Dorothy Sayers on Sacrificing for your Work

To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: “I have made such and such sacrifices for this.”

But when the job is a labor of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker — strange as it may seem — in the guise of enjoyment.

Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.

I do not mean that there is no nobility in doing unpleasant things from a sense of duty, but only that there is more nobility in doing them gladly out of sheer love of the job. The Puritan thinks otherwise; he is inclined to say, “Of course, So-and-So works very hard and has given up a good deal for such-and-such a cause, but there’s no merit in that — he enjoys it.” The merit, of course, lies precisely in the enjoyment, and the nobility of So-and-So consists in the very fact that he is the kind of person to whom the doing of that piece of work is delightful.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 134 – 135

We Are the-Book-as-Read

This threefoldness in the reader’s mind corresponds to the threefoldness of the work (Book-as-Thought, Book-as-Written, Book-as-Read), and that again to the original threefoldness in the mind of the writer (Idea, Energy, Power). It is bound to be so, because that is the structure of the creative mind. When, therefore, we consider Trinitarian doctrine about the universal Creator, this is what we are driving at. We are arguing on the analogy of something perfectly familiar to our experience. The implication is that we find three-fold structure in ourselves (who are the Book-as-Read), because that is the actual structure of the universe (which is the Book-as-Written), and that it is in the universe because it is in God’s Idea about the universe (the Book-as-Thought). Further, that this structure is in God’s Idea because it is the structure of God’s mind.

There is nothing mythological about Christian Trinitarian doctrine: it is analogical.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 122 – 123

A Month (Give or Take) of Nonfiction

Unrelieved grey, above & below? … Look closer, there’s a treat in the middle!

So, just as a personal update here, it’s been an odd six weeks since Christmas. First of all, there was … you know … Christmas, with all that implies when you are the mom and in charge of the festivities. Right before Christmas, I injured my shoulder doing a pushup (don’t laugh … I’ve injured myself by sleeping wrong), and that resulted in several weeks of nerve pain. Then around the time the shoulder/arm injury was becoming less intrusive, I got some sort of bug that wiped me out for about two weeks. Added to all this, it’s been really dark and cold, as it tends to be in the dead of winter. Even with our modern conveniences … heated car, warm house, plenty of groceries, etc., that deep chill can really make it seem like life is against you. (Honestly, how did our ancestors ever survive the Dark Ages? Imagine being sick, and having sick kids, in a hut where it’s not warm if you don’t keep building up the fire.)

With all of this, I haven’t exactly been tearing through the reading material. I do have a sizeable TBR of nonfiction … but even some of that, I wasn’t ready to face. I have a couple of nonfiction books about American Indians that promise to be eye-opening but depressing.

So I punted.

My nonfiction this past six weeks has been a reread, a book about the writing process (which is like candy!), and a journalistic book that goes down easy. Here they are.

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

A fantastic book about how the structure of the Trinity is reflected in the creative process. See my review here.

Rigged by Mollie Hemingway

A journalistic book that documents the various things that were done to ensure that T—- was not re-elected in 2020, including things like burying very incriminating evidence of B—–‘s corruption, changing (or ignoring) election laws in Pennsylvania, etc. I actually remember a lot of this stuff happening, because I get my news from the Daily Wire, although of course this book has more details, inside information, sources, etc. If you don’t get your news from the Daily Wire or a similar off-narrative outlet, it’s possible that the contents of this book might shock you. For me, it’s more of an entertaining ride, plus explanations of local election laws that a layperson can understand, plus just seeing that all this stuff is documented for posterity before it gets memory-holed.

I will probably give this book to someone as a gift later, but as per tradition, I must pre-read it first. (I haven’t decided who I will give it to, so if you clamor loudly, there’s chance that person could be you!)

Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson

Here is the review I posted on Goodreads this week:

This is a reread. The first edition was published in 1991. I’ve read it a number of times over the years. This time, I got it out because my students are getting to the age when we are going to have to start wading in to these debates.

Johnson is a lawyer, so he has a sharp eye for spotting equivocations, ad hominems, and the unexamined philosophical assumptions behind even honestly made arguments. His writing is a pleasure to read. It’s a course in logic as well as a survey of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, or as he calls it, the Blind Watchmaker thesis. Now, on my third or fourth reading, I realize that I missed a lot on previous readings because there is just so much going on in this book. Also, perhaps, because when we are accustomed to hearing a debate framed in one way, it can be difficult to follow, on first reading, when someone frames it differently.

Scientific discoveries have changed a lot since Johnson wrote this book. The changes have not provided more evidence for the Blind Watchmaker thesis; quite the opposite. Soft tissue has been discovered in dinosaur fossils, for example. More and more “hominem” species that were thought to be sub-human have been discovered to have been, in fact, simply human. Stephen Meyer has published his books about the Cambrian explosion and the challenges it poses to the Blind Watchmaker thesis. Genetics gets more, not less, intricate the more closely it is studied. More “living fossils” have been found. However, the amazing thing is that none of this matters much to the thesis of Darwin on Trial. Johnson’s argument is that the Blind Watchmaker thesis is not an empirical claim that its adherents set out to test, but rather a philosophical position: a logical deduction from naturalism, or from strict materialism. To true believers in the Blind Watchmaker thesis, none of the discoveries I have mentioned will look like disconfirming evidence.

I Got Nothin’

… so I’ll just post another quote from Dorothy Sayers.

Our perfect writer is in the act of composing a work –let us call it the perfect poem. At a particular point in this creative act he selects the “right” word for a particular place in the poem. There is only one word that is “dead right” in that place for the perfect expression of the Idea. The very act of choosing that one “right” word, automatically and necessarily makes every other word in the dictionary a “wrong” word. The “wrongness” is not inherent in the words themselves –each of them may be a “right” word in another place. (Footnote: Always excepting, of course, words like “sportsdrome” and “normalcy,” which are so steeped in sin that no place is “right” for them, except Hell, or a Dictionary of Barbarisms.)

The Mind of the Maker, p. 103

Does anyone have any other candidates for this category of words?

Sayers Quote: How Does One Think about Nothing?

If we propose to ourselves to “think about nothing,” we find we have engaged in a very difficult exercise. It does not seem to be quite the same as “not thinking about anything.” “Nothing” seems to remain nothing only as long as we refrain from thinking about it; any active thought is apt to turn it into a “sort of something” — it acquires, in fact, precisely that vague and disquieting sort of reality that we are accustomed to associate with the minus signs in algebra.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, p. 98

This is part of a discussion of how evil could come to be, in a good universe created by a good God.

Sick Burn from Dorothy Sayers

Too much attention should not be paid to those writers who say (holding one the while with a fixed and hypnotic gaze): “I don’t really invent the plot, you know — I just let the characters come into my mind and let them take charge of it.” Writers who work this way do not, as a matter of brutal fact, usually produce very good books. The lay public (most of them confirmed mystagogues) rather like to believe in this inspirational fancy; but as a rule the element of pure craftsmanship is more important than most of us are willing to admit. Nevertheless, the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril.

The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers, p. 67

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

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

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.