Book Review: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers

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Dorothy Sayers (1893 – 1957) was the author of the Lord Peter mystery series, numerous plays, and a translation of the Divine Comedy. She was part of the Christian literary flowering in the early 1900s which also encompassed T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “She explored by-ways of knowledge, delighted in puzzles and enjoyed many a fight which she conducted with wit and good humour. Her formidable presence, magnificent brain and logical presentation put her in great demand as a lecturer.” (About Dorothy Sayers)

Me and Ms. Sayers

This particular book, The Mind of the Maker, turns out to have a personal history for me. I’ve been vaguely aware of it for years as a book “I really should read some time.” I first remember hearing it recommended by C.S. Lewis in one of his short apologetics books, where in the process of pointing out that any thinking about nonphysical things will necessarily be metaphorical, and that this does not mean that the thinker is taking the metaphor literally, he remarks that “anyone who wishes to think clearly about this topic must read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.”

My dad has a large personal library, and last year, while I was poking around in it looking to borrow some other book(s), I came upon TMoTM, and borrowed that one too. And lo and behold! According to the inscription on the inside cover, this very book was actually given to me by my dad, almost 30 years ago. Even back then he knew I was a creative writer, though at the time I was a very immature and inexperienced creative writer, and was apparently not ready for Sayers. I don’t know how TMoTM made it back into his library. Perhaps I left it there when I went off to university, or when I went to move overseas. Anway, now, after having done some living and some creating, I am ready for this magnificent work of Sayers’, and what a sweet reunion it has been.

I should mention that I have also read many of Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries, which is helpful because she uses them as illustrations sometimes in The Mind of the Maker. I have not read her translation of The Divine Comedy.

A Must-Read for Artists

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s delightfully readable. Sayers was, after all, a good writer, and she had worked for some years in advertising. This book is full of bon mots, terrific quotes, and so forth, and in fact I plan to post quotes from it for a long time on the Thursday quotation post on Out of Babel. So, although the subject matter might seem kind of abstract, the book is not difficult to read or understand. If you want to read it, don’t be afraid: go ahead and read it. Ms. Sayers will not allow you to get lost or even bored.

The thesis of this book is easy to summarize, but hard to believe until you’ve seen it fleshed out. Ms. Sayers, an Anglican, asserts that we can understand the Mind of the Maker (i.e. God) by looking at the dynamics of the creative process in the minds of lesser makers (people, specifically creative artists). God is, after all, the ultimate creative artist. She talks about “the artist” a lot, but inevitably most of her examples are drawn from the art forms she knew best: novels and plays. Her insights about the creative process were instantly recognizable to this novelist.

Diving a little deeper, she maintains that we can understand the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity (yes, the Trinity) by looking at the dynamics of how an artist produces his or her work. The work itself, she says, is present in what you might call three persons. There is what she calls the Idea, which is the work as a whole, as author first envisions it when she “sees the end from the beginning.” Then there is the physical manifestation of the work (its incarnation, as it were), which is the only means by which any other person can know it. This is the physical book or play; and, in the case of a play, the stage, actors, costumes, etc. … the whole event. The process of converting the Idea into this physical form is hard work, and the artist carries it out by means of what Sayers calls Energy or Activity. Finally, there is the work as an experience that the reader or theater goer has as they read or hear the story. This too is the piece of art itself, and this Sayers calls the Power. Each of these states of the play or novel, Idea, Energy, and Power, can be legitimately said to be the entire play or novel, not just a part of it. Yet they can be distinguished from each other. All three have to be present if the reader is to have an experience of the novel, or the audience an experience of the play. In the Trinity, the Idea corresponds to the Father, the Energy to the Son or the Word, and the Power to the Holy Spirit.

I hope this does not sound blasphemous. As we read through the book, it is striking how well the dynamics of bringing a work of creative art into being parallel the doctrines of the Trinity, and help us to understand them. Sayers would say, of course, that this is no coincidence. It is because people are indeed made in the image of God, and when we engage in creative work, there is something in our structure that parallels His structure as a Maker.

There is, as you might expect, an interesting discussion of the process of the author creating characters that in some sense exist independently of herself, and how this relates to human free will.

Even if you are not interested in the Trinity, I recommend this book to any writer who wants to read the insights of another writer who is intimately familiar with reading and writing literature, including the dynamics of plotting and pantsing, and of being asked if your characters’ tastes and opinions are the same as your own and why you can’t “make X character do Y.” There are also some delightful examples of bad writing that Ms. Sayers quotes as she illustrates different ways in which the creative process can break down. I don’t know how relatable this book may be to artists in different media, such as music or visual arts, but I would encourage them to check it out as well.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers

  1. Pingback: A Month (Give or Take) of Nonfiction – Out of Babel

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