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.