Archives For Advice to Writers

We’re accustomed to hearing the word “lust” used in a positive manner, such as “she has a lust for life.”

You might even see this in the context of writing. C.S. Lewis himself did this. In 1948, in a letter to an American pastor, he apparently answers a query about what inspires him to write. “The ‘incentive’ for my books has always been the usual one—an idea and then an itch or lust to write.”

I resonate with Lewis’ response. Some idea dawns on me—usually arising from something I’m reading—and then I get the desire to put my own twist on it and share the original idea with others.

This post is no different. I have been working on the military chaplaincy journal that I edit, and I was reading the poetry of a British chaplain from the First World War. Rev. G.A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) was an Anglican priest. He was awarded the Military Cross due to his “disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire.” The award also noted his Gospel contribution to the harsh life of WWI trenches. “He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

You can read many of his poems in past issues of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available for free download here.

After reading some of his poetry, I turned for the first time to one of his postwar books. It was entitled “Lies!” and addresses a litany of deceptions that plague the world. Included among these deceits is “the lie of lust.”

In the following excerpt, he refers to writing prurient literature which can guarantee a market. It is echoed by a later comment I read from a writer who said she had to write erotic novels to supplement her preferred titles, just so she could make a living. She used a pen name, of course, for the smut.

You can follow Chaplain Kennedy’s argument in the excerpt which follows. Since it is rather lengthy, I will highlight the reference to writing by using a boldface font. Kennedy contrasts in this passage the conflict between humanity’s sinfulness and our call to holiness, the struggle the Apostle Paul describes so succinctly in the seventh chapter of Romans.

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Here is Kennedy’s argument:

But lust in a man is obscene and filthy because it is unnatural. It becomes cruel and debased. It does not proceed to the making of children naturally and cleanly; it descends to unmentionable and disgusting things. The report on the German atrocities in Belgium* provides a kind of horror-chamber in which we can see what lust can bring men to. As one reads that awful document a kind of hot shame comes over one, and makes one sweat for sorrow over sin.

The sting of that shame lies in the fact that one is dreadfully conscious that the root of that disgusting horror is there in one’s own soul. Have you never felt a ghastly doubt rising up in your mind when you read such things? Now what am I reading this for? Is it purely because I want to hate it . . ?

Write a book about the cruelties and debaucheries of a Nero or a Rasputin, and it will sell. There is an appeal in it which thousands, nay, which all men feel, which all men would answer, if the other force within them failed. But the horror of it, the shame for it, is, thank God, as real, more real, than the appeal. There is human history: the war between the appeal and the repulsion of sin: the war between the monkey and the man.

There are thousands of writers, artists, playwrights, musicians, who are making their fortunes out of the appeal to the animal in man. It is the best paying business in the world. Yet, if there is anything that human experience makes certain, it is that there is no end to the journey a man makes in answer to that appeal except damnation, the utter loss of all that makes life good. Lust cannot satisfy a man, because he needs Love. Lust is unnatural in man, it leaves one side of his nature out, and sooner or later that neglected side has its revenge, and turns life’s sweetness bitter to his taste. Then in his despair he will descend in search of new sensations to things which men cannot mention, or even think of without shame. That is the way of it with all men if the great force fail that leads them upward from the animal to the human and divine (Lies! published in 1919).⁑

C.S. Lewis on Carnality

As noted, Lewis was able to use the word “lust” in its muted, nonliteral sense. He was also able to address it literally, and to challenge the hold it exerts on so many lives. In “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” C.S. Lewis vividly described how lust is an enemy.

If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth.

In a more metaphorical manner, in the Great Divorce Lewis uses the surprising image of a foreboding ruddy lizard to portray the sinister nature of lust.  

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile.

The encounter which follows is amazing. I won’t spoil it by describing how it ends, but I will once again encourage you to read what is one of my favorite novels. The Great Divorce is about the separation between Heaven and Hell, and explains how a loving God could allow some of his creation to choose a path away from him.

And a Bonus Insight from Dorothy Sayers

Lewis and Sayers were friends, and they deeply respected one another’s work. In 1943, Lewis wrote to Sayers congratulating her on her recently published The Other Six Deadly Sins. He said, “it is one of the few things which I find, within its limits, perfect—i.e. there is nothing one would wish added or removed or altered.” High praise.

Sayers brilliantly strips away some of the euphemisms that mask and confuse candid discussions about sin. This is how she begins what was originally delivered as a public address:

Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only. The name of an association like yours is generally held to imply that you are concerned to correct only one sin out of those seven which the Church recognizes as capital.

By a hideous irony, our shrinking reprobation of that sin has made us too delicate so much as to name it, so that we have come to use for it the words which were made to cover the whole range of human corruption. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.”

About the sin called Luxuria or Lust, I shall therefore say . . . that it is a sin, and that it ought to be called plainly by its own name, and neither huddled away under a generic term like immorality, nor confused with love.

The book sounds like it’s well worth reading. It has been out of print for eighty years⁂ but it appears to have been reproduced in toto by this website. (I plan to read the essay as soon as I get this post uploaded!)


* Over 800 civilians were killed by German troops as they advanced through neutral Belgium in 1914. A short describing of these events can be found at this British Library site.

⁑ You can download free copies of Chaplain Kennedy’s books at Internet Archive: Lies! or a collection of his poetry in Rough Rhymes of a Padre.

⁂ A single used copy is currently available via amazon, for the modest price of $287.36, with the comforting notation that the shipping is free.

This is the most amazing post you will ever read about hyperbole. Well, until you write one yourself and use even more exaggerated adjectives.

Hyperbole is a curious rhetorical device, a frequent element of satire. Unfortunately, hyperbole is too often employed in a sloppy way (e.g. “he was the worst politician ever”). Yet, in skillful hands it can be quite effective. For example, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, when Lewis discusses poet Michael Drayton,* he writes:

When he speaks simply as any lover he can sometimes outsoar all the sonneteers except Shakespeare. . . . Yet again, and in quite a different vein, that of towering hyperbole, Drayton (this time with no rival at all, neither Shakespeare nor any other) sets up the seamark beyond which poetry in that kind has never gone nor could go:

And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the almes of thy superfluous prayse.

If he had never written another verse, these two would secure him that praise which is due to men who have done some one thing to perfection.

I was thinking about hyperbole after coming across a wonderful quote by Erasmus of Rotterdam⁑  about his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther. Though they shared many concerns, they parted company on how best to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus objected to Luther’s tendency to take every disagreement to extremes, and he named the Wittenberg professor “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”

It reminded me of one of our sons. As a youngster, he suffered from that common childhood disease, excessive summa hyperbolism. Everything was either the best thing ever, or the worst thing he’d ever encountered. Sometimes I referred to him as the “King of Hyperbole,” which was hyperbole on my own part. He was more like a Duke of Hyperbole.

John Colet⁂ was another English scholar discussed in Lewis’ longest work. Colet was a theologian, and a strong advocate of biblically-grounded morality. As we frequently find, Lewis’ assessment is informative, and entertaining.

Colet is, in fact, a declamatory moralist. By calling him declamatory I do not at all mean that he is insincere, but that his methods are those of the declamation; repetition, hyperbole, and a liberal use of emotional adjectives. The morality he wishes to enforce is harsh and ascetic. . . .

The truth is that Colet is a Platonist at heart and has really little interest in the temporal and mutable world below the moon. . . . A cloistered perfectionist, who happens to be also a rhetorician, often says, not exactly more than he means, but more than he understands. He leaves out the reservations: he has really no idea of the crudely literal applications which will be made. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century)

Hyperbole in Lewis’ Personal Life

The First World War began in 1914. It was a conflict which would cost ten million military lives. C.S. Lewis himself would be counted among a greater number, who suffered terrible wounds during combat. At the beginning of the conflict, Lewis gently chided his father for embracing a growing British fear.

My dear Papy, You have surpassed yourself. The popular press . . . remarks on the possibility of an invasion: the idea, after being turned over in your mind, appears in your next letter, clothed as “it is absolutely certain that he is going to invade England” Surely . . . this is rather hyperbole?

The one thing that Britain can depend upon is her fleet: and in any case Germany has her hands full enough. You will perhaps say that I am living in a fool’s paradise. “Maybe thon.” But, providing it only be a paradise is that not preferable to a wise and calculating inferno? Let us have wisdom by all means, so long as it makes us happy: but as soon as it runs against our peace of mind, let us throw it away and “carpe diem.” I often wonder how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?

In a 1949 letter he explains to a correspondent that the Gospel claims to Christ’s divinity were not hyperbolic appellations.

The Jews may have had their own use of hyperbole but the last direction in wh. they would have used it was to deify a man. The absolute chasm which they put between Jahveh and His creatures was just the thing that cut them off from Pagans.

No other race could have told the stories they told about Moses & Elijah and yet left these persons absolutely, sheerly human. What was Jesus condemned for by the Sanhedrin? Surely His declaration “I am etc.” must have been recorded right?

And, finally, a quotation C.S. Lewis selected for inclusion in his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings.

“But how,” says a man, who is willing to recognize the universal neighborhood, but finds himself unable to fulfill the bare law toward the woman even whom he loves best—“How am I then to rise into that higher region, that empyrean of love?” And, beginning straightaway to try to love his neighbor, he finds that the empyrean of which he spoke is no more to be reached in itself than the law was to be reached in itself. . . .

The man who will love his neighbor can do so by no immediately operative exercise of the will. It is the man fulfilled of God from whom he came and by whom he is, who alone can as himself love his neighbor who came from God too and is by God too. The mystery of individuality and consequent relation is deep as the beginnings of humanity, and the questions thence arising can be solved only by him who has, practically at least, solved the holy necessities resulting from his origin. In God alone can man meet man. . . .

It is possible to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord never spoke hyperbolically. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “Love Thy Neighbor”)

I am absolutely convinced C.S. Lewis is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in history. That’s not hyperbole. If anything, it is a vast understatement.


* A selection of the poetry of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the collection begins, “no poet is more thoroughly English than Michael Drayton.”

⁑ Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch humanist who shared many concerns about the state of the Roman Catholic Church with Luther. However, he disliked Luther’s roughshod response and chose to attempt to accomplish some amount of reform from within. His early epistles are available in this free volume.

⁂ For more about John Colet (1467-1519), you might download this biography.

C.S. Lewis did not write a Cinderella story of his own, but he did refer to one of his books as his “Cinderella,” for a different reason.

The Cinderella folk tale is familiar to many cultures. Like the Ugly Duckling, it celebrates real life occasions where events turn upside down, and the disadvantaged are vindicated.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks told the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl whose sandal was snatched by an eagle and dropped into the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh. His search for the lovely foot that graced the footwear culminated in a joyous marriage.

I was thinking about step parenting recently, and how some people care for their own children differently than they treat children brought into the union from a spouse’s previous relationship. The subject arose during my prayers, when I thought to offer thanks to God for the depth of love he has given me for my “step-grandchildren.” It is, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from the love I hold for my biological grandkids.

Following my prayers, I reflected further on family. And—because it reflects real life in terms of raising children, I thought of the story of Cinderella. In particular, I was wondering whether the “wicked stepsisters” were destined to be cruel simply because they were raised by their “wicked stepmother.”

The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Do bad parents raise bad kids? Sometimes, but thankfully, not always. Do good parents raise good kids? Sometimes, but sadly, not always.

If you remove the outliers—the saints on one side and the sociopaths on the other—kids have a reasonable chance to turn out “okay.” Basically, just because someone’s parents are disreputable, doesn’t mean the kids will grow up to be bums as well.

This comes as no shock to any of us, of course. We are too sophisticated to impute the sins of the parents to their children. But are we really? In truth, we often make judgments based upon things utterly beyond a child’s control. Nationality, social status, physical or mental disability . . . some people default to an unconscious ranking of desirability.

I’m reminded of the rewards of working with orphans and the tragic manner in which even these victims are “ranked” in terms of their perceived worth. So much for viewing the world through carnal eyes.

C.S. Lewis described the way a children’s story can flip things around in a way that reveals truth. In 1947 he described this to an American correspondent.

About stories for children. (a) Don’t the ordinary fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit, in solution? Does not Cinderella give us exaltavit humiles,* and is not Redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty? (b) For something a little more explicit, what about Geo. MacDonald’s⁑ The Princess & the Goblins, Curdie & the Princess, The Wise Woman, and The Golden Key?

In a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis commented on a manuscript she had sent for his review. He suggests a “longish speech” by Melchizedek would be better presented in a different manner.

He’s got to have the sense of mystery about him. That means, for purposes of these plays, he must sound like a king out of a fairy tale. Actually in this speech he sounds more like a Bampton Lecturer! Represents, condemnation, include, mediator all strike the wrong note. I am referring only to the style: the matter is perfectly right. It is easier, of course, to pick holes than to mend them!

He then offers a note about the power of stories to communicate facts and deeper truths.

If I were trying to do it myself I should make it a speech about the Kings of Salem, not about ‘kingship’ in general—like a special magic in that family. (The Kings of Salem are not ordinary kings. . . .)

On the imaginative level I think the deepest truths enter the mind much better as arbitrary marvels than as universal theorems. Cinderella had to be back at midnight—Psyche must not see Cupid’s face—Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit: how much better these statements are than any philosophical generalities about obedience.

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Cinderella

Each reader of C.S. Lewis has their personal favorite, thoughtfully selected from the rich buffet of his diverse works. While I treasure many of his works, my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. It pleases me that the title also occupied a special place in Lewis’ own estimation.

Lewis described the underappreciated volume as his “Cinderella.” The beauty and nobility were there all of the time, though unrecognized.

Writing in 1954 to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, he expresses appreciation for two handsomely bound copies of his books. He says, “perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books.” In the same letter he writes, “I am always glad to hear of anyone’s taking up that Cinderella, The Great Divorce.”

Kathryn Lindskoog wrote an article about the book, calling the volume “C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy.” She begins with a personal anecdote.

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

The Screwtape Letters is another of Lewis’ works that continues to impress me for its unique and effective way of illustrating the malevolent mind that shapes so many of the temptations that assail us. But, for sheer pleasure, I too prefer the wisdom, and the witness to heaven’s reality, that shine so brightly in The Great Divorce.

——

* Exaltavit humiles comes from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and means God “has exalted the humble.”

⁑ Most of MacDonald’s books are available for free download at Google and Kindle.

Some people become parents and others do not. This column isn’t about the complex considerations that determine which path each individual follow. We all know people in each situation who are happy—as well as those who are dissatisfied.

I want to consider here a single reason some people choose not to have children. There are, of course, many valid reasons for not bringing children into this world, but this one struck me as particularly odd.   

Before we look at the interview question, allow me to offer a thesis that I believe most writers would agree with. Not all would concur, but don’t you think there would be strong consensus with this statement:

Raising children makes being a productive writer more challenging.

It’s pretty logical that the time spent actively parenting children leaves an author with less time to pursue their writing. Especially if they are a good mother or father.

Sure, kids provide us with some great stories and inspiration that can occasionally be worked into an article or story. But unless we’re a Dave Barry, an Erma Bombeck or a Bil Keane, people won’t line up to read about our children’s hijinks. So, if you were to balance the scales, I think we’d be hard-pressed to make the case that the addition of children to our household will make our writing more prolific.

In a recent interview with Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes, the editor of World Magazine raised this subject in an unusual way. Here is the question: “I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist?”

Shales’ response was thoughtful. “Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness . . .”

It will come as no surprise that I agree with Shales’ opinion (with the substitution of “wife” in the first sentence). But the idea that struck me as rather shocking in this interchange was the reason the economist gave for opting not to have children: “because he felt each child would lose him a book.”

Wow. That is a pretty honest, and rather crass calculation. I won’t argue with his domestic equation, but it makes me shake my head. I can’t help but wonder how he will feel at the end of his life when he looks at his bookshelf of soon-to-be-forgotten titles and contemplates whether his choice was wise.

Lewis’ Personal Experience

C.S. Lewis was one of the most prolific writers. And he wrote in an expansive range of genres. It could easily be argued that his bachelorhood provided him with the time to write. That, in addition to the creative fountain provided by the Inklings made for a productive environment.

When he became a father, he was extremely conscientious. The boys were sent to private (or, in British parlance, “public”) schools after their mother’s death. However, that was the norm for children in their comfortable economic circumstances.

Lewis loved his sons, and did the best he could to be a father to them, despite his lack of confidence. Lewis was still the man who many years earlier (in 1935) wrote to his closest friend: “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” A decade later, in one of his most powerful books, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself” (The Abolition of Man).

Self-awareness is a mark of intelligence and honesty. I strongly believe Lewis put the lie to his self-criticism about lacking a rapport with children, with his wonderful letters written to children.*

It could be argued that parenthood was one of the factors that affected Lewis’ literary production. Brenton Dickieson has a chart showing his annual production of books, here. Another scholar, Joel Heck, has done the world a great service by providing the definitive chronology of C.S. Lewis’ life and work, available here.

Lewis did not marry earlier in his life because he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. Joy’s unexpected arrival transformed his life.

But, even before he became a (step-)father, he would never have uttered the sentiment of the Harvard professor.

A book or a child? Which shall it be? If that is a difficult question for someone, here’s my advice: “Please just write your books; you’d probably make a lousy parent anyway.”


* C.S. Lewis was able to speak clearly to children. And, unlike so many adults, he did not speak down to them. While toddlers may have remained a mystery to him—and he never parented any—he respected children’s questions, and offered wise advice.

On putting one’s life in its proper order: “You are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up, is all nonsense.”

And, how is this for a thoughtful, practical comment: “All schools, both here [in England] and in America, ought to teach far fewer subjects and teach them far better.”

Wise counsel to a young person (or anyone): God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.”

And, one particularly inspiring comment about faith: “Anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

No one can teach us to “write like C.S. Lewis.” The great author was definitely one of a kind.

It is possible, however, to study Lewis’ advice about writing. And that is a journey well worth taking.

Many students of C.S. Lewis are quite curious about his advice for writing well. And, for the proverbial “limited time,” the premier study of that subject is available at an unbelievable price.

The kindle version of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing is only three dollars at amazon. (Great subtitle, right?)

Coincidentally, I only recently purchased the volume for my Logos library (at a significantly higher cost). I’ve yet to read it, but it appears to be worth what I paid. Still, I don’t want any readers of Mere Inkling to miss out on this opportunity to get such a bargain.

Wipf and Stock, the publishers, regularly place a few titles from their excellent list on sale. The current offering features another book I previously purchased at full price, The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew. (I mention that, confident there is at least one other trekkie out there reading this.)

Writing about Writing

Many people who follow blogs such as Mere Inkling are bloggers themselves. It’s rare to find a writer who doesn’t also like to read. And because of the complementarity of reading and writing, books about writing always find an audience.

In my “works in progress” (research) files, I have a handful of projects related to writing. One of them is—digital drumroll—C.S. Lewis on Writing.

That’s the main reason I haven’t begun reading the book I’m recommending. While I assume our approaches to the topic will be different enough to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism, I’m reluctant to open the door to unsought influences.

I have never plagiarized, and never will. In fact, I tend to overattribute thoughts. So, eventually I will read the work, since I’m forearmed with my integrity, and I understand that, as a well-known science fiction writer once reminded me . . .

Ideas cannot be copyrighted—only the particular expressions of ideas are protected by copyright.

As the writer of “5 Things that Can’t be Copyrighted” says:

Ideas can not [sic] be copyrighted because they are not fixed into a tangible medium of expression. For a work to be copyrighted, it has to be written down, saved to a hard drive or somehow otherwise fixed.

For example, if you give a speech but fail to write it down first and it isn’t recorded, there is no copyright protection. . . . it is the expression of the idea that is protected. My “5 Things That Can’t Be Copyrighted” post is fixed, but you can certainly write your own post with the same title and idea. However, you can not use my exact words, unless, of course, you follow my CC [Creative Commons] license.

Those of you who are American can learn more about protections covered in the United States at this site. They dispel some of the myths associated with copyrights, such as whether something must be (1) “published” or (2) registered to be protected. (The answer to both is “no.”)

Someday you may have an opportunity to read C.S. Lewis on Writing by yours truly. In the meantime, don’t miss the opportunity to add C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing to your personal library.

Who are you? If you were to fully answer that question, it would require serious introspection. However, if you were to answer it completely, it would also require an honesty that is extremely rare.

That’s because anyone who reveals everything about themself, comes to a point where the qualities and actions are no longer flattering. They ultimately arrive at the place where the exposé becomes a confession.

The truth is that no one actually knows everything about themself. But some of the things we are aware of . . . some of the secrets we desire to hide, even from ourselves . . . are seldom shared. That is one great value of the “confessional.” There, one can unburden themselves and face their demons, so to speak, in a setting where they know their confidence won’t be violated.

As a Protestant pastor, who has never used a physical confessional stall or screen, I note that I have nevertheless heard thousands of confessions. They are, as one would expect, a common element of counseling as people seek to experience healing and restoration. As a Lutheran, I belong to a tradition that guarantees the privacy of these confessions, or what is considered “privileged communication.” Moreover, as a military chaplain, I was grateful to serve a nation that enshrines the same promise in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As Lewis wrote, “if there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it” (Letters to an American Lady). Once that is done, the pastor (or any “confessor”) can assist the individual with working to make as right as possible in the future what was damaged or destroyed by their choices in the past.

From the Psychological Vantage Point

If you have never encountered it before, I commend to you the model called the Johari Window. I have written about it in the past in the context of honesty and dishonesty.

The model illustrates just how complex our personalities are. The arrows on the model below reveal how we can expand the “open” part of ourselves. Naturally, there are some “hidden” aspects that should only be disclosed in certain contexts.

When it comes to the darkness in our lives, that which we strive to keep veiled, psychologists describe it in a variety of ways. One chaplain with whom I worked was particularly enamored with the work of Carl Jung. He loved to toss around the word “shadow,” and suggest there was some dark psychological significance to even the most offhand comment or expression. In essence, the shadow is the part of our personality we don’t want to admit to having. In terms of the Johari Window, you might think of it as the sinister stuff in the Hidden quadrant.*

C.S. Lewis wrote about Jung in an essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism.” Lewis disparages the Freudian theory, saying “poetry is not a substitute for sexual satisfaction, nor sexual satisfaction for poetry.” Jung, he argues, presents “a much more civil and humane interpretation of myth and imagery.” Of course, Lewis is discussing these psychoanalysts from the perspective of a literary critic, not a psychologist. In that regard, we can appreciate his assessment of one of Jung’s major works.

Thanks to my training I can suspend my judgement about the scientific value of Jung’s essay on “Mind and the Earth:” but I perceive at once that even if it turns out to be bad science it is excellent poetry.

From the Christian Point of View

I have already described how confession can serve as a means of expanding our self-awareness in a constructive and healing way. That’s why confession and absolution are a formal part of many worship service, going back to the earliest times. If we want to read the finest primer on confession, we need look no further than the book of Psalms.

As King David, in recognition of this great sins, prays in the fifty-first psalm:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

One of the earliest Christian classics (outside the Bible itself) was aptly entitled Confessions. It was written by Augustine, the bishop of a North African city called Hippo. His description of our self-awareness is so deep and profound, it will likely require more than a single reading.

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him . . .

Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face. (Augustine, The Confessions, translation by Maria Boulding)

One of C.S. Lewis’ many correspondents was a man who was acutely troubled by his own self-awareness, and in particular, the consciousness of his own selfishness and egotism. Lewis offered some comforting and sound spiritual direction to the man. Since I believe the letter has a message for us all, I choose to close with it.

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as “excessive selfness.” But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease: fortunate are the minority who know they have it.

To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

Your danger now is that of being hypnotized by the mere sight of the chasm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness. The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer.

The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regard, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will

A text you should keep much in mind is I John iii, 20: “If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.” I sometimes pray “Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.” Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e. keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.


* In contrast to the insignificant or embarrassing things we are aware of that we may prefer to keep to ourselves. For example, although I sing decently, I am an exceptionally poor instrumentalist. This despite the fact I married a talented and patient music teacher. It’s not my lack of talent which motivates my secrecy, it is the sad fact that I am a total sluggard when it comes to practicing. And this reveals a major flaw in my personality—if something is not inherently fun or doesn’t come easily to me, I have a terribly difficult time applying myself to the task. (And this shortcoming has very real consequences, both in terms of professional success and interpersonal relationships.)

⁑ Several years ago, a member of our Mere Inkling described in her blog how everyone experiences seasons of restlessness.

In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Yet even those who have found Christ feel restless at certain times, and these times lead us to a salutary discovery.

Augustine’s Confessions is a Christian classic. You can download a free copy here.

C.S. Lewis & Tattoos

January 3, 2020 — 13 Comments

How is this for an odd New Year resolution? Getting a new tattoo—with a connection to the writings of C.S. Lewis.

I suppose I’m betraying my age here. Being a retired pastor, my body remains a totally uninked canvas. Not that I’ve never considered getting a tattoo. In fact, if I end up making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before I journey to the New Jerusalem, I may still opt to get inked. In Jerusalem there is a tattooist whose family traces their art back for 700 years to when their Coptic family lived in Egypt.

Our ancestors  used tattoos to mark Christian Copts with a small cross on the inside of the wrist to grant them access to churches . . and from a very young age (sometimes even a few months old) Christians would tattoo their children with the cross identifying them as Copts. . . .

One of the most famous of Christian types of tattoos, however, is still in use today—that of the pilgrimage tattoo. At least as early as the 1500s, visitors to the Holy Land . . . often acquired a Christian tattoo symbol to commemorate their visit, particularly the Jerusalem Cross.

In Bethlehem, another Christian tattooist practices his art “near the Church of the Nativity, offering pilgrims ink to permanently mark their visit.” He offers designs featuring scriptural texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Tattoos have a fascinating history, and it should be noted some people consider Torah prohibition to bar even religious tattoos. “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). However, most Christians* and increasing numbers of Jews do not agree that the passage forbids the current practice.

That doesn’t mean all tattoos are appropriate, of course. Most tattoos are innocuous. Some are humorous. A small number are actually witty. Yet some tattoos can be downright malevolent.

Like so many human activities, the significance of a tattoo depends in great part on the intention of the person asking for this permanent mark. For example, my wife and I approved of our son and his wife having their wedding rings tattooed in recognition of God’s desire⁑ that a marriage will last as long as both individuals live.

What has this to do with C.S. Lewis?

Precious few writers have penned more inspiring and enlightening words than Lewis, that great scholar of Oxford and Cambridge. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that there are many Lewis-inspired tattoos gracing bodies. There is even a website devoted to C.S. Lewis-inspired body ink.

I imagine that Lewis himself would regard this as quite peculiar. I don’t believe he had any tattoos of his own, but it’s quite possible his brother Warnie—a retired veteran of the Royal Army—may have sported one or more.

In 1932, Lewis wrote to Warnie about his recent walking trip. Warnie was his frequent companion, when he was not elsewhere deployed. In this fascinating piece of correspondence, Lewis described his most recent excursion. I include a lengthy excerpt (comprising the first half of the journey) not because of its single passing mention of tattoos. Rather, because of the portrait it paints of the young and vigorous scholar in the prime of life. If you would prefer to skip to the mention of inking, see the sixth paragraph.

Since last writing I have had my usual Easter walk. It was in every way an abnormal one. First of all, Harwood was to bring a new Anthroposophical Anthroposophical member (not very happily phrased!) and I was bringing a new Christian one to balance him, in the person of my ex-pupil Griffiths. Then Harwood and his satellite ratted, and the walk finally consisted of Beckett, Barfield, Griffiths, and me.

As Harwood never missed before, and Beckett seldom comes, and Griffiths was new, the atmosphere I usually look for on these jaunts was lacking. At least that is how I explain a sort of disappointment I have been feeling ever since. Then, owing to some affairs of Barfield’s, we had to alter at the last minute our idea of going to Wales, and start (of all places!) from Eastbourne instead.

All the same, I would not have you think it was a bad walk: it was rather like Hodge who, though nowhere in a competition of Johnsonian cats, was, you will remember, ‘a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

The first day we made Lewes, walking over the bare chalky South Downs all day. The country, except for an occasional gleam of the distant sea—we were avoiding the coast for fear of hikers—is almost exactly the same as the Berkshire downs or the higher parts of Salisbury Plain. The descent into Lewes offered a view of the kind I had hitherto seen only on posters—rounded hill with woods on the top, and one side quarried into a chalk cliff: sticking up dark and heavy against this a little town climbing up to a central Norman castle.

We had a very poor inn here, but I was fortunate in sharing a room with Griffiths who carried his asceticism so far as to fling off his eiderdown—greatly to my comfort. Next day we had a delicious morning—just such a day as downs are made for, with endless round green slopes in the sunshine, crossed by cloud shadows. The landscape was less like the Plain now. The sides of the hill—we were on a ridgeway—were steep and wooded, giving rather the same effect as the narrower parts of Malvern hills beyond the Wych.

We had a fine outlook over variegated blue country to the North Downs. After we had dropped into a village for lunch and climbed onto the ridge again for the afternoon, our troubles began. The sun disappeared: an icy wind took us in the flank: and soon there came a torrent of the sort of rain that feels as if one’s face were being tattooed and turns the mackintosh on the weather side into a sort of wet suit of tights.

At the same time Griffiths began to show his teeth (as I learned afterwards) having engaged Barfield in a metaphysico-religious conversation of such appalling severity and egotism that it included the speaker’s life history and a statement that most of us were infallibly damned. As Beckett and I, half a mile ahead, looked back over that rain beaten ridgeway we could always see the figures in close discussion. Griffiths very tall, thin, high-shouldered, stickless, with enormous pack: arrayed in perfectly cylindrical knickerbockers, very tight in the crutch. Barfield, as you know, with that peculiarly blowsy air, and an ever more expressive droop and shuffle.

For two mortal hours we walked nearly blind in the rain, our shoes full of water, and finally limped into the ill omened village of Bramber. Here, as we crowded to the fire in our inn, I tried to make room for us by shoving back a little miniature billiard table which stood in our way.

I was in that state of mind in which I discovered without the least surprise, a moment too late, that it was only a board supported on trestles. The trestles, of course, collapsed, and the board crashed to the ground. Slate broken right across. I haven’t had the bill yet, but I suppose it will equal the whole expences of the tour.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing to join C.S. Lewis on one of these walking trips? A Lewisian tattoo is no substitute, to be sure, but I imagine it does offer certain people a sense of connection to the great author. Perhaps, if I were a younger man . . .


* Two recent converts to Christianity, Kanye West and Justin Bieber have made public their recent religious additions to their vast tattoo collections.

⁑ As Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The motivational poster above was created by Mere Inkling, and represents only an infinitesimal number of the misspelled tattoos adorning human bodies. What a travesty . . . one that may have been prevented by remaining sober. The tattoo below, on the other hand, strikes me (being a writer) as quite clever.

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.

Peculiarities of Punctuation

September 17, 2019 — 19 Comments

I question how we can ever secure world peace, when we can’t even agree on how to punctuate. And this is not only an international controversy—although it certainly possesses intercontinental ramifications.

Writers who have submitted their work to editors know exactly what I’m talking about. The world abounds with critics who are positive they know how to “fix” your manuscript, so you can more effectively communicate what you are trying to say.

A fine example of this is found in the case of Samuel Clemons. As I described several years ago, Mark Twain considered editors to be a plague. He sums up his irritation in a letter to a friend.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own. This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it.

C.S. Lewis experienced similar challenges in working with his editors. In 1959, Lewis was responding to edits made by his longtime editor, Jocelyn Gibb, on the manuscript of The Four Loves.

I enclose my emendations, concessions, and resistances. . . . as regards my emendations, will you be so kind as to type them and send them to Harcourt Brace for the American edition. Otherwise we shall create a ‘textual problem.’

After arguing for several points of substance, Lewis offers a preemptive surrender on the field of punctuation. “Do anything you like (in reason) to the punctuation.” Lewis’ qualified capitulation was in response to this editorial comment from Gibb:

Do you really favour a comma before an “and” which seems to run all through? If so, why not: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It’s curious Lewis’ editor would question his inclusion of commas in this manner, since it is not uncommon in British literature. In fact, punctuation in this context is often called an “Oxford comma.” You can read a decent discussion of the subject here. And, lest you deem it an inconsequential matter, check out this interesting article describing how it became “the crux of a $10 million class-action lawsuit . . .” The author of the article notes:

Many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association (APA), and American Medical Association (AMA), recommend the use of the Oxford comma to prevent ambiguity.

Yet others, including the AP style guide, Canadian Press (CP) style guide, and (shockingly) the University of Oxford style guide itself, use the Oxford comma only when a sentence could be misinterpreted by the reader without it.

Here’s the problem, though, for those who do not consistently use the Oxford comma: when writing a sentence, you don’t always realize that what you’re writing could be misinterpreted.

A Nineteenth Century Tribute to Punctuation

Punctuation can provide insights into a writer’s personality, as I have discussed here. Recently I encountered this personally published poem from 1861. You can download Ephemeral Effusions, the quaint volume in which it appears, at no cost via Internet Archive.

Easy Rules for Punctuation

Written for the amusement
of a valued Friend,
who was a great stickler
for correct punctuation.

I.
Whene’er you pause, to dip the pen,
A comma you must place;
If at a loss to find a word,
A semicolon trace.

II.
Should thoughts flow slowly, fill the gap
With colon, or with rest;
And when the sentence is complete,
A period answers best.

III.
A bright idea always claims
A note of admiration;
And, if you doubt, a crooked mark
Implies interrogation.

IV.
Inverted commas indicate,
Your wits are at an end;
And, your ideas failing,
You borrow from a friend.

V.
Parenthesis (example take),
I won’t say much about;
It guards a sentence, which sometimes
Had better be left out.

VI.
The little star of secrecy,
Tho’ last, not least in fame,
Is aide-de-camp to mystery,
And asterisk its name.

These rules are all so clear,
they need no explanation;
And constitute the art
of modern punctuation.