Archives For Advice

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.

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.

_____

* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.

Promoting Our Writing

June 19, 2013 — 34 Comments

blog promoOne of the common frustrations online writers face is the question: “is anyone out there reading what I write?”

I suspect that’s been the plaintive lament of all authors, since the dawn of written languages. Just as a conversation can’t occur when one of the parties ignores the other, no “communication” takes place when something is written, but never read.

Blogs provide an excellent framework for exploring this phenomenon. Bloggers don’t write merely for themselves. (If they wanted to do that, they’d simply “journal.”) Bloggers long to have others read their words. And the commonest disappointment of new online writers is just how few people actually visit their sites.

Fortunately, communities such as wordpress include features that allow us to track statistics in an accurate manner. Even when visitors fail to comment or formally “like” a post, they still leave digital footprints. I’ve written before about how enjoyable it is to see how frequently your page has been visited by people from all around the world.

At that time I shared my statistical world map, (directly below). Today I follow it with my current status . . . which reveals that I have finally penetrated the Great Wall and accessed the vast population of the People’s Republic of China! (Of course, I have long suspected the Chinese military of spying on my column, in an effort to glean military secrets about the Inklings’ military service during WWI.)

countries

countries 2

Methods of Increasing Visits to Our Sites

There are a number of concrete ways to expose others to our words. A few appear below. Still, it’s good to remain realistic in our expectations.

I recently read that it’s worthwhile being listed in the Technorati blog directories. As part of the verification process for inclusion there, I need to include in one of my blogs the code RFQE8T2R48RG. (I just hope their verification search engine isn’t confused by the numerous occasions when I’ve used that very same code in my previous blogs.)

As promised, here are a handful of nearly universal recommendations for increasing the number of visitors to our websites.

  • Write on subjects we feel passionate about.
  • Write well.
  • Be as unique as possible (in our personal publishing niche).
  • Encourage people to leave comments.
  • Dialog with the readers who do.
  • Create intriguing titles for our posts.
  • Write regularly (at least weekly, but not hourly).
  • Offer RSS and email subscription options.
  • Visit other blogs & offer encouraging comments.
  • Tell everyone you know to read Mere Inkling.

Truly sorry about that last plug. I’m simply trying extra hard to ensure my words don’t drop into the obsidian darkness of digital anonymity. Blessings in your own efforts to ensure the same!

Orwellian Advice

April 8, 2013 — 11 Comments

cls orwellThe title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. 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. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

____

If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here.