The Theologist / D. C. Schindler / Hero-worship and Skillful Writing

The Theologist is your guide to all things writing and publishing in the fields of theology and biblical studies, from finding inspiration for your work to reading the best literature on writing, from overcoming writing obstacles to finding writing mentors, and more. In this newest installation of The Theologist, we interview D. C. Schindler, philosophy professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America and author of many books, including Cascade’s Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (2018) and The Perfection of Freedom: Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel between the Ancients and the Moderns (2012).

What sorts of environments do you find most conducive for good writing?

Fortunately, I have acquired the capacity to write almost anywhere, as long as I have a pen and notebook in hand.  I say “fortunately,” because I will have my first designated home office in about two weeks (we have had an addition built, with library and office, which is just about finished).  Up until this point, I have tried to find a cozy corner, where I can.  Strangely, the environment is not as important as the position: I tend to write best lying on my stomach on the floor (!).  This is something that works if one does not need a computer for the first stage; I still write everything out by hand, and afterwards type it into the laptop.  There is something about the slower, and quieter, movement of the pen on paper that is for me much more conducive to reflective thought.  When I type the first draft into the computer, I have a chance to “hear” the words in my head, and check to see that the rhythm of the sentences is correct and the flow of the argument is a steady one that builds to a proper crescendo.  Virtually always, there is a great deal of disappointment, even despair, the first time through, which involves a good deal of re-writing on the fronts and backs of a printed copy.  If this approach has the advantage of mobility and direct contact with ink and paper, it has the disadvantage of all material things:  carefully-written drafts can get lost, thrown out, or used for children’s scrap paper.  Writing is a risky business.

What is your system, if you have one, for keeping track of the books in your library?

My basic system is a sort of compromise:  I have all the “A’s” together, then all the “B’s” together, and so forth, most basically according to authors’ last names (though I must admit I have a special couple of bookshelves with ancient Greek materials), but the books are not ordered inside each letter.  In some cases (H’s and S’s), that can make particular volumes hard to find.  Also, one has to make a decision with certain books about whether the author or the subject is more important: if Ricoeur has a book on Husserl, should this go with the Husserl books or the Ricoeur books?  Soon, I will have more serious decisions to make:  I have inherited the library of my father, who passed away recently, and will likely install a good number of his books in the new library addition.  He—or I should say, his student assistants—were more fastidious about book order, alphabetizing even within the first letters.  I’ll have to decide whether to bring my library into conformity with his, or his library in conformity with mine.  This won’t be an easy decision.  I may have to consult with my student assistant!

Do you use outlines for your books, and if so, what does the process of building those outlines look like?

I appreciate the concept of an outline, and often recommend them to my students, but I’ve never managed to use them myself.  I find that I don’t know the order of the argument until I am inside of it: if the writing is going well, each point proposes the next one to me with a certain inevitability.  Sometimes, if I am coming to the end of a writing day and still experience the momentum of the logic of the argument, I will jot down a list of the next three or four points somewhere in the margin, for the next day or next chance to write.  Often, though, it is difficult to climb into the precise place where the order jotted down makes sense, and so the list becomes more of a short list of things that will need to be covered.  But this is really as close as I get to an outline.

In the early days, I used to start thinking of a book from the very beginning: first the title, the subtitle, the epigraph, the opening words of the preface, and so forth, and then allow the thing to progress from there.  But more recently I have found that book ideas sometimes emerge after I’ve given a couple of lectures on related themes: a fundamental idea begins to take shape to tie the different lectures together, and they then appear as chapters in the middle of a larger project.

What role do other scholars in your network play, if any, in the development of a manuscript you’re working on?

I have friends who like to talk through their ideas with others as a way of clarifying them for themselves; such conversations then help them to begin writing.  I sometimes worry about what this means, but I have generally found the opposite to be the case: once I’ve talked through an idea, especially if I’ve done it in a thorough and systematic way, I lose the desire to write about it.  For me, the best writing (or at least what I experience to be the best writing; I’m not sure an author is always the best judge) tends to come with a sense of a secret that I have discovered, which requires a sustained attention, a kind of cultivation in the imagination, without too much “public” exposure, to be properly brought to fruition.

Who has contributed the most to the development of your writing skills, and what was their specific contribution to said development?

Unlike some of my friends, whose writing I admire, and unlike my very gifted wife, I do not think I have a native talent for writing.  I was quite an average writer in high school, and experienced writing assignments as an almost intolerable burden.  Two experiences in college, however, relieved a good bit of the burden.  First, I had an extremely unconventional professor in a year-long freshman honors seminar, Dennis Moran, who approached literature as something mysterious and alive, and insisted that students slough off the five-paragraph model from high school and simply try to say something meaningful, in whatever form that meaning required.  This was extremely liberating, and helped me reflect on what it was about the book that at that time had made the biggest impression on me—Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—worked as it did, how it enabled the reader to enter into the line of inquiry the author recounted.  In this book, the philosophical ideas unfold as part of a life’s narrative, and I realized for the first time that one might try to write that way.  The second experience was my discovery of Nietzsche (and in a certain sense Kierkegaard) in my junior year.  I was amazed at how a brief couple of sentences could open up a whole world and unfold an idea, not through an explicitly reasoned argument, but through a well-formulated image or anecdote.  For a whole year, I read everything by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, often neglecting school work, and began carrying around a notebook in which I would copy images or turns of phrase that I found particularly compelling.  Sometimes I would write my own.  I feel sorry, in retrospect, for the professors who had to read the papers that I wrote in this period—there is something especially tedious about the work of a young man who has fallen under the spell of Nietzsche.  Even though there was something naïve and exaggerated in my writing from that time, I do think that I learned things that have become a permanent part of my own thinking and writing.  The Greeks are right, I believe, on the importance of eros in education: I think that a certain kind of “hero-worship” can be beneficial in the efforts to acquire a certain skill.

Which other writers do you find you model your own writing style after the most? What about their writing do you try to imitate?

I’ve already mentioned Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; I might add Hans Urs von Balthasar to that list, though he came later.  But in the end I wouldn’t say I model my writing (anymore!) on theirs.  To say it again, I don’t think I have a native talent here.  When people sometimes admire the “clarity” of my writing, I sometimes joke that God blessed me with a simple mind and a small vocabulary.  Unlike writers whom I admire, like those just mentioned, I tend to minimize rhetorical form and simply try to articulate the thought as straightforwardly as I can.  I have learned that, if my writing has any power, it is only because the thinking does, or more properly: the thing itself that I am trying to explain is inherently interesting and has a compelling power of its own.  My aim is just to let that be seen and felt as directly as possible.

What have you learned about yourself through your experiences writing and publishing?

I have learned the need to “detach” from what I do.  There is a certain ascesis necessary in writing.  I think this is especially apparent in teaching, but it is a similar reality.  One can obsess about the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, of a particular technique or style or approach, and revisit the matter over and over in one’s imagination.  But I have learned that one’s concerns are often, not necessarily wrong, but misplaced.  Sometimes the things one thinks were most pointless turn out to have been the most successful, and the moments in which one thought one was really successfully explaining a point turn out to be the most insignificant and forgettable.  In the end, there is not a lot of control one has.  So, the point is to learn to try simply to produce something excellent, and then surrender any control one might have over the reception of what one produces or the perception of it.  One has to detach from the fruits of one’s works, and simply attempt to do the work itself well.  This is something true about every area of life, but I think it has a special importance in teaching and writing.

What have you learned about writing, editing, and publishing in your time serving as one of the editors of Communio’s North American edition?

One of the most interesting aspects of this work has been the regular contact with theologians, philosophers, and writers from many other countries.  Some of the things that seem most vital and urgent in the United States appear to be marginal matters to theologians in other countries, and vice versa.  Encounters with serious people reflecting on matters of faith and culture in other parts of the world help one to keep a proper perspective about what is going on locally—not that the importance of local matters is necessarily diminished, but one can interpret these matters in relation to one’s belonging to the supra-national Church.  Things can look very different in other places.  A somewhat comical example:  a discussion emerged several years ago about the most challenging problem facing the Church in the various countries represented at the meeting.  There was a priest from Poland present who, after a few moments of reflection on the question, decided that the most challenging problem in his country was that there were too many children crying during Mass (!).

What one piece of information about the publishing world do you think first-time authors would most benefit from knowing?

I don’t know if I have any information to offer, but I would, first, recommend patience, because the process of getting a book published takes a lot more time than one might expect (especially in the age of the internet in which time scarcely exists anymore).  Second, I would say that the most important thing, in any event, is not to try to conform to the spirit of the age, as it were, and thus write something one thinks will be successful.  Instead, one should follow advice Kierkegaard once gave as a remedy for empty chatter:  one should only speak as if what one says happened fifty years ago.  The point is that insignificant things from fifty years ago would not be worth reporting on now, or in other words, one should really only say things that would be worth hearing fifty years hence.  This might be an exaggeration with respect to speech, but it shouldn’t be an exaggeration with respect to writing.  One really shouldn’t write a book (for the most part, of course) unless it will still be worth reading in fifty years.  Obviously, one can’t make this judgment in a completely certain way, but one can nevertheless aspire to this in one’s writing.  And one can trust that, to the extent that one does, one’s writing will already be successful in a certain respect.

Which theologians/biblical scholars, dead or alive, do you think are the best writers, and why?

The most gifted writer alive is no doubt David Bentley Hart, even if some of the content of what he writes I find a bit troubling.  I also greatly admire William Desmond, who has such a keen sense of the drama of thought, and its religious roots.

In one sentence, describe the driving theme running through the whole of your corpus.

There are different themes for different areas (metaphysics, anthropology, epistemology, political philosophy, etc.), though I am developing a plan for a fairly extensive and comprehensive philosophy of symbolic order.  But if I had to generalize, I would say that the idea running through my work is that the classical Christian tradition offers the best resources to deal with contemporary cultural problems, and, conversely, engaging with contemporary cultural problems allows us to discover new things in the great treasury of the classical Christian tradition.

If you could have an unlimited supply of copies of one book to give out to people, what book would you choose, and why?

This is difficult for me to answer, but in the end the book that I think everyone should have on his or her bookshelf is Dionysius’s Divine Names.  I have come to think that this is the greatest achievement of the human spirit and that it presents a literally inexhaustible resource for reflection on the Christian mysteries, the nature of God, and what it means to be a creature.

What books are you currently reading?

I’ve got a fairly eclectic list going right now.  On my bedstand is The David Foster Wallace Reader and the new English translation of Aquinas’s commentary on the Divine Names.  I’ve just finished Frank Wilson’s The Hand and Glenn Adamson’s Fewer, Better Things.  A friend has sent me several books by John Deely, which have been revealing, and I have recently acquired the main works of Bertrand de Jouvenel.  Another friend sent me John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us, which I have been thoroughly enjoying.  I am also reading through some book manuscripts from friends; currently, I’m reading Esther Meek’s Doorway to Artistry, which I understand will be published by Wipf and Stock.  It’s quite a celebration, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in print!

D. C. Schindler is Professor of Metaphysics and Anthropology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC.  He is a translator of French and German, one of the editors of the North American edition of Communio, a board member of the College of St. Joseph the Worker, and the author of many books and articles. Among his books are The Perfection of Freedom: Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel between the Ancients and the Moderns (2012), and Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (2018), both published by Wipf and Stock.


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