Archives For Discouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

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

A Lesson for Modern Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 14 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

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* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.