse I have
ever written: "It may be the God's truth, Jimmy, but it's
Much later, when my head was
crammed with knowledge I was sure no one had ever possessed before,
I burned to write something the world would not willingly let
die. Nothing but the best would do and I scorned to lower myself
to the level of the popular professional writer. My superior
knowledge and my undoubted genius could not be wasted on the
commonplace, could not be prostituted for a byline or a buck.
I would starve in an attic and write, really write. I wax drunk
with words like "scholarship," "art," "truth"
and "beauty." I talked endlessly about them . . . and
I told myself that I was a
perfectionist, an absolutist, and it took more years than I care
to remember before I realized that there was another word for
it. I was a coward. I was afraid of the challenge, afraid of
By the same token, I was lazy,
shrinking from the hard work of compelling thought to words.
For writing is the hardest of hard work. Any excuse will do to
turn away from that blank page in the typewriter. One time, after
I had found that attic and all the freedom in the world to write,
I shut myself up with the typewriter and swore that I would not
open the door for three days. I sat down, put in a fresh sheet
of paper and stared at it for half-an-hour. Then I started looking
hopefully around to see if I had forgotten to lay in cigarettes
or sausages or bread or anything that would give me an excuse
to go out. But everything was unhappily there. I sat down again
and stared some more. My eyes fell on the rough, bare boards
of the floor. I said to myself, "Shaw, this is a disgrace!
Here you have been in this place for six weeks and have done
no more than swish a mop a few times over this floor." So
I got up, pushed the typewriter aside, found a scrubbing brush
and a pail of hot water, got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed
that floor thoroughly to its fartherest corners.
Anything but write.
I was an egoist then and I
am an egoist now. The only difference is that I know more about
my ego. I know that I have some things that I want to express
and a certain urge to find words for them. I know that the higher
the thing I want to express, the more my words will fail me.
But I also know, in the words of a real writer, "For want
of me the world's work will not die."
This is not of itself a happy
knowledge. But it brings freedom, freedom to be myself, freedom
to satisfy my urge to write by working at the trade of writing
with whatever skill I acquired in studying the art.
Journalism helped set me free.
It gave me a deadline, the necessity of putting something down
and letting it go. To my surprise (and my humiliation) I found
that some pieces I had ripped off as fast as I could make my
fingers move read much better than things I had labored over
for weeks. I lost all self-consciousness about seeing myself
in print. I learned that the only difference between a writer
and a person who is not a writer is that the writer writes.
A young lady, without knowing
it, pushed me into finishing my first book after years of stalling.
She hit me between the eyes with a French saying which means,
"Getting the thing done is part of art."
Writing that book brought me
one of those rare illuminations that come from sudden and personal
realization of an obvious truth. I discovered all by.myself that
if you write one page at a time the pages will actually pile
up until there are enough of them for a book. Up to then I had
written in mad bursts, sometimes all through the night. If it
couldn't be done at once, I felt, it couldn't be done at all.
I had learned the lesson of the tortoise and the hare.
The trade of being a Catholic
writer, at which I keep working, is not a profitable one materially.
But it has its rewards. There is more satisfaction in having
told two thousand people how the Middle Ages made the rosary
than there can be in having told ten million how Marilyn Monroe
makes her bed. A trade is not only a means of earning a living.
It is also a way of spending your life.
Writing is still hard work
for me (I put this article off for two months on the pretext
of thinking it over and finally sat down with only the faintest
idea of what I was going to say), but I am rather glad of that.
I believe it was Mauriac who said that writing is hard and hateful
because the writer knows he has to wring out his heart's blood.
When words come easily it is usually because they mean nothing
to you. And they are likely to mean exactly as much to the reader.
I do both kinds of writing.
I am reasonably content to be a bridge between the people I would
like to be and the people who do not yet know those other people,
a ladder between the knowledge within my reach and minds that
need a ladder to get to it. That much purpose I have kept.
But I must be honest and admit
that I still hope that practice of the craft does not forbid
achievement in the art. I still have hankerings after immortality.
I should like to write before I die one single sentence that
will be worth the time spent in reading it.
By way of autobiography: I
was born in London, England, May 20, 1909, got out of there at
three, and finished high school in Scotland at fifteen, having
spent three months of every year till then in my mother's County
Donegal. I went to sea and worked for three years before going
to Loyola College, Montreal. Since then I have commuted between
the United States and Canada as student, teacher, journalist,
editor, and free-lance writer. I am unmarried and work where
circumstances take me.
I have probably been most widely
read in some verses called "Our Lady of the Broom,"
most frequently read in a column "Among Ourselves,"
and derived most writing satisfaction from putting years of research
into a book called The Story of the Rosary.
At the moment I am doing what
I would like to be doing for the rest of my life: gathering material
for one book, writing another, and waiting for the last one to
come off the press.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Books by Mr.
Shaw are The Story of the Rosary (Bruce, 1954), Our Lady of the
Cape (Palm Publishers, 1954), Edwin Vincent O'Hara: an American
Prelate (Farrar, 1957); he ellaborated on English Voices (Sadlier,
1946) and Born Catholics (Sheed, 1954), and he is writing a life
of St. Columeille for Farrar, Straus & Cudahy's Vision Books
Originally published by
Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors