In 1957, C.S. Lewis wrote an encouraging letter to a young author whose first book had been written at the age of fourteen. Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “a fantasy of macabre and gorgeous nonsense.” The review even alluded to Lewis himself in its description of the novel.
Judith, who poses nude for a living, is carried off to a C.S. Lewis-ish land where a monster called Baby conducts his reign of terror and where one extravagantly gory battle follows another.
Miss Gaskell is eloquently fascinated by words, the longer and more lush the better, and her book reveals an undoubted talent for fanciful description.
Gaskell went on to become a journalist. She also authored several more novels, and ultimately became a professional astrologer.
But, returning to the young girl and her first publication . . . Lewis considered the young girl worthy of encouragement.
My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it a quite amazing achievement–incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.
The idea of the gigantic spoiled brat (had you a horrid baby brother once?) is really excellent: perhaps even profound. Unlike most modern fantasies your book also has a firm core of civilised ethics. On all these grounds, hearty congratulations.
Lewis does, however, offer a suggestion for how the book may have been improved. “I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man’s opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in future.”
In a fantasy every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him back with a bump to the common earth. But this is what you sometimes do.
The moving bar on which they travel is a dull invention at best, because we can’t help conceiving it as mechanical. But when you add upholstered seats, lavatories, and restaurants, I can’t go on believing in faerie for a moment. It has all turned into commonplace technological luxury!
This concept is noteworthy for writers—especially writers of fiction, for whom imagination is an indispensable ingredient. We must avoid elements that derail the story, as inappropriate technology can sometimes do.
Beware of the Temptation
I suspect most writers today experience technology as a more concrete threat to their vocation than the inopportune example Lewis was noting. It’s not that we include too many or too few mechanical or scientific references in our work. The problem is that we are so distracted by the wonders of the world in which we live, that we never get around to putting the pen to paper.
Some of us can lose ourselves in the internet or social media. One fascinating read leads to another and we wonder “where the time has gone.” Vast programming “on demand,” is ready at a moment’s notice to occupy (or, sometimes, numb) our minds. And even when we do sit down at the keyboard, emails and messages interrupt our concentration.*
Technology, of course, is not only dangerous to writers. It can distract any of us from what is most important in life. How many hours have we squandered when we could have spent our time with family or friends? Why do we prefer to anesthetize ourselves with digital opiates, rather than helping a neighbor?
Not long ago, Christianity Today conducted an interview with Richard Foster. Foster’s 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline, has been extremely influential in calling believers to lives of deeper simplicity and prayer. In their article they mentioned a revision in the preface that speaks powerfully to me.
Oh, for the day when all we had to do was turn off the television if we wanted solitude and silence! . . . we are bombarded by the broad distractions of constant noise, constant demands, constant news. Everyone, it seems, wants us to be accessible 24/7 and to respond instantly to any and every request.
Neuroscience studies are now showing us that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly, so that our physical capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.
We, of course, complain endlessly about our wired world. But—let’s be honest—we do enjoy our technological gluttony. There is, however, a better way to live.
I’m going to close this post with a personal prayer. Feel free to join me in it, if you desire.
Gracious Father, forgive me my trespasses, and deliver me from the sin of technological gluttony to which I so often surrender. Draw me away from the table of excess, and lead me on that better path . . . the way that leads to life, and to you. Amen.
* Many of these distractions can be significantly decreased by setting your software to provide fewer “notifications” when various things occur. For example, I recently had to reset my iTunes because the program was throwing up a message every time a new song began.
When I am listening to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings, I don’t care to be told that “The Foot of Orthanc” is coming up as the strains of “The Road to Isengard” are fading away.