Monday, January 30, 2017

Amazing Grace and This Novelist

I'm reading Jonathan Aitken's biography of John Newton--a gift given me years ago by a woman I admire and respect. I came to this biography knowing very little about Newton beyond what everyone knows--he wrote "Amazing Grace," and he captained slave ships. Learning more has been a moving and encouraging personal experience. 

This morning, learning about his hymn-writing spoke to me on a personal level about my writing. Why? Well. Because, over my 20 years as a published novelist, there have been times when I was painfully aware of the number of people who look down their noses at "popular fiction." 
Once, I attended a lecture on a favorite writer. Afterwards, I introduced myself to the English professor who had just given the lecture, offering to visit her class if she ever wanted to give her students a chance to talk to a "working writer." When the professor learned what I write, she actually turned her back on me to begin a different conversation with someone standing nearby. 
Now, that's an extreme version of the kind of thing novelists sometimes encounter. Still, though, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy appreciation for the ministry of popular fiction. After all, the Enemy of our Souls is really, really good at discouragement. 
Below, I've excerpted what encouraged me most from the chapter about the "most sung, most recorded, and most loved hymn in the world," "Amazing Grace." (Here's a purchase link for the book:
Newton's writing "People's Hymns" was highly unusual for his day. But his congregation were tradespeople, and he knew that the principal religious books of the established church (the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer) were replete with phrases uneducated people found difficult to understand. "Newton thought he could help them to understand the Scriptures if he amplified his sermons by writing simply worded hymns that illustrated the biblical passages on which he was preaching."
"Newton saw himself as a simple wordsmith who could hammer out verses that would appeal to the ordinary folk of Olney."
"This concept of serving God and his parishioners was Newton's primary objective in writing hymns. He had no interest in pleasing persons of superior social status or literary taste. He made this clear when he wrote in the preface to Olney Hymns:
'Though I would not offend readers of taste by willful coarseness and negligence, I do not write professedly for them. If the Lord whom I serve has been pleased to favor me with that mediocrity of talent that may qualify me for usefulness to the weak and the poor of his flock without quite disgusting [displeasing] persons of superior discernment I have reason to be satisfied.'
Newton was therefore consciously avoiding highfalutin language and poetic phrases in his hymnody. He was an unashamedly middlebrow lyricist writing for a lowbrow congregation. He wanted every line of his hymns to be easy for his parishioners to sing, understand and commit to memory. Clarity and simplicity were therefore the cornerstones of Newton's hymn-writing technique. On these foundations he built his rhyme, rhythm, syntax, and choice of words. 'Amazing Grace' passes these Newtonian requirements for hymnody with flying colors. The rhymes and rhythms of its verses are so clear and so well-known that they require no further comment, but a less well noticed strength of the hymns is that of the 146 words in 'Amazing Grace,' no fewer than 125 are words of one syllable."
I share this with you, just in case you, too, have been tempted to feel "less than." While simplicity should never be a synonym for lazy writing, I find comfort in the notion that ministry to readers who are attracted to my simple stories is not something I need feel apologetic about---ever. Sign me Stephanie Grace Whitson, "unshamedly middlebrow."