The biblical writers had the toughest assignment — and editor — of all time. Register file photo

Charles Lewis: The Catholic writer has a burden of truth

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  • March 14, 2019

Years ago I lived in Wakefield, Que., a rural area about 40 minutes north of Ottawa in the Gatineau Hills. Many of the people who lived there plied a trade — carpenter, potter, painter and such. 

We wanted a hutch built so we turned to a good friend who was a brilliant woodworker. He was excited to do it because he had just bought some beautiful elm, a type of wood he had never used.

Turned out elm was notoriously hard to work with and caused him no end of grief. He called many nights fearing he had taken on more than he could handle. We were not his only clients and he was worried about letting others down and losing business. He drove me nuts, but he was a friend.

After much suffering and toil he came through.

The piece was stunning, though it had one flaw: a cabinet door was slightly warped and would never close flat. This wonky door upset him but I liked it. It gave the piece character.

He could have had a door made that looked like elm but minus the warp and I would never have been the wiser. But he was too honest for that. He offered no excuses; this was the best he could do with what he had to work with. It was not perfect but it did not matter.

What I have come to understand through a lifetime of writing, which in itself is a kind of trade, is the end result is rarely ideal.

This was on my mind recently as stories about plagiarism came to the surface here in Canada and the United States. When someone takes someone’s written work we call it plagiarism but it might as well be called theft. Thou Shall Not Steal also applies to writing. The eighth commandment is wedged between adultery and lying, also forms of cheating.

The written word is easy to steal because there is so much of it to be found, especially with the Internet. Who is going to remember a passage in a 10-year-old book or essay? 

Likely the only work impossible to steal from is the Bible. Even atheists know the most tried and true phrases that are now simply part of our lexicon come from the Word of God. “The land of milk and honey.” “A lamb to the slaughter.” “Feet of clay.” And so on and so on… 

To plagiarize from the Bible is also to steal from God and that would not be good for anyone’s immortal soul.

The biblical writers had the toughest assignment ever commissioned. Even though these writers were inspired by God that does not mean they simply took dictation or found the work easy. 

I imagine these writers worked like mad to get it just right. To steal from them seems even more grotesque.

I have worked with some tough editors but I cannot imagine having God looking over my shoulder, especially on deadline.

God let His writers know when He was pleased. The Bible was perfect because God never errs. That is why the Church says the Bible is inerrant.

For the rest of us, we have to trust our own judgment and our own hard work.

Writing is hard. When people have told me over the years they enjoy writing I assume they are either insane or they do not write for a living. 

I have worked in four newsrooms with writers of all kinds of talents. Some writers were spectacular but most of us were journeymen. And yet the spectacular writer on some days could become pedestrian and the ordinary could reach brilliance. 

But in all cases the end result was by dint of hard work. Stealing someone else’s work to boost one’s ego was anathema. Newsrooms abhor plagiarists. 

I have heard that some writers revert to plagiarism because of enormous pressure born of taking on too much. To which I say, nonsense. Dealing with pressure is just as much a part of the job as the actual writing. Better to cry “uncle” once in a while than to copy.

Among the hundreds of writers I worked with over 35 years I can think of only one case of serious plagiarism. That person was fired but not before he did terrible damage to the reputation of two newspapers. 

For Catholic writers, I think the burden runs deeper. We are supposed to be conveyers of the truth. We are supposed to give up our work to God and acknowledge that God gave us the talent to put words on paper. So we must learn to be satisfied with the best we can do. 

God gave my friend in Wakefield the talent to bend wood to his will — and the wisdom and humility to live with the results.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.