Archives For Writing

false humility

Normally, whenever writers approach a publisher (or an agent) with a book suggestion, the authors have to prepare a formal book proposal. A key element of the document—especially for nonfiction—is often called “about the author.”

This element is not “biographical;” it is a description of your particular experience or credentials that qualify you to write this book. This is also where you typically share your “platform,” media outlets, etc. where you can promote your literary endeavor.

Publishers don’t expect us to have credentials like those of C.S. Lewis. After all, not everyone becomes a professor at a prominent university.

But what potential publishers do hope, is that we know what we’re writing about, and that we can help them sell it, assuming they opt to invest in the project.

This is a logical consideration for publishing houses, who have more publishing “failures” than bestsellers. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that we are all conditioned not to brag about our accomplishments. In general, that’s a wonderful thing. (Who loves a braggart?) The difficulty is that this natural modesty becomes a terrible handicap when we are in situations where we are required to promote ourselves.

C.S. Lewis builds on the Christian witness that we must avoid pride at all costs.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. (Mere Christianity)

So, we may feel ourselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We genuinely desire to be modest, but certain circumstances (job interviews, anyone?) demand that we “toot our own horn.” There is, of course, one thing worse than bragging . . . pretending false humility.

A Real-Life Dilemma

A fair number of Mere Inkling’s readers also blog. Most blogging software sets up sites with a default page built in to share something about the website and its author(s). On my About page, I’ve remained anonymous. It simply describes the reason for the site’s name. The only “personal” note in the original version came in the final sentence.

Accordingly, many of the posts in Mere Inkling will be about writing and Christianity. History and humor are also keen interests of the writer of this column, so they will most certainly be encountered with regularity as well.

Now, however, I’ve discovered that we who’ve used this less personal tack have undermined the visibility of our posts.

I just learned something important on the blog of a Lutheran theologian I respect. He writes as part of the Patheos web community. They boast eleven faith channels, two of which are Nonreligious and Pagan. My friend, of course, blogs on the Evangelical channel.  I want to pass on the opening of yesterday’s column.

Google has some new algorithms, so Patheos told its writers to bolster the E.A.T. factor (“Expertise. Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness”) for our posts. One way to do that is to beef up our biographies on the “About” section of our blogs.

Professor Veith changed his biographical page accordingly. And after reflecting on the matter, I’ve decided to do the same.

Thus, I have added a section on my About page that lists some of my credentials. I am doing this not because of personal vanity, but due to my desire to reach the widest possible audience with a message that not only points to the preeminent Inkling, but also beyond Lewis, to the Lord he served.

You may wish to consider a similar modification, if you have ignored the E.A.T. Factor in the past. And don’t be intimidated by bios such as mine, just as I am not daunted by the summits attained by Lewis. After all, he and I have had long lives during which we experienced these things.

Don’t ignore the fact that a large part of what people accomplish—academic degrees included—is due to opportunity and persistence rather than to innate giftedness. Remember as well we all have unique vocations, and not everyone is called to highly visible positions. I doubt I will be contradicted if I say that in the eyes of God, being a devoted parent is more noble than becoming some nation’s head of state.

Expanding your About page may not be the right course for you, but I believe it is the proper one for me.

One reason I had previously left my page vague is because I intentionally wished to avoid the appearance of bragging. So, as I proceed with this revision for the reason above, I will simply confess to the sin of pride (tempered over the years by God’s grace), and say along with Lewis,

I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. (Mere Christianity)

Soli Deo Gloria.

prayer

I just added a rare C.S. Lewis book to my library for a very reasonable price, and you can too. But you might want to hurry, since this volume will probably never be reprinted.

The small book is entitled Beyond the Bright Blur. It’s contents will be familiar to you if you have read Lewis’ final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. That is because the former is a prepublication printing of chapters fifteen through seventeen from Letters to Malcolm.

It was published under unique circumstances, and it is thought that only 350 copies were printed in 1963 by Harcourt, Brace & World.

The title of Beyond the Bright Blur is taken from what would appear as letter fifteen in the complete volume. The “bright blur” to which Lewis refers is our imperfect, abstract and remote impression of “God.” He argues that to engage in genuine conversation with our Creator, we must dispel this fabrication.

What happens to me if I try to [approach prayer] “simply,” is the juxtaposition of two “representations” or ideas or phantoms. One is the bright blur in the mind which stands for God. The other is the idea I call “me.”

But I can’t leave it at that, because I know—and it’s useless to pretend I don’t know—that they are both phantasmal. The real I has created them both—or, rather, built them up in the vaguest way from all sorts of psychological odds and ends.

Very often, paradoxically, the first step [in genuine prayer] is to banish the “bright blur”—or, in statelier language, to break the idol.

Lewis’ candid sharing about his personal pilgrimage in prayer is just part of the treasure that is Letters to Malcolm. It is must reading. But, its priceless message is not the subject of this post.

Beyond the Bright Blur, this modest yet sturdy (hardback) tome, stands complete as it is. And it was expressly designed for a small audience. As the flyleaf states, “This limited edition is published as a New Year’s greeting to friends of the author and his publisher.”

The complete book would not be published until 1964, after Lewis had joined his wife Joy in the presence of our Lord. It is quite fitting that the final pages describe the author’s thoughts about the nature of heaven. It concludes with his final glorious epiphany that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”

Consider Adding this Gem to Your Own Library

I know that most readers of Mere Inkling share my affection for literature . . . along with my own affection for literature incarnated in its own natural state, physical books.

The wonderful thing is that adding this particular treasure to your personal collection is within your reach. While the price varies due to the respective booksellers and the condition of each copy, AbeBooks.com often include copies for less than forty dollars.

Occasionally an inscribed volume appears on the market, with a corresponding surcharge in the price. As I write this, the copy presented to the poet John Ciardi (1916-86) is available for purchase. While he’s most famous for his translation of The Divine Comedy, he also co-authored a collection of limericks with Isaac Asimov!

The posting says the volume includes his signature on the front end paper and “a paragraph [underlined] in the text in red ink.” Still, a truly unique volume such as this is quite a bargain at less than two hundred dollars—especially if you are a fan of Ciardi.

I suspect Ciardi received his copy as a gift from the publisher. I haven’t found any evidence that he and C.S. Lewis were acquainted. I did, however, uncover one utterly trivial connection between the two. It appears the two shared an illustrator for some of their American editions. Roger Hane, the cover illustrator for the 1970 Collier-Macmillan edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, also illustrated Ciardi’s undated The Morality of Poetry.

 

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Some would say “only a fool would bring a book to a gunfight.” That might be true if the person carried the book in lieu of a firearm, but the fact is many varieties of literature accompany soldiers to war.

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he offered a powerful insight into how ultimate victory hinges more on knowledge and ideas than on direct violence. Of course, he didn’t mean that in a personal conflict between two combatants a quill could best a saber.

Even those who’ve never been to war realize warriors need to have their bodies, minds and spirits renewed in order to be at their best when their lives hang in the balance. Bodies are taken care of by providing healthy sustenance, swift medical attention, and opportunities to remain fit.

Minds and spirits overlap somewhat, but for the latter, most of the world’s militaries send chaplains to accompany the men and women “in harm’s way.” Spiritual encouragement often comes even more readily from their fellow military members.

Wartime is, surprising no one, an optimal time for people to consider their spiritual wellbeing and contemplate their eternal destiny. Still, that does not make true the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

That said, war zones are places where the fields are literally “white unto harvest” (Luke 4).

It is no accident copies of the Bible have accompanied Christians to war since the first printed copies were available.

During the American Civil War, personal Bibles and religious tracts were widely distributed. It was not uncommon for a soldier to send a particularly meaningful tract home to his family. In addition to chaplains, numerous ministries today work to ensure no service member who desires a Bible is without one.

Reading for the Mind

It would be wrong to think religious works dominate the literature available to military members dispatched to war. Most locations offer access to numerous publications, and even the internet. The Department of Defense even provides access to the nonpartisan Stars and Stripes, which offers some of its headline articles here.

And then there are books. Books of all genres, though perhaps, tilted towards thrillers and sports subjects. Soldiers pass their books around, and for many lucky enough to serve in a garrison type of setting, there is often a library.

Yes, a real library—except that the books are typically all available for free. This is due in large part to the generosity of publishers. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime, founded by publishers and others, provided over 120 million paperbacks in their Armed Services Editions. (The classic titles sold for an average of six cents.) The Council’s slogan was, “books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

So, military folks read lots of books overseas. In fact, here is a photo of yours truly reading one of my favorite authors (David Drake) while I was on a flight between Pakistan and Afghanistan back in 2002.

I was delighted recently when rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography to see that I was following in his footsteps. Lewis is discussing how actual books, and not merely periodicals, can accompany us on our journeys. He refers briefly to his war experiences.

Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights.

(It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.) (Surprised by Joy)

I would not equate our two situations. After all, a comfortable C-130 (even when making “combat” landings and take-offs) can hardly be compared to a muddy WWI trench.

But, like nearly all of Mere Inkling’s audience, I do share C.S. Lewis’ joy at knowing books need never be far from our hand. Whether it be on holiday, in the hospital, or even in prison (God forbid), we can always find some pleasure and peace in reading.


Postscript:

During Desert Storm, I helped ship thousands of donated books to troops on the front lines. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the clothing worn by most of the women on the covers. We learned the Saudis were destroying some of the books, deeming them pornography.

As a result, our book processors began tearing the cover off of every book featuring a woman. As a compromise, I offered to become an informal “Saudi censor.” With a large black marker, I was able to suitably cover up elements of the female anatomy that would have presumably offended our Middle East allies.

Despite my misgivings about “defacing” the covers, I felt it was less destructive than removing the entire cover. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge.

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The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.


* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

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When you get to a certain age, most writers will consider, at least momentarily, penning an autobiography. Often, aware the effort will invite charges of vanity, they will opt to call it a memoir. Whatever the label, the result is the same.

Writers are faced with the question—and they alone can answer it—as to whether or not there is any value in the preservation of notes about their life journey.

I would argue that there is a clear benefit, even when no one else will read it. Self-reflection, in and of itself, enriches one’s life. Even if it is painful, it can be therapeutic. And, since we’re still alive as we examine our past, time remains to rectify some of the mistakes we have made.

This very process of looking at our lives invites us to question our motives for recording these stories. And, if we’re considering merely to praise ourselves, it would be best to abstain.

On the other hand, it seems to me that many “normal” lives can validly serve as an inspiration to others. (I don’t presume my own effort would fit into this category.)

Here is the reason why I’m actually contemplating assembling some notes for a near-the-end-of-my-earthly-sojourn document. It just might be of interest to some of my descendants. I have often wished to have just such a jewel written by my own ancestors.

Putting myself in the place of my great-grandchildren, etc., I suspect some of them and their own grandchildren might be curious about an ancient progenitor. In fact, the more such records, the fuller the picture they stand to gain of their lineage.

The key, I think, to writing a worthwhile memoir is honesty. If we share our challenges and failures, the volume will not only be more interesting, if may offer our descendants encouragement in their own struggles.

As a man vulnerable to the sin of pride, I’m cautious about proceeding. I pulled this disarming contrast from a book review written several years ago by theologian Carl Trueman.

Autobiographies are typically opportunities for the display of ego and the rationalizing of error. They have been so at least since Julius Caesar’s military memoirs. In our day, it is not just politicians and military leaders who indulge in this.

One thinks of the memoirs of Hans Küng: names dropped on every page, always with the purpose of reminding the reader how important—and how correct—Küng has been over the years on every significant issue and how unfairly he has been treated by his mediocre opponents.

Autobiography need not be so, as this volume [A Change of Heart] by Thomas Oden shows. Though Oden seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the theological world of the last sixty years, from Barth and Niebuhr to Dulles, Ratzinger, and Wojtjyla, there is no sense of ego. Names are regularly dropped but no self is ever promoted. Oden is a humble, fascinating, and important man blissfully unaware of the fact.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet several people during my life whose names would be familiar to you. But, God be merciful, I prefer to be an Oden rather than a Küng.

C.S. Lewis was a man like the former, “humble, fascinating and important.” Yet, despite the accolades he received from some quarters, he remained blissfully unaware of the fact that God would continue using his words to inspire others so many decades after he joined his Lord in Paradise.

A Worthy Exemplar

Lewis resisted writing about himself. Not out of a false modesty, but due to a desire to maintain personal privacy and a genuine sense that his life was neither particularly inspirational nor unique. Nevertheless, if it were possible that sharing about his life could help others, he was willing to do so.

His works are sprinkled with autobiographical commentary. His vast correspondence also provides great insight into his life. In 1955, he wrote a traditional autobiography, primarily to explain his conversion.

He entitled it Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. As he begins in the Preface:

This book is written partly in answer to requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity and partly to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got about.

He describes his approach, noting how it differs from what readers might expect.

The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less “Confessions” like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau.

This means in practice that it gets less like a general autobiography as it goes on. In the earlier chapters the net has to be spread pretty wide in order that, when the explicitly spiritual crisis arrives, the reader may understand what sort of person my childhood and adolescence had made me.

When the “build-up” is complete, I confine myself strictly to business and omit everything (however important by ordinary biographical standards) which seems, at that stage, irrelevant.

I do not think there is much loss; I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting. The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never written before and shall probably never write again.

I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.

A Naked Autobiography

As fascinating as Surprised by Joy is, there exists another volume in which the mature Lewis bared his soul as have few others. When he lost his wife, Lewis experienced a profound sorrow that he described in A Grief Observed. So vulnerable was his writing, that Lewis published it under a pseudonym.

In 1988, Madeleine L’Engle penned a Foreword to the book, which now appears under Lewis’ own name.

In the end, what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for Joy and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love.

No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love.

Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.

Lewis was an exceptional writer, but I daresay that his life was little more amazing than your own. Certainly, Lewis’ life was no more precious to God than yours is.

I encourage you to consider writing (at the appropriate moment) your own memoir. This is particularly important if you have family who may be interested. But even if you don’t, consider writing.

Just remember to follow Lewis’ example and try “to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.”

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Those who despise C.S. Lewis seek to eradicate his influence in the Christian Church. They care not that Lewis remains one of the most effective Christian apologists the world has ever seen. Only the Lord knows how many people (literally) have been encouraged in the faith by Lewis’ ministry.

When examining Lewis’ theology, it is necessary to keep in mind several facts. First, he often reminded his readers that he was not a theologian, simply a faithful layman. Second, he formally espoused and practice the orthodox Trinitarian faith as professed by the Anglican communion. Third, Lewis consciously sought to introduce timeless truths to his readers via reason and, more effectively, through fiction and imagination. (The Great Divorce offers a fascinating yet fully fictional exploration of how purgatory might work.)

Thus, Lewis critics will always be able to gather fuel for the foot of his stake. A primary example of this comes in Lewis’ emotive receptivity to the doctrine of purgatory. It is taught only by the Roman Catholic Church, although individuals from other denominations may also be sympathetic to it.

For example, Protestant philosopher Jerry L. Walls includes a chapter in his recent book on purgatory entitled, “C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer of the twentieth century, believed in purgatory. This is significant because his influence in Protestant and evangelical circles is perhaps especially strong.

This chapter shows not only that Lewis believed in purgatory, but also that it is integral to his theology of salvation. It explores how he understood the doctrine by examining his comments on Roman Catholic theologians John Fisher, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman. While he was quite critical of Fisher and More, he saw in Newman the recovery of the true substance and spirit of the doctrine.

It is fair for us to acknowledge that Lewis’ understanding of justification was imperfect. Salvation comes through faith (Romans 5:1), not through penitential or purgatorial efforts. But let’s read about his position in his own words. The following comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which is, itself, a collection of thoughts “shared” with a fictional friend.

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. . . .

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream.* There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?

Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”

“It may hurt, you know”

“Even so, sir.”

This is where I acknowledge Lewis’ view on justification to be deficient. Of course we would wish to be fully washed and clean before standing in our Creator’s presence. And that is precisely how we enter into his presence. Clothed not in our own filthiness and rags—but in the radiant righteousness of our Savior.

As the Apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)

Lewis’ greatest contribution to the Christian Church is found in his skilled apologetics based on the core essence of our faith. Lewis communicated the divine hope that is within us in his lectures, speeches and broadcasts. But it was through the written word that his inspiring words have touched the greatest number of people.

On the Subject of Writing

It is possible that Lewis was familiar with the following advice from Newman about effective writing. Certainly, he agreed with a number of the cardinal’s literary precepts. The following passage relates specifically to writing sermons, but it possesses far broader application. It comes from The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman’s own feeling as to the most effective way of imparting truth by writing is conveyed in the following notes, dated 1868, on the writing of sermons:

A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.

He should never aim at being eloquent.

He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.

He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.

He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Reading this helpful advice from Cardinal Newman reminds us we can learn valuable lessons from people with differing theology. And that truth should be quite encouraging, since none of us possess perfect doctrine.


* The full title of the work to which Lewis refers here is The Dream of Gerontius. (You can read it here.)

 

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Mark Twain  drew a number of sketches that he (hopefully) never intended for publication. Four of them appear here.

Perhaps Twain drafted them as a starting point for a one-day illustrator. It’s odd to think they were intended to appear in their initial, rough state. However, since “How to Make History Dates Stick” was published posthumously, Harper’s Monthly Magazine decided to capitalize on the use of the author’s own “illustrations.”

Calling the scribblings “illustrations” is quite generous. The manuscript drawings remind one of the quick drawings that C.S. Lewis sometimes included in his correspondence.

In this essay, Twain says the key to learning and remembering key historical dates is associating them with pictures.

These chapters are for children . . . Dates are difficult things to acquire; and after they are acquired it is difficult to keep them in the head. But they are very valuable.

They are like the cattle-pens of a ranch—they shut in the several brands of historical cattle, each within its own fence, and keep them from getting mixed together.

Dates are hard to remember because they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance, and they don’t take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance to help.

Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick—particularly if you make the pictures yourself. Indeed, that is the great point—make the pictures yourself. I know about this from experience.

Setting aside the merits of Twain’s suggestion, the final encouragement to personally draw the illustrations is intriguing. It suggests that Twain may have honestly desired that these very sketches would be included in the published text. In this scenario, the writer would be setting the illustrative bar so low that no one could doubt their ability to draw at least as well as the author of Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s Antipathy Towards Editors

Many writers sympathize with how Twain wielded the blade of his wit against unsympathetic editors. “I hate editors,” he declared, “for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words.” (Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field)

He also praised the French emperor for committing a misguided murder. “How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity, that his intentions were good.” (Correspondence, 1906)

Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.

Incorporating editors into his study requires a bit of a stretch, and each sketch is associated in the text with a British monarch. You can see them in that context at TwainQuotes.

I’ve culled the four editors from Twain’s work, and provided a portion of his description about each. They appear here out of order since I wish to end with the one I find most entertaining . . . because it evokes the image of an impish helper in Screwtape’s sulfurous scriptorium.

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That is an editor. He is trying to think of a word. He props his feet on a chair, which is the editor’s way; then he can think better. I do not care much for this one; his ears are not alike . . .

I could make him better if I had a model, but I made this one from memory. But it is no particular matter; they all look alike, anyway. They are conceited and troublesome, and don’t pay enough.

editor 3

That is a society editor, sitting there elegantly dressed, with his legs crossed in that indolent way, observing the clothes the ladies wear, so that he can describe them for his paper and make them out finer than they are and get bribes for it and become wealthy.

That flower which he is wearing in his buttonhole is a rose—a white rose, a York rose—and will serve to remind us of the War of the Roses, and that the white one was the winning color when Edward got the throne and dispossessed the Lancastrian dynasty.

editor 1

This editor is a critic. He has pulled out his carving-knife and his tomahawk and is starting after a book which he is going to have for breakfast.

This one’s arms are put on wrong. I did not notice it at first, but I see it now. Somehow he has got his right arm on his left shoulder, and his left arm on his right shoulder, and this shows us the back of his hands in both instances. It makes him left-handed all around, which is a thing which has never happened before, except perhaps in a museum.

That is the way with art, when it is not acquired but born to you: you start in to make some simple little thing, not suspecting that your genius is beginning to work and swell and strain in secret, and all of a sudden there is a convulsion and you fetch out something astonishing.

This is called inspiration. It is an accident; you never know when it is coming. I might have tried as much as a year to think of such a strange thing as an all-around left-handed man and I could not have done it, for the more you try to think of an unthinkable thing the more it eludes you; but it can’t elude inspiration; you have only to bait with inspiration and you will get it every time.

Look at Botticelli’s “Spring.” Those snaky women were unthinkable, but inspiration secured them for us, thanks to goodness.

It is too late to reorganize this editor-critic now; we will leave him as he is. He will serve to remind us. [One can only imagine what a delightful time an editor would enjoy, chopping up that stream of consciousness writing?]

And now for the goblinesque editor. It offers Twain’s most artistic element, which was most likely an accident. Note how the end of the pencil serves to substitute for the eye which may or may not reside behind it.

editor 4

Another editor. That thing behind his ear is his pencil. Whenever he finds a bright thing in your manuscript he strikes it out with that. That does him good, and makes him smile and show his teeth, the way he is doing in the picture.

This one has just been striking out a smart thing, and now he is sitting there with his thumbs in his vest-holes, gloating. They are full of envy and malice, editors are.

Hopefully, if you are a writer who has submitted your work to an editor, you have been fortunate enough to have avoided these characters.

Editors are, after all, our friends. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but good editors can certainly help make our work better. May God graciously lead you to editors of that sort.