Archives For Writing

Typing is Not Writing

February 21, 2017 — 6 Comments

chimp

How is this for an absurd waste of time? A foolish man wanted “to feel what it was like to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald.” So, what did he do? Take writing classes? No, he had a better idea. He sat down at the keyboard and proceeded to type out a verbatim copy of The Great Gatsby.

Some of you may have heard this story, from the life of Hunter S. Thompson. He founded the “gonzo journalism” movement which dispenses with the pretense of objectivity. Sarcasm, humor and even profanity abound in this type of writing.

Thompson was apparently well suited to gonzoism, summarizing his life philosophy in this way: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Which is, presumably, a personal endorsement, rather than advocacy.

Apparently, typing the same words as literary icons also “worked” for Thompson. He also retyped Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to learn how to emulate his style.

I wonder what C.S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings would think of this approach to learning how to write. Lewis, of course, treasured good writing and recognized wide reading as a valuable inspiration for successful writing.

Nevertheless, if Lewis and Tolkien heard about Thompson’s exercise, I imagine they would enjoy a good laugh.

Reproducing typed facsimilies cannot be considered writing. Even an utterly illiterate person (or probably even a chimpanzee) could be trained to reproduce an original, key stroke by key stroke. (The monkey would probably benefit from a keyboard tailored to its particularly physiology.)

Emulating is Writing

When a lesser writer seeks to imitate the style of a renowned author, using their own creative skills and not plagiarizing, they are composing something original. There are several considerations to keep in mind.

Copyright restrictions may bar the work from publication. For example, it’s not yet legal for people to publish new Narnia stories.

Trademarks can also limit options for such works. Speaking of which, you don’t need to register a trademark to use TM in the United States, as we at MereInkling(TM) recently learned.

If registered with the USPTO, use the ® symbol after your mark.  If not yet registered, you may use TM for goods or SM for services, to indicate that you have adopted this as a “common law” trademark or service mark.

Works written as an homage—without any compensation or profit—is typically allowed. Thus we see innumerable variations on the Screwtape Letters. I have contributed to that mountain myself.

Basing a piece on the themes or voice of a masterpiece is altogether different from plagiarism.

There is one more critical point to make about a legitimate literary “tribute.” It can be based on the most anointed writing of the most impressive author . . . and still not be worth reading at all.

Which returns us to the typescripts reproduced by Thompson. Assuming he reproduced them faithfully, he is immune at least to the charge that the product of his typewriter is inferior to the original text.

That said, I find the two minutes I just invested in writing the following modest haiku more beneficial to my creativity than the hundreds of hours I might have spent literally copying a book I prize.

Retyping fixed words

Rather than shaping one’s own

Is a game for fools.

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

hooper

Upon Lewis’ death, Walter Hooper assisted Inkling Owen Barfield (1898-1997) in overseeing Lewis’ literary estate. He continues to serve as a literary advisor to the estate. Hooper’s Lewisian contributions have grown in magnitude over the years.

He began by co-authoring a biography of Lewis in 1974, written jointly with Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87). Green had been a student of Lewis, and a member of the Inklings. After writing several other works through the years, in the late nineties he penned C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide and C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works. Priceless resources!

The list of material edited by Hooper is quite impressive. He dutifully, and brilliantly, edited many of Lewis’ writings. The world should be particularly grateful for the three-volume compilation of Lewis’ correspondence. A humble man, Hooper writes sincerely in the preface to the volumes: “The eight years I have spent editing the letters would not have been as fruitful nor as pleasant were it not for the help of many others. My debts are numerous, and nothing I can say can adequately reflect my gratitude.”

Hooper’s meeting with Lewis was providential, coming as it did so near the end of the great author’s life. The following letter describes their arrangement. It reveals how much Lewis appreciated the initial assistance provided by Hooper, and how hopeful he was that Hooper would be able to resume his secretarial duties in the summer of 1963. Lewis remained, however, concerned about how he would meet all of his financial responsibilities in the wake of his medical retirement.

[The Kilns] 20 Sept 63

My dear Walter

We get on reasonably well, tho’ we all greatly miss, not only your utility, but your companionship. No one has ever so endeared himself to the whole household.

The noble Arthurian volumes continue to arrive, but are not yet on the shelves. The work of arranging all my books in their new homes, tho’ delightful, goes on v[ery] slowly, for I am not strong enough to do more than a little each day.

Now, about the future. It is entirely reasonable that you shd have a salary and a darn good one, and I feel I have been rather sponging on your kindness. But what it may be proper for you to ask may also be impossible for me to do.

I dare not at present increase my expenses. In this country one is taxed each year on the income of the previous year. One’s first year in retirement is therefore very alarming. And if, on top of the drop in income, there are the expenses of an illness, and some rather heavy and unexpected expenses for David–well you see.

I am v. ashamed, not of confessing the situation, but of refusing the wholly just demand from a man to whom I already owe more than any money could repay.

But you see, having you as a paid secretary wd. be a luxury, and I’ve no right to imperil those who depend on me for the sake of a luxury to myself.

On other grounds, I couldn’t recommend you to come in January. Mrs Miller and I talked it over and both concluded that an English house in an English winter wd. be misery for you. Our central-heating apparatus is v. primitive (nothing like yours) and we can afford to use it only during very cold snaps.

If you can afford to come in June, you will be thrice welcome. W. is still away. I fear he’ll kill himself if this goes on much longer.

Our plums are splendid this year. With all our loves. Yours Jack

A Wonderful Interview with Hooper

Walter Hooper has been very content to remain behind the scene, and deep in the shadow of the man whose memory he preserves.

Fortunately, in addition to his personal writings and editorial work, Hooper has been willing to speak in various settings. The photograph at the top of the page comes from the unveiling of Lewis’ memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

We owe a debt of gratitude to “Socrates in the City: Conversations on the Examined Life,” which is produced by Eric Metaxas, a Christian writer and syndicated radio host.

Metaxas took his program from the city of New York, to the city of Oxford to avail himself of the wealth of brilliant speakers accessible there. Among those he interviewed in this casual setting is Walter Hooper. Wonderfully, the Hooper interview was substantial enough that it is presented in three parts. Do check it out.

Beavers Beware

January 2, 2017 — 9 Comments

russian-typoA mere 375,000 rubles buys a fair amount of publicity in Russia; just be sure to proofread the product.

This Christmas season one Russian charity hoped to encourage readers to live good lives, but instead they published a brochure that encouraged beaver genocide.

Beavers are particularly vulnerable rodents. They are quite gentle, and even Talking Beavers are poorly equipped to defend themselves.

The lovely scene on the leaflet featured an innocent girl gazing into a snow globe. Emblazoned above it was supposed to read “Do Good.” Instead, the Russian words spelled out “Exterminate Beavers!”

It just bears out the maxim, “proofread before you publish.” In this case, one could easily add: “if the work is translated, make sure the proofreader understands both languages.”

Some errors are especially heinous.

C.S. Lewis recognized the importance of proofreading.

He was sometimes the victim of inadequate editorial review. So it comes as no surprise that he preferred to see galleys (the uncorrected typeset proofs) of his work before actual publication.

The following reference from a letter in which Lewis attributes the need for such as due to his own poor penmanship, rather than the carelessness of others. This is typical of his generosity, since part of the duties of editors (and pharmacists, for that matter) is to be able to decipher the scribblings of authors (and physicians). Mark Twain did not share Lewis’ grace in this matter.

When his friend Dorothy Sayers died in 1958, Lewis was unable to attend the funeral in London. He was, however, honored to write a panegyric for the service, which was read by one of the bishops in attendance. Following the event, Sayer’s son, Anthony Fleming thanked Lewis and asked if he might include the eulogy in possible collection.

Dear Mr. Fleming

Thank you for your most kind letter. I am relieved to find that the little speech has pleased those whose approval at such a time matters most—it is so easy to go wrong in a thing of that kind and so to give offence.

I am perfectly willing that it should be printed, but please ask whoever sees to it to be sure and let me see a proof. Even if printers made no mistakes, my villainous writing nearly always leads to some.

Lewis, of course, was referring to a literal manuscript, a document written by hand. One assumes that the Russian publisher was given a typescript, so they could not use “villainous writing” as an excuse for their error.

Still, I suspect they were given the text in one language, English perhaps, and asked to translate it for publication. In that case, who actually is responsible for the mistake?

I choose not to worry about attributing liability in this matter. I’m content to use this winter mistake to remind me of the importance of proofreading.

Oh, and on behalf of all of the beavers in Russia, I am relieved to know they will not be distributing these murderous words.

shakespeare-and-lewisC.S. Lewis’ prolific, genre-crossing success teaches us two things. First, that a very good writer can fruitfully write in a variety of fields. Second, that even the most gifted of authors cannot write with equal talent in all genres.

Students of C.S. Lewis are well acquainted with the fact that one of the great disappointments of his life was failing to succeed as a poet. Although he did write a reasonable amount of poetry, it failed to elicit the response for which he hoped.

Lewis did, of course, receive well-deserved kudos for his literary fiction and children’s stories. His fiction and nonfiction are extraordinary, and over the years I have appreciated the value of his many essays to be among the most precious of his works.

Finally, as a correspondent, Lewis stood in the first ranks. He regarded the responsibility of personally responding to the letters he received as something not to be shirked.

Fortunately, the excellent collections of his letters offer us many insights into Lewis’ life and career. For his Christian fans, they reveal insights into how a disciple of Jesus can gracefully navigate life.

The following letter was written in 1959, to a man who was apparently the editor of a small newspaper. He had requested an article from the exceedingly busy professor. Lewis’ response is quite interesting.

Dear Mr. Aylard,

Yes! my handwriting is awful. It used to be nice but my muscles have stiffened up and the strokes no longer come out as I intend. I give ‘this generation’ all I can in the way of books and articles. Particular articles by request are not usually the good ones: and, you know, I should reach more readers through other organs than your paper. I hope this doesn’t sound stand-offish or conceited, for it is not meant to be. It is really common sense to speak where one can be most widely heard.

I agree that drama is a good medium for our purpose. In this country Dorothy Sayers’ broadcast set of plays on the life and death of Our Lord (The Man Born to be King) did a great deal of good. I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic. With all good wishes.

I draw several observations from reading this letter.

  • Lewis took the time to personally pen many of his letters, despite the fact that this presented an uncomfortable challenge to him.
  • Lewis preferred to address subjects as he felt moved by the Holy Spirit to do so, rather than on demand.
  • He did not have the time to dress it up in gentle fluff, but candidly expressed the fact that if he had sufficient time and energy to write, it would not be the wisest stewardship to send the piece to a publication with a limited distribution.
  • Even though he did not intend for that remark to be curt or “conceited,” Lewis still felt compelled to offer his “I hope this doesn’t sound…” apology.
  • Lewis appreciated drama, and recognized Sayers’ work as quite noteworthy.
  • He recognized that drama would not be his forte, and wisely preferred to stick with the type of writing wherein he was most accomplished.

Even this final thought is offered with C.S. Lewis’ characteristic—and genuine—humility.

I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic.

As a writer myself, I find this sentence quite comforting. And not simply because my own extremely modest talents also lie in the narrative realm. Even if I were a poet or a dramatist I would recognize how liberating it is to acknowledge that one cannot be fairly expected to excel at more than one genre.

And “excel” is not really the best word to use here. Perhaps it’s sufficient that writers think of themselves like children of Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor tells us “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Ultimately, whether we consider ourselves to be adequate or exceptional writers, it is necessary to understand where our skills reside, and to transgress those boundaries only with the greatest trepidation.

lindvallIf you want a great volume on C.S. Lewis’ humor to your library—for free—get over to Amazon and download the Kindle version of Surprised by laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis right now.

I recently posted a column on Lewis’ humor, and referenced this very volume by Professor Terry Lindvall.

You never know how long these Amazon sales will last, so do hurry to secure your copy.

This volume is sure to answer any question you have about C.S. Lewis’ use of humor.

One caution, however, which the author includes at the close of his Acknowledgements. Provoking laughter within the confines of the faith community may have consequences . . .

If any cleric or monk speaks jocular words, such as provoke laughter, let him be anathema.

ORDINANCE, SECOND COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE, 1418

Get your copy here.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 13 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

____

* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.