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.
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.
Many great writers have used pen names, C.S. Lewis (and yours truly) included. Lewis, in fact, employed two.
There are a variety of reasons for writing under a pen name. While it may occasionally be done in order to deceive, most occurrences are utterly benign. For example, particularly in totalitarian states, the truth is dangerous to one’s health. In less authoritarian nations, reticence to use one’s own name might be motivated by fear of damage to one’s livelihood.
It’s also possible the writer simply has a personal desire to remain anonymous. This is the case with one of Lewis’ most important works. After the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, he composed one of his most moving works, A Grief Observed. For this candid reflection on grieving, Lewis attempted to maintain his privacy by ascribing the work to N.W. Clerk.
My motivation for adopting a new pen name is different from all of these. More about that in a moment.
Here is a small sampling of writers you may know, who used pseudonyms for some of their work:
President John Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë, Pearl S. Buck, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Michael Crichton, Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, D.B. Wyndham Lewis, Theodor Seuss Geisel, Henrik Ibsen, Washington Irving, Søren Kierkegaard, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joanne Rowling, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, just to name a few.
My personal opinion is that the best nom de plumes are not random or simply fanciful. Creating a pen name with an actual connection of some sort to the writer seems—to me—far more skillful. Case in point, Lewis’ use of the pseudonym “N.W. Clerk.” He created this name by combining the Anglo-Saxon “Nat Whilk” (meaning I know not whom) with “Clerk” meaning writer or scholar.
C.S. Lewis’ second pen name was also chosen for its specific meaning. Since boyhood, he had gone by the first name of Jack. With the pseudonym he used his actual name, Clive. For the surname, Lewis used his mother’s maiden name, Hamilton. Thus, Clive Hamilton.
His first two books were attributed in this manner. The first was Spirits in Bondage (1919), a collection of poetry. His second was begun while he was still a teenager. Dymer was a narrative poem with mythic elements. The first title is in the public domain, and available for download at Internet Archive. Both of the volumes were written, of course, while Lewis was an atheist.
My New Nom de Plume
In my own case, I recently devised a pen name for some satirical writing I am exploring. My purpose is not to mislead or confuse. In fact, it is expressly out of a desire to prevent confusion that I’ve assumed a pseudonym for my satire.
Even though I include humor in my writing, most of my work is essentially serious. This makes sense, for subjects such as faith, suffering, life, death, history, and eternity. I do not dissemble. As the Bible counsels, my yes means yes, and my no means no.*
Still, the very nature of satire means you are using language contrary to its face value. You are communicating tongue in cheek. You are frequently turning the language around upon itself so it communicates something quite different from what it literally says. Satire finds its fuel in irony, humor, hyperbole and even ridicule.
Skillful satire isn’t intentionally confusing. On the contrary, its message is almost always clear. Satire may sting the objects of its ridicule, and bring smiles to those who share your scorn for the institutions, policies, and individuals being taunted.
So, where, you may wonder, will this satirical writing be found . . . and under what pen name will you find it? I will be submitting some short pieces to The Salty Cee, a less commercialized alternative to The Babylon Bee. My pseudonym is Robert Charlesson, for reasons you can read about here.
* The actual passage I’m referencing, records Jesus criticizing making oaths to assure a person’s veracity. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:33-37). I think it is consistent to extend this principle to always speaking honestly, regardless of whether we are making affirmative or negative observations.
Ah, the snow is wrapping the world in a thick blanket, and I have no where I need to be. As I sit at my desk gazing out at the whitewashed forest, I attempt now something that I seldom do. I am writing a poem.
I admit that I haven’t read Jane Kenyon’s work, but I can definitely relate to one of her famous quotations: “My ear is not working, my poetry ear. I can’t write a line that doesn’t sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.”
One of the bloggers I follow hosts a weekly poetry contest. I’ve never been tempted to compete, although I’m eminently qualified. You see, this is a “Terrible Poetry Contest.”
I had already begun writing my next post, and it relates to the depression some people feel during the winter. Of course, I do my best to make sure that what I write for Mere Inkling is not “terrible.” But I decided to delay that column and pause to enter this contest. On a whim. I certainly don’t expect to win . . . which in this case is, ironically, good news.
I decided to use an uncommon poetic form, since I can at least have the satisfaction that it offers patient readers an “educational” tidbit. I chose the French descort poetic form, because it seems expressly tailored to generate terrible poetry. According to Writer’s Digest, “the descort differentiates itself from other forms by differentiating its lines from other lines within the poem. That is, the main rule of descort poems is that each line needs to be different from every other line in the poem.”
A descort poem has different line lengths, meters, avoids rhyming with other lines, no refrains, and that goes for stanzas as well. In other words, no two lines in a descort should look like each other, and the same could be said for each descort.
The strength of the form is that it allows utter freedom to the poet. The weakness is that the results are appalling. (Read the example written by the editor of the linked article, if you don’t believe me.) Without further ado, I present my latest experiment with verse.* (There’s really nothing “French” about it, beyond the fact it’s a descort.⁑
Frigid French Philologies by Robert C. Stroud
Shards of bleak winter gestate day after day. The citric cannonade gurgled melodies of complacency. Echinodermata rides again.
Hagar was not so Horrible. Beware 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W. Fini. Don’t stare at dark holes. A Galapagos penguin reads about tobacco.
Captain Kirk sings the National Anthem. Angkor longed to visit Tenochtitlán. Sheepish wolves. From lofty Mount Olympus descended Odin.
Soon comes the summer of our discontent.
A French Poem by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis wrote poetry. There is actually a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Deservedly so. Nevertheless, Lewis’ poetry was never highly regarded.
I, for one, consider this lack of appreciation providential. By this I mean that even though C.S. Lewis had to suffer the disappointment of not realizing his desires as a poet, it is a blessing to the whole world that his energies were redirected into his other writings. Who knows, if his poetry had been celebrated, whether or not Narnia would ever have existed?
The only book of Lewis’ which is in the public domain (i.e. free for downloading), is Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. It was published after the First World War, written while he was still an atheist. While it makes for interesting reading, much of the imagery will be a bit disorienting for readers only familiar with Lewis after he encountered Christ.
The following poem is taken from that collection. As Alister McGrath writes in The Telegraph article, Lewis’ hopes were dashed relatively early.
The early poems remain a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet,” like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Indeed, not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse—Dymer (1926)—made painfully clear.
This example of Lewis’ war poetry does stand tall in comparison to the verse of the “acclaimed” war poets (in my modest opinion). It describes a battle site during the war—and the transformation of human beings into beasts.
French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)
Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread And all is still; now even this gross line Drinks in the frosty silences divine The pale, green moon is riding overhead.
The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim; Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun, And in one angry streak his blood has run To left and right along the horizon dim.
There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers Across the pallid globe and surely nears In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!
False mocking fancy! Once I too could dream, Who now can only see with vulgar eye That he’s no nearer to the moon than I And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.
What call have I to dream of anything? I am a wolf. Back to the world again, And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.
I confess (though I did it on purpose) that the heading for this section was a bit misleading. “French poem” may have been interpreted as a poem written in French. While Lewis was certainly fluent in French, he did not write in the language. He did, however, appreciate the tongue.
In 1952 he wrote his publisher about the French translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He praised quality of the translation, as well as the tone achieved by the translator, in Le Lion et la Sorcière Blanche.
I don’t foresee many occasions for copies of Le Lion, but if you will kindly send me 2, they might come in useful. The translator deserves to be congratulated of course—French is a very powerful language—the children become perfect little Frenchmen, but that is all to the good.
What pleased and surprised me is the passage at the end where I made them talk like characters in Malory, and he has really got some of the quality of the French 13th century prose romances: grande honte en aurions⁂—is exactly right.
C.S. Lewis’ brother, Warnie, was a bit of a Francophile. He knew his subject well enough that he authored a book about its history, The Splendid Century: Life In The France Of Louis XIV. He offers an entertaining account of some literary gatherings where the works of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) were employed in a novel manner. The writers shared agreed upon rules, and transgressions demanded discipline. Thus the punishment for “the breach of rules was to read a verse of Chapelain’s poetry, or, in aggravated circumstances, a whole page.”
I won’t hold my breath awaiting the results of the poetry contest. Though I periodically enjoy dabbling in poetry, I feel I am destined to share the fate of Lewis when it comes to the way in which the masses assess the quality of our verse.
* I have written poetry in the past. I explored the quintainhere, and have a few of my experiments in poetry posted at All Poetry.
⁑ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, descort can also refer to “a poem in medieval Provençal literature with stanzas in different languages.”
My grandkids have stunned me with their enthusiasm for writing. And all it took to inspire them was a very simple activity.
I invited our ten youngest grandchildren (aged 4 to 12) to write their own family newspaper. Although I devised our family publication myself, I’ve since learned that there are abundant resources—albeit of vastly different qualities—available online. You’ll find some links below.
The first challenge was to explain to them what a newspaper is. The irony is not lost on me that none of our four families currently subscribe to daily papers. It was more difficult than I anticipated to explain to all of the novice journalists precisely what newspapers are. I use the present tense, because the medium is not quite obsolete, despite the downward trajectory of most local papers. As an editorial in the Washington Post said this year, “newspapers have been dying in slow motion for two decades now.” And it seems to many the process is accelerating.
Nevertheless, as the proud veteran of high school and college newspaper staffs, and a former contributor to my hometown weekly, I believe such publications are ideal for developing writing skills. The passion overflowing from my writing bullpen has vastly exceeded my expectations, confirming my impression.
While it took a while to gather enough submissions for the first issue, they rushed to fill the second. When each was “published,” all of the kids immediately sat down and read their personal issues from proverbial cover to cover.
My endorsement of family newspapers does not carry over to the commercial press. Sadly, too much of what is presented as “objective reporting,” is patently subjective. I debated my journalism profs about that matter forty years ago, and the evidence has only grown more visible. I also agree with C.S. Lewis’ opinion that the majority of what passes for “news,” is superfluous or sensationalistic.
Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.
Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand. (Surprised by Joy)
Perhaps ironically, Lewis did not hesitate to publish his own writings in worthy newspapers. Most notably, The Guardian (an Anglican newspaper printed between 1846 and 1951) published several of his essays. In addition, they presented to the world (in serial form) both The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.
For an interesting discussion about C.S. Lewis’ opinion that newspapers are inadequate tools for assessing truth, check out this article. The author draws a valid distinction between Lewis’ example and the current state of affairs where “we judge too quickly and offer grace much too slowly.”
Elements of Our Family’s Publishing Experiment
After describing to the kids what newspapers are, I provided them with a list of potential subject matter. In addition to “standard” sorts of news and reviews, I added things like “sermon notes,” fiction, and comics.
I encourage them to illustrate their own articles, and the first two issues have been graced with images of dogs, horses, King Tut, and a Turtle Bear (who served as a weather forecaster). Each child contributes at their own level, and the cousins commend each other on their efforts.
We’re early in the stages of teaching the kids about rewriting and self-editing. Depending on the situation, either their parents or the editorial staff (grandma and grandpa) assist them with learning to revise their own work.
I must confess that one of the most fun aspects of Curious Cousins Courier is my ability, as the editor, to creatively engage in a bit of editorial privilege. The primary example comes in a “Family Heritage” feature that I write for each issue.
In the first, we considered the life of the cousins’ great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway in 1912. Julius Olaissen Næsbø unsuccessfully attempted to travel on the RMS Titanic, but the steerage class was full, and he had to settle for a departure several weeks later. The fringe benefit of reading about “Grandpa Nesby” came in learning that other languages include letters in their alphabet that are foreign to us in the States.
In the second issue, I pointed the children to one of their ancestors who helped establish our country itself, during the Revolutionary War. Joseph Johnston was born in Ireland, and was a sergeant in the Fifth Virginia Regiment.
The importance of cementing family bonds—and instilling a healthy awareness of our family’s legacy—is extremely important to me. I suppose that is due in large part to spending the first third of my life as a nomadic military kid. Yet that sense of disconnectedness from my extended family did not prevent me from inflicting the same itinerant military lifestyle on my own children. But that’s a story for another day.
If you help to establish a newspaper or journal for members of your own family, I trust you will find it as rewarding as I do.
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)
How is this for an absurd waste of time? A foolish man wanted “to feel what it was like to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald.” So, what did he do? Take writing classes? No, he had a better idea. He sat down at the keyboard and proceeded to type out a verbatim copy of The Great Gatsby.
Some of you may have heard this story, from the life of Hunter S. Thompson. He founded the “gonzo journalism” movement which dispenses with the pretense of objectivity. Sarcasm, humor and even profanity abound in this type of writing.
Thompson was apparently well suited to gonzoism, summarizing his life philosophy in this way: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Which is, presumably, a personal endorsement, rather than advocacy.
Apparently, typing the same words as literary icons also “worked” for Thompson. He also retyped Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to learn how to emulate his style.
I wonder what C.S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings would think of this approach to learning how to write. Lewis, of course, treasured good writing and recognized wide reading as a valuable inspiration for successful writing.
Nevertheless, if Lewis and Tolkien heard about Thompson’s exercise, I imagine they would enjoy a good laugh.
Reproducing typed facsimilies cannot be considered writing. Even an utterly illiterate person (or probably even a chimpanzee) could be trained to reproduce an original, key stroke by key stroke. (The monkey would probably benefit from a keyboard tailored to its particularly physiology.)
Emulating is Writing
When a lesser writer seeks to imitate the style of a renowned author, using their own creative skills and not plagiarizing, they are composing something original. There are several considerations to keep in mind.
Copyright restrictions may bar the work from publication. For example, it’s not yet legal for people to publish new Narnia stories.
Trademarks can also limit options for such works. Speaking of which, you don’t need to register a trademark to use TM in the United States, as we at MereInkling(TM) recently learned.
If registered with the USPTO, use the ® symbol after your mark. If not yet registered, you may use TM for goods or SM for services, to indicate that you have adopted this as a “common law” trademark or service mark.
Works written as an homage—without any compensation or profit—is typically allowed. Thus we see innumerable variations on the Screwtape Letters. I have contributed to that mountain myself.
Basing a piece on the themes or voice of a masterpiece is altogether different from plagiarism.
There is one more critical point to make about a legitimate literary “tribute.” It can be based on the most anointed writing of the most impressive author . . . and still not be worth reading at all.
Which returns us to the typescripts reproduced by Thompson. Assuming he reproduced them faithfully, he is immune at least to the charge that the product of his typewriter is inferior to the original text.
That said, I find the two minutes I just invested in writing the following modest haiku more beneficial to my creativity than the hundreds of hours I might have spent literally copying a book I prize.
Yes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!
In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.
I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.
I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.
It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.
I am not proposing idolatry.
I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.
Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.
The authors of Narnia and theFields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.
It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.
Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,
their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.
Crimson combat splashed red their vision,
and colored portraits one day painted with their words.
The frontlines were barren,
scarred earth stripped of all life.
Fallen trees mimicked casualties,
not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.
It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.
So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.
If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.
Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.
It seems odd to describe someone you deeply respect with the words “ugly as a chimpanzee,” but that’s precisely what C.S. Lewis once did.
Yet, reading the description in full, we find that Lewis considered the physical unattractiveness of his mentor to be a positive thing. In a sense, it accented his impressive persona.
Describing Charles Williams to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote:
As for the man: he is about 52, of humble origin (there are still traces of cockney in his voice), ugly as a chimpanzee but so radiant (he emanates more love than any man I have ever known) that as soon as he begins talking whether in private or in a lecture he is transfigured and looks like an angel. He sweeps some people quite off their feet and has many disciples. Women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan.
I find this description evocative of the words about Jesus’ physical appearance. You can read the full passage about Jesus, the promised Messiah, here.
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
Lewis continues with his description of Williams, revealing a more intimate relationship than the previous words might suggest. Williams, you see, was one of the Inklings.
He works in the Oxford University Press. In spite of his “angelic” quality he is also quite an earthy person and when Warnie, Tolkien, he and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology. He is married and, I think, youthfully in love with his wife still.
I find it amazing how vivid Lewis’ portrait of his colleague is. He briefly passes over his physical appearance (the least important of human traits, despite what the modern era intimates). And, even though his words are not flattering, the rest of the description reveals they are expressed with deep affection.
Lewis then quickly presses on to a poetic depiction of Williams’ oratorical skills, and concludes with a personable picture of the man among brothers. The final sentence, given Lewis’ perception that he himself would remain a lifelong bachelor, is quite perceptive.
Mutual respect—especially when tempered with affection—generates bonds that allow for honest assessments of both weaknesses and strengths.
A Personal Experience
I recall receiving a lovely engraved glass plaque as a memento of my tour at the United States Air Force Chaplain School. Most of my duties related to writing, but it was common knowledge that there were few subjects on which I did not have something to say.
When the Commandant of the Institute read the inscription during the presentation (it was the first time he had seen it), he paused in embarrassed silence thinking he must have read it wrong. It didn’t sound like the flattery that traditionally adorns such tokens.
“He says in a book what others say in a sentence.”
You can only offer such a dialectical “compliment” to a friend.
It was true, of course, and it was to much laughter that I immediately responded, “True, and it is a book well worth reading.”
When I read this description of the literary friend who made such a profound impression on Lewis, it makes me smile. It is all the more poignant, since it was written just a year before Williams’ death.
There are far, far worse things a person can experience than having someone who respects and loves them say they resemble a chimpanzee . . . or that they tend to be just a little bit verbose.
One of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.
I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.
I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.
She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.
I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.
Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.
The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.
The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:
When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.
Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.
I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.
Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.
To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.
Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”
That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.
Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).
Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”
It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.
As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.
How many letters have you read that were penned in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ groundbreaking Screwtape Letters?
If you’re a fan of the collection, you’ve probably read similar correspondence that owed its very existence to Lewis’ work.
Now a more sensitive question—have you ever written anything similar to The Screwtape Letters? I must confess that I have. In fact, I’m currently working on a similar collection I hope to finish during the coming year.
Many writers have tried their hand at writing angelic letters, with varying degrees of skill and success. After you finish this column, you might want to check out two examples right here at Mere Inkling: Screwtape Letters Anniversary and Screwtape Goes to War.
Some letters have been composed from the perspective of a heavenly angel (often perceived of as a “guardian” angel). Others have been, like Lewis’ innovative example, written from a diabolical angle. Demons, we recognize, have been cast out of the heavens for which they were created, but they still remain angels, albeit fallen angels.
One of the lures that motivates those who emulate the Screwtape Letters is found in C.S. Lewis’ statement that they were rather easy to compose, once he had undergone the uncomfortable process of placing himself in the mind of an enemy of God.
It is disorienting, to reverse reality. For example, to hate what God loves (i.e. his creation, and especially humanity). And it is this discomfort that Lewis alludes to in describing his reluctance to pursue the genre any further than he did.
I say this because the arrangement of words can be protected by law, but “ideas” cannot. (I’m not talking about patents here, but literary ideas or techniques.)
Thus, it’s possible to freely follow Lewis’ example. However, quotations should only be used with permission. (There are, of course, “fair use laws” that describe the acceptable use of quotations in various contexts.)
There was a bit of a scandal a few years after Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Well, “scandal” is too serious a word. More like an awkward and uncertain moment, when an American journalist wrote a book that was clearly inspired by Lewis.
I’ve only recently received my copy of The Devil You Say by Joseph A. Breig. It was published in 1952, and the introduction echoes Lewis’ own. While the letters themselves appear to be independent of Lewis, I suspect the following parallel from the two prefaces shocked Lewis when he saw it.
I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. (Lewis)
I have not the remotest intention of disclosing to anyone—not even my confessor—how these choice tidbits of demonology fell into my hands. (Breig)
Following its publication, one of Lewis’ correspondents, Idrisyn Oliver Evans, sent him a copy. Lewis’ response follows.
Magdalen College Oxford
27/ 4/ 53
Dear Evans I am really very sorry. The Devil you Say got put on a pile of ‘books received’– most of them (I don’t include yours) a major plague of my life–and I forgot all about it. I have now read a few pages: there was nothing to tempt one to go on. It certainly seems to be a gross plagiarism: I am writing to New York Macmillan to draw their attention to it. Thanks very much for sending it. With all good wishes, and thanks also to your American friend. Yours C.S. Lewis
I cannot find any record of whether or not Macmillan challenged the publication of the new volume.
Lewis had no objection to another writer developing his idea about devilish correspondence in their own creative direction. He simply desired to ensure his own work was not usurped.
Before ending, I would not want to leave a negative impression about Mr. Breig. In looking further into the work, one sees just how little resemblance it bears to The Screwtape Letters. It clearly is not plagiaristic. In fact, it’s quite possible that the line cited above was actually intended to be an homage to Lewis.
It turns out that Joseph Anthony Breig (1905-1982) was an accomplished and well respected Roman Catholic journalist.
Breig stayed at the Universe Bulletin until his retirement in March 1975. He continued to write his columns after 1975. They appeared not only in the Universe Bulletin but also in several other Catholic newspapers in the USA. Besides being a newspaper writer, Breig also wrote for many magazines (Ave Maria, Our Lady’s Digest, The Family Digest, Crozier, and others) and published eight books and several short stories and plays.
In honor of his work he received two honorary doctorates (St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1954, and Carroll College, Helena, Montana, 1967). He also won several awards, one of which was the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association in 1966. (The Book of Catholic Authors).
I’ll close with a final quotation from the same biographical source. When writers gaze at a blank sheet of paper they see many things. Some see it as naked canvas, and others as a challenge. I enjoyed the compliment offered by one of Breig’s editors, who praised his prolific literary production.
“Douglas Roche of Sign magazine . . . holds that Breig cannot endure the sight of a sheet of paper not covered with words.”