Archives For Writers Group

bandersnatchIf you’re a writer and you’ve never been part of a critique group, you’ve missed out on some beneficial (and occasionally annoying) experiences.

Critiquing is, of course, the process of providing constructive criticism to someone, in the hopes of improving their work. Good criticism is priceless. The problem is that it takes true skill to offer useful advice . . . and it requires the proper degree of self-assurance to receive the criticism itself.

Those who have been burned by scathing criticism are reticent to “invite” more of the same. However, when the criticism begins with affirmation (about positive aspects of the work), that tiny spoonful of sugar certainly helps the more difficult parts of the evaluation easier to swallow.

And yet, for some, even expertly delivered criticism—covered by a chocolate layer of affirmation and accolades—remains nearly impossible to accept.

A fine example of this truth comes in C.S. Lewis’ description of a prominent member of the Inklings writing fellowship. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

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.

To learn the nature of a bandersnatch, we must travel Through the Looking Glass into Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel. Carroll coined the word and introduced it to the world in a poem called “Jabberwocky,” which appears in Alice’s wonderful adventures.

Lewis, of course, was not likening his dear friend to a frumious* bandersnatch in terms of it’s overall personality. Rather, he was describing the severity of Tolkien’s inability to positively process criticism of his work, to the bandersnatch’s incapacity to do the same. It is similar to the sense in which the White King alludes to the creature’s swiftness in describing his wife: “She runs so fearfully quick. You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch!”

Although few of us are destined to be members of so illustrious a critique community as the Inklings, I highly commend joining one of your local parallels. While you may encounter a bandersnatch or two, on the whole you’ll likely find the process quite beneficial.

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* “Frumious,” like bandersnatch itself, was coined by Lewis Carroll and is a blending of the words “fuming” and “furious.”

The bandersnatch, as envisioned above, is used with the permission of New Zealand illustrator David Elliot.

C.S. Lewis the Poet

June 27, 2012 — 19 Comments

Many of us desire to write. And yet, we often consider ourselves “failed” writers because the novel buried within us is never published. Print on Demand technology has addressed this to a degree . . . but the fact remains that few of us are destined to receive accolades for our work.

And that, simply, is life. We cannot all be “successful,” especially as the world defines the concept.

It is good to have family and friends who remind us of what does truly make us precious, especially if we are enslaved by our passion to write, and discouraged by the meager fruits of our efforts.

In the writers group in which I participate, we enjoy that sort of supportive “family.” While we encourage everyone to refine their skills, expand their horizons and pursue their dreams . . . we are also realistic in our expectations. One of the most important things we can do for novice writers, in my humble opinion, is to help them discover the particular fields in which their literary labors will be most effective.

For example, many writers compose memoirs that prove invaluable to family members. When these stories capture the flavor of a bypast locale, their value extends to others who are interested in that beloved community. Likewise, I’ve known people whose gift for writing was most radiant in terms of letters. Their personal correspondence was glorious. Like radiant gems carved to perfection for each of the individual persons to whom they were addressed. In past eras, such correspondence was highly esteemed. Gifted writers such as these owe no apology for not writing best-selling fiction.

Still, we often judge ourselves by our failures, rather than our successes.

C.S. Lewis was no different. He was quite successful as a writer, and was certainly in high demand as a professor and adviser at Oxford and Cambridge. He received international praise for his work, and yet he was despondent about at least one aspect of his writing.

Lewis had longed from his adolescence to become a respected poet. This was partly due to the age in which he was reared. Poetry was viewed as the most cultured and elegant form of writing. Much more so than is true today. (Although I assume today’s poets still regard Euterpe, pictured above, as the most wondrous of Greece’s Muses. Her domain was Music and Poetry.)

Lewis’ poetry did not receive much critical praise. We’ll consider the subject more in the future, but for now suffice it to say that this fact caused him much grief. Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary writes in his C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide: “The most noticeable effect of Lewis’ conversion [to Christianity] was the death of his old ambition as a poet and the emergence of a man never thereafter at a loss for the right words.”

Lewis still wrote poetry, of course, but he no longer sought his identity in it. The following love poem, inspired by his deep affection for his wife Joy, is quite powerful. As they faced her illnesses and death, I believe his words reach heights rarely attained by many a poet laureate.

As the Ruin Falls by C. S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

If you find this poem moving, it is well worth taking a moment to listen to Phil Keaggy’s musical treatment of Lewis’ lyrics.