Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers. This morning I was rummaging through my digital copy of his biography, The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, when I came across an incredible story about the publication of his landmark book.
St. Francis de Sales was a bishop and a preacher. He was well-educated and wrote often, but he wasn’t a full-time writer by any means. In fact, when someone suggested he write a book, he discarded the idea saying he didn’t have the time or the writing talent to get it done.
St. Francis de Sales is known for a classic book titled An Introduction to the Devout Life. The peculiar thing though, as his biographer and friend Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus explains, was that he wrote the book two years before he thought of writing a book at all.
St. Francis de Sales had a friend who asked for spiritual guidance. After many meetings and lessons, St. Francis de Sales wrote down notes as reference material for her to use in her everyday life.
She loved the notes. She loved them so much that when she was in residence at a university, she shared them with her new spiritual director, who shared them with his colleagues, professors, and priests, who all urged St. Francis to put these notes together in the format of an actual book.
Surprised by the idea at first, St. Francis de Sales eventually gave in. He created his book and offered the world a masterpiece of spirituality for the ordinary person.
It was so popular and so powerful that he was later given the honor “Doctor of the Church,” a distinction given to only the greatest theologians and writers in the history of the Catholic Church.
Writing Lessons from St. Francis de Sales, Patron Saint of Writers
So, what lessons can writers learn from the story of St. Francis de Sales, the writer?
1. Write with a specific person in mind.
One of my favorite lessons about writing comes from Tim Ferriss in his bestselling The 4-Hour Work Week:
“I wrote it with two of my closest friends in mind, speaking directly to them and their problems—problems I long had—and I focused on the unusual options that had worked for me around the world.”
Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Work Week
When writers have a specific person in mind while they write, it becomes much easier to meet the real needs of the reader. It is a mind trick that helps get what is most important on paper. It adds a level of authenticity that is often missing from writing.
St. Francis de Sales wrote his book for one person, just one. Later he couldn’t believe that his words actually had value for other people. It never occurred to him. So, after some urging, he reformated the content into a book because he was convinced that it would actually have value for “other souls.”
2. Write something worth sharing.
St. Francis de Sales wrote for one person, but that one person shared what he wrote. Then those people shared it too.
It went viral.
Viral marketing is the only book marketing that works.
A lot of authors and publishers approach book marketing with a big book launch in mind. Well, the greatest book launch in the world can never make a bad book good.
Good books get shared. It’s the only way any book makes an impact after the initial launch.
What does it mean to write a good book? Write something that people will read and share. If they don’t share it and don’t talk about it, the book won’t sell.
3. Don’t write to get published.
St. Francis de Sales didn’t write in hopes of getting published. He wasn’t hoping to reach millions (he did) with his book. He focused on the writing. He focused on helping. He wrote something to be incredibly valuable and practical. It never occurred to him that what he was writing would become a book and a 16th century classic.
It reminded me of one of my favorite (and incredibly challenging) quotes from the writer and mystic monk, Thomas Merton:
“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men–you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
The truth is, you can’t predict what books and what ideas will go viral. You can only write was is true and coming from your heart (and the Spirit).
Write for God (or in Steven Pressfield’s words, your Muse) and you will reach many readers.
4. Be Respectful to the Haters
St. Francis de Sales’ book was a landmark work of spiritual writing because it was directed towards people who weren’t ordained priests or religious monks or nuns. He wrote the book for lay people. At the time this was very out of the ordinary and rare.
Despite dozens of printings and translations into all the European languages, the book was the subject of a lot of criticism. (The most common criticism was his suggestion that dancing was an indifferent action in itself and not a de facto sin.)
What did he say of his critics?
“Knowing the quality of these censors, I praise their intention, which I think was good.”
When a writer gets a bad review, the reviewer may or may not have good intentions, but don’t let that get to you. All the same, the fact that this saint didn’t get angry with his critics or even shy away from what he wrote, makes me very proud.
He still thought of them with his characteristic gentleness and love.