The Stuff of Writers

Ian Doulton sdb

Among the many photographs of Don Bosco preserved in the central archive there are some that those who knew him, considered as the truest representation of the saint. They were taken on March 16, 1886 by Angelo Ferretto for the Genoa firm of Gustavo Luzzati when Don Bosco was over seventy years of age. He was on his way to Spain at the time, and had stayed a few days at the Salesian school of Sampierdarena (Genoa). In this portrait Don Bosco’s eyes have a brightness about them that fascinates and impresses the viewer. It is hard to believe that when these photographs were taken Don Bosco was practically blind – he had lost sight out from his right eye, and his left eye was weak and barely functioning [1] . When he posed for the famous Luzzati photographs (mentioned above) Don Bosco was practically blind. It appears that by that time he was suffering from irreversible macular degeneration—but managed withal to write. In spite of being plagued with near blindness and other handicaps, Don Bosco never stopped working untiringly at the apostolate of the written word—making use, in his later years, of helpers to further his efforts. The output is enormous. Both Pietro Stella and Francis Desramaut have compiled lists of books and pamphlets authored by Don Bosco and published over the years 1844-1888, lists that run to hundreds of titles. Stella [2]lists 403 titles of books and pamphlets in their various editions in various languages. Desramaut [3]lists 145 titles: 108 signed or claimed by Don Bosco; 37 attributed to Don Bosco – quite an achievement by a person so handicapped!

For the sake of my article, I am inclined to envision him as exhausted and old with tired eyes squinting slightly as he struggles to read what he has just been writing. He bends down again and his pen rages across the paper as he writes by the light of a lamp in his first floor room at Valdocco. He writes with the fury of a prophet, his pen scarcely keeping pace with his thoughts.

Just observe the urgency with which he wrote to the Salesians in 1885:I beg and beseech you therefore—do not neglect this important sector of our mission (spreading good literature). Begin by working with the young people that Providence has entrusted to you; and then by word and example inspire them to be, in their turn, apostles for the spreading of good books.” He felt urged to write and publish what he wrote for all kinds of people, for peasants, paupers and princes, for the intelligentsia and the clergy but most importantly for his boys who eagerly lapped up whatever he wrote. How blessed the reader to have been able to connect with so prolific a writer!

He would write while he was sitting in shaky stagecoaches as they trundled through the towns of Northern Italy or he would busy himself correcting proofs of The Catholic Readings while taking the train from Turin to Pistoia and Piacenza with Fr. Costamagna. [4] Occasionally gazing out of the window…he was not admiring the countryside but only slowing down his trend of thought and if he closed his eyes it was to rummage through his treasure chest of words for one that would precisely fit the idea he wished to put into words. No lazy verbs, no vanilla adjectives. His sentences were graphic and concise. Immorality and squalor, bourgeois decadence and highhanded aristocracy certainly upset him and he wrote compulsively in order to protect his youngsters from becoming victims of this dangerous and unstable environment. At times he might have been very tired, frustrated and even upset but he was never confusing in the way he let his thoughts leave his pen. They were meant for his boys (and simple folk) so they had to be, not just readable but interesting. He wasn’t writing some learned tome, he was writing to grip the hearts of his boys and his Salesians. He wasn’t crafting encyclicals; he was inspiring souls, admonishing the wayward, addressing issues and solving problems. Probably he did not realise it, but as he wrote about the issues of his time, his writings would affect future generations. While he was writing he made certain that he addressed himself above all, to his boys and his Salesians in the various communities of his fledgling congregation, his main aim being “the salvation of their souls.”

An Early Start

Just think of little Johnny Bosco, a young stable boy at the Moglia farmstead of Moncucco who spent his spare moments reading.[5] And whatever he read sank into his mind, firing his little soul with thoughts about his future mission – the care of youngsters. While he was in Chieri and working as bartender’s assistant, he slept every night beneath the staircase at CafĂ© Pianta but not before he had read a few pages from a book that his spiritual director had given him. Obviously his craving to read led to his urge to write. We wonder if God could not use us to do the same.

Don’t we know a couple of confused youngsters, maybe on our college campuses, in our parish youth groups or at our holiday camps? And have we not felt that yearning within our hearts to see things turn out right for this “most vulnerable part of society”? For so many other social and personal reasons haven’t we, at least mentally, written articles, blogs or even stories? Maybe not as prolific like Don Bosco, or Fr. Lemoyne, Fr. Braido or so many others, even our very own Fr. Chavez whose letters we so unanimously hail as moving, relevant and powerful? We’re not unlike them, because, we, like them, have that yearning to serve youngsters that so tempts us to take up the pen or turn on the PC.

Begin with a thought

Admit it; we have had our moments of inspiration, sandwiched between hours of perspiration, for sure, but we have had our moments—mystical moments of pounding heart and pounding keyboard. We have felt the wind behind our backs and sensed a holy hand guiding ours. We, like our Creator, have beheld our creations and declared, “It’s good.” (Or, at least, “It’s not so bad.”) And we have asked: Is this our call? Our assignment? To use words to touch young lives and shape youthful souls? Our first attempts may frighten us. Many of us might dread a writing assignment, but gradually we will come to cherish this labour of putting words to our ideas and pen to paper so that our thoughts may give life and our words may take flesh. Sometimes with a notebook nearby I have waited for a thought, at other times I have just retreated with pad and pen and waited until something happened…and it did.

Believe me, with such desire and commitment, something is bound to happen and before you know it your pen will be flying across a page or your fingers will fling themselves recklessly over a keyboard as your thoughts flow. And then is there any sweeter moment than the writing of your final sentence?

An Influential Task

Actually there is: the appreciation thereof. When someone comes up to you and tells you that what you wrote touched them ‘spot-on;’ while another photocopied your article to pass it on to friends and yet someone else asked for a soft-copy to be able to send it on to friends abroad. You will then feel it was all worth your while. But then comes the suggestion from someone: why not write for publication? You might be a bit amused because you never dreamt you would ever hear such a suggestion. It’s one thing to write. It’s quite another to be read.

I believe that good words are worth the work. Well-written words can change a life. Why is this? Because words go where we never go— across continents like Africa, Australia, Indonesia…and descend to depths you’ll never believe fathomable, into the personal lives of those who needed just a thought to help them make a choice.

Think of this:

Readers invite the author to a private moment. They clear their schedules, find the corner, switch on a bedside lamp, turn off the television or just glance through your ‘opus’ while taking the train or sitting at an air terminal. They set the table, pull out the chair and invite you: “Come, talk to me for a moment.” It’s an invitation of a lifetime.

Admit it. Your writing is needed. This generation needs the best you can write and the clearest thinking you can render. Pick up the pens left by Don Bosco, Fr. Lemoyne, Fr. Braido…or even our very own Fr. Pascual Chavez. They have shown what writing can do.

The Birthday Cake!

Have you had an experience of going shopping for something, say for instance a birthday cake for a confrere? The administrator knows you’re in town and calls you and you say: “Of course.” But when you get back you find that you’ve bought all the other unnecessary stuff but simply skipped the “birthday cake!”

You forgot the big item. The one thing you promised you’d get – the birthday cake! How embarrassing!

Might we make the same mistake? In an effort to write well, let’s not forget the subject we’re tackling. In an effort to be creative, let’s also be clear.

The most important point – the birthday cake! The early Christian writers remembered it. They made certain that every reader received the unparalleled revelation, the defeat of evil, the beauty of truth, goodness and love. They didn’t forget the cake! Don’t forget it. Entertain, inform, inspire, engage, thrill and stir, but amidst your plots and word-pictures, don’t forget the cake! All our predecessors from Don Bosco right down to our present Rector Major didn’t, they delivered.

Conclusion – Writing from Life

What’s most important is that they wrote with their lives first. They lived the message before they wrote it. Our Salesian writers didn’t inhabit ivory towers or quarantine themselves in a world of un-asked questions. They were truly Salesians with dusty tucked-up cassocks from the playgrounds..., perspiration dripping down their foreheads…and hearts burning with a desire to pass on the fire that burned in their hearts. Like Don Bosco himself, today his sons still respond to a real world embroiled in real problems, with real words. We must do the same.

As Salesians are we not lovers of the young? Loving the grumpy ones, the grubby ones, the hungry ones and those struggling with issues too huge to handle alone; so it’s time to write and write with clarity. Good writing is clear thinking. Don Bosco was his own editor. He auditioned his stories to fit the manuscript. Good writers do this. They tap the delete button to distill the writing. Make every word earn its place on your page. Reread your masterpiece until you’ve thrown out all that stinks.

Ernest Hemingway espoused re-writing: “I rise at first light, and I start by reading and editing everything I have written to the point where I left off. That way I go through a book several hundred times, honing it until it gets an edge like a fighter’s sword. I rewrote the ending of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ 39 times in manuscript and over 30 times in proof trying to get it right.”[6]

And isn’t our aim to put forth the best article possible? We want to offer good stuff so we put forward only our best contribution. Don’t give up. Be stubborn with your standard. Stay faithful in your intent. Don’t begrudge the hard work. It is noble work!

[1] Cf. G. SoldĂ , Don Bosco nella fotografia dell’800 (Torino: SEI, 1987), p. 183-186]

[2] Cf. P. Stella: Gli Scritti a stampa di S. Giovanni Bosco (Roma: LAS, 1977), p. 25-79

[3] Cf. F. Desramaut: Don Bosco en son temps (Torino: SEI, 1996) p.1369-1381

[4] Mons. James Costamagna, Writings and Life in Salesian Spirituality, edited by Eugene Valentini, LAS Rome, 1979

[5] Cf. G.B. Lemoyne: The Biographical Memoirs of St. John Bosco Vol. I (English Edn.) p. 147

[6] (Readers’ Digest, October 1968, “I Remember ‘Papa’ Hemingway,” by A. E. Hotchner, p. 151.

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