ST. PAUL, Minn. — The table is too small for the dozen writers gathered in a coffeehouse on St. Paul’s trendy Grand Avenue. As they sip their specialty coffees, all ears are attuned to one young woman as she reads her fictional story about a World War I soldier.
The group calls itself The Minnklings — a Minnesotan take-off on C.S. Lewis’ and J.R.R. Tolkien’s writer’s group The Inklings. Among others, it includes a newspaper publisher, an academic journal editor, published fiction writers and journalists. They gather to critique one another’s work and share stories about getting published. The group is one of several literary efforts underway aimed at supporting existing Catholic writers and fostering new ones.
“I have no idea what loop you have to be in to get into some of these publications,” said David Deavel, a regular attendee of the Minnklings’ and associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture published by the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University. “What I find valuable is hearing other people’s stories about how to work with editors and publishers. Their experiences of getting in have been of the most value to me.”
Breaking in is one of the most difficult hurdles. One group of Catholic writers decided to start their own publication instead. While at the University of Pennsylvania, Bernardo Aparicio discovered the difficult realities of getting published.
“I started discovering the wealth of Catholic authors that there were, and how they got very little notice,” said Aparicio. “We haven’t heard of many Catholic authors writing over the past couple of decades. I realized there should be a venue for them to share their talent with the world. There is a lot of good they can do for this culture.”
So, through the University of Pennsylvania Newman Center and the Catholic collegiate organization Compass, Aparicio gathered a network of young Catholic writers to create the quarterly journal Dappled Things. The first issue appeared online during Advent 2005. The journal includes fiction, reviews, poetry and commentary by young Catholic writers.
The magazine receives approximately 20,000 hits each time a new issue goes online, some from as far away as Australia. Dappled Things just conducted a successful fundraising campaign to take its next step, a print magazine.
Meanwhile, under the tutelage of an English professor at a Methodist university, a summer literary workshop directed toward young Catholic writers has gotten under way.
“When I was younger, people like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O’Connor were still around contributing to the faith and literature,” said William Baer, founder of the Southwell Institute’s Literary Workshop. “That has kind of vanished.”
Baer, who teaches at the University of Evansville, Ind., thinks that void is the primary reason for the recent groundswell of interest in writing among Catholics. He believes that literature can bring people to the faith.
“If a novelist takes a reader into some deep metaphysical question, they might be tempted to explore that in their life,” he said. “Dante forces people to think about hell. He was a proselytizer. No one doubts that The Divine Comedy is one of the greatest literary works in the world. Dante continues to convert people to this day.”
Baer developed the Southwell workshop (named after English priest, poet and martyr St. Robert Southwell) to bring together a group of young Catholic writers to promote the Catholic literary arts. Last year, 16 writers gathered for a week at the Carmel Retreat House in Mahwah, N.J. Following Mass, the writers were exposed to Catholic classics. During the afternoons, they shared their writing with one another.
Baer brought in guests such as First Things’ editor Joseph Bottum, poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia, and author and Crisis columnist Father George Rutler.
The institute is accepting applications for its second workshop, to be held May 27 - June 6.
In time, Baer, a Catholic who oversees the University of Evansville Press, hopes to establish a journal devoted to the Catholic arts, as well as a press.
Daniel Varholy, 30, who attended the first workshop, described the Southwell Institute as pivotal to his own work. Prior to the workshop, Varholy was discerning whether to start a non-profit focused on Catholics and the arts.
“The workshop brought together a group of similarly committed Catholics deeply concerned about doing work for the Church in the field of literature,” said Varholy, who holds a doctorate in English from Oxford. “I was impressed by Dr. Baer’s confidence that if the Lord is calling you to do something, you just need to take the risk and do it. I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now if it weren’t for the Southwell Institute.”
Following the workshop Varholy began working with colleagues to found Corpus Christi Watershed, a non-profit production company devoted to the arts and culture. “That’s the unforeseen fruit of these types of conferences,” he explained. “They gather writers and strengthen them in their own callings.
“I sense a trend of younger Catholics trying to impact the culture,” he said. “We’re hoping in some small, modest way of encouraging each other as committed Catholics to trying to make a difference.”
Participants in the Minnklings, Dappled Things, the Southwell Institute or various other regional Catholic writing groups or workshops see themselves as playing a small part in the renewal of the culture.
“Catholics have kind of let the arts go,” said Baer. “The culture has gone further secular, and is even inimical to what the writer of faith is up to. As Catholics, we’re supposed to be creating art.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota —
and is a member of the Minnklings.