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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 no poetry."

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 wrote nothing.

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 defeat.

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 series.

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors

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