Archives For My Writing Projects

false humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Real-Life Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria.

Typing is Not Writing

February 21, 2017 — 8 Comments

chimp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emulating is Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retyping fixed words

Rather than shaping one’s own

Is a game for fools.

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 9 Comments

saharaYes, 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 the Fields 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.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

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.

True Friendship

July 7, 2015 — 8 Comments

charles williamsIt 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.

Literary Martial Arts

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

nonficOne 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.

Plagiarizing Screwtape

October 28, 2014 — 22 Comments

breigHow 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.

Considering Copyrights

For writers, copyrights are precious. It is good news, unknown to many, that current law (at least in the United States) protects everything we write. As soon as it is created (the words are arranged in their unique order), our work is protected by copyright whether or not we use the © symbol.

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.”

Convoluted Language

October 13, 2014 — 8 Comments

govwritingAre you a skilled reader? Do you pride yourself on possessing a knack for making sense of challenging prose?

Even if you consider yourself a proficient interpreter of text, there is one genre of literature that may still cause you to tremble. Government documents.

Even the most experienced lexical navigators find it challenging to traverse governmental communications. This despite the fact that in 2010 the United States actually passed the Plain Writing Act.

And I’m not even referring to legislation—where seeking sanity and clarity is virtually hopeless. And, it doesn’t matter how simple the source message is. Government scribes are capable of making a document about how to obtain a building permit read like a manual for constructing an orbital weapons platform.

I am not sure whether or not the United States is typical of other nations when it comes to this literary tradition. However, I suspect every nation, aside perhaps from those with populations under 10,000, is plagued by convoluted governmental documents. (There are thirteen such, potentially exempt, communities.*)

A prime example of institutional gobbledygook comes from this question, posed to the Chicago Manual of Style:

Q. Can you please help settle a disagreement? In the following sentence, should “instead of” be replaced with “rather than”? Overpayments occurred because facility purchased care staff processed payments using the local VA Fee schedule instead of the technical component of RBRVS.

A. Let me get this straight: in that nearly unreadable sentence (“because facility purchased care staff processed payments”?), the disagreement centers on whether to use “instead of” or “rather than”?  (Oh, wait—I see from your e-mail address that this is a government office.) Replace the phrase if you are certain that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning, and (2) the current wording does not express the meaning intended. If you cannot reach agreement on these points, you might have to fund a study.

C.S. Lewis offered much sage advice about writing. Sadly, nearly every principle he proposed is utterly alien to governmental documents. His 1956 advice (to a child) should be the required background and screen saver for all government computers:

“Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for civil servants who write official documents. After all, I edited Air Force Recurring Periodical 52-1 for three years. But I sometimes wonder whether there might be an eccentric psychological disorder that afflicts many government-funded writers . . .

So, it appears, I have made an unintentional confession. The regular readers of Mere Inkling may now know the source of some of the peculiar aspects of these columns.

I have asked my children to have me institutionalized if I ever use the phrase “care staff processed payments.” Short of that, however, these brief conversations are likely to continue for many years to come.

_____

* The following nations and “dependent territories” boast populations under ten thousand, in ascending order:

Pitcairn Islands

Cocos Islands

Vatican City

Tokelau

Niue

Christmas Island

Norfolk Island

Svalbard and Jan Mayen

Falkland Islands

Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha

Montserrat

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Barthelemy

Nauru barely misses the list due to an excess of eighty-four citizens, according to their 2011 census.