53 years ago today (November 1963), the world lost United States President John F. Kennedy and two Oxford trained writers: Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) and Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis. Internet pundits, chiefly myself, have speculated that this day is the origin of the myth that celebrities always die in threes, as this death of three momentous world figures happened a full 36 years before the 2009 deaths of Farrah Faucett, Ed McMahon and Michael Jackson. In my view, C.S. Lewis is the greatest Christian writer of the last 500 years, at least in terms of ability to write. His non-fiction is clear, precise, powerful and characterized by both accessibility and depth. That is to say, he avoids completely avoids any sort of the shallowness that most recent Christian popular non-fiction possesses, but yet writes with such clarity that almost anybody is able to understand him. His fiction writing is also quite amazing. From the surprisingly profound Narnia series, to the Space Trilogy, Lewis’ fictional works are both good reads and good messages at the same time, and neither series treats readers – even children – as fools.
First – a bit of trivia about Lewis. Did you know that he considered “Till We Have Faces,” his best book? He mentions this a few times, including here in this letter to a Mrs. Scott in August of 1960, “You gave me great pleasure by what you said about “Till We Have Faces,” for that book, which I consider far and away the best I have written, has been my one big failure both with the critics and with the public.”
John Wain, the Oxford-educated poet and writer, captures the chief strength of Lewis here, “‘Most dons (college professors) have moved a long way from any recognition that literature is something that people read for fun. Mr Lewis, now as always, writes as if inviting us to a feast.”
What a precisely perfect summation of the literary genius that is Lewis! Never tedious – his works are quite aptly described as a feast. And thus, though he didn’t write extensively on the art and craft of writing, he wrote enough on the subject that anybody who is interested in writing can learn much from him. Below find some rather unheralded bits of Lewis wisdom on the inspiration for, and craft behind, the discipline of writing:
From Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2 and Volume 3 (shaded in blue)
What really matters is:
1. Always try to use the 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. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing 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.
2) Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
3) Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
4) Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about …)
5) Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he wants to know—the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.
6) When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the rewriting of things begun and abandoned years earlier….
8) Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.
From “Surprised by Joy,” “With a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve link or a corkscrew, I have always been unteachable. It was this that forced me to write. I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines. Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled,only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears. As a last resource, I was driven to write stories instead; little dreaming to what a world of happiness I was being admitted. You can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table.”
From “The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3,” “Never exaggerate. Never say more than you really mean.”
From “God in the Dock,” “The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.”
From “The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3,” “The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave.” I think that anybody who is a writer can share Lewis’ assessment. Sometimes there is great joy in writing – others…well, it is a bit like slavery, isn’t it?
From “God in The Dock,” which contains the transcript of an interview conducted in 1963 by Sherwood Wirt of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Mr. Wirt asks Lewis for some advice for potential Christian writers. Lewis responds, “I would say if a man is going to write on chemistry, he learns chemistry. The same is true of Christianity. But to speak of the craft itself, I would not know how to advise a man how to write. It is a matter of talent and interest. I believe he must be strongly moved if he is to become a writer. Writing is like a ‘lust’, or like ‘scratching when you itch’. Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out.”
In the same interview, Wirt asks Lewis about the use of humor in his own writings and other Christian writers, “I believe this is a matter of temperament. However, I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages, and by the writings of G. K. Chesterton. Chesteron, for example, was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way, the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce. Should Christian writers attempt to be funny? No. I think that forced jocularities on spiritual subjects are an abomination, and the attempts of some religious writers to be humorous are simply appalling. Some people write heavily, some write lightly. I prefer the light approach because I believe there is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matters; too much speaking in holy tones.”
From “The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3,” “In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see this bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love.”
I’ll close with a bit of Lewis’ poetry, which is largely unknown by most with merely a passing fancy of the man, and that is probably quite beneficial, for the most part. Much of it is not of particularly high quality, and it expresses quite a few sentiments that the older Lewis would come to vehemently disagree with. One poem, however, is quite excellent in literary quality, if not moral judgment. That poem, “In Praise of Solid People,” is quoted below. (From Lewis’ first book – “Spirits in Bondage”, published when he was 20 years old, not yet a Christian, and just returning from fighting in World War 1)
Thank God that there are solid folk
Who water flowers and roll the lawn,
And sit an sew and talk and smoke,
And snore all through the summer dawn.
Who pass untroubled nights and days
Full-fed and sleepily content,
Rejoicing in each other’s praise,
Respectable and innocent.
Who feel the things that all men feel,
And think in well-worn grooves of thought,
Whose honest spirits never reel
Before man’s mystery, overwrought.
Yet not unfaithful nor unkind,
with work-day virtues surely staid,
Theirs is the sane and humble mind,
And dull affections undismayed.
O happy people! I have seen
No verse yet written in your praise,
And, truth to tell, the time has been
I would have scorned your easy ways.
But now thro’ weariness and strife
I learn your worthiness indeed,
The world is better for such life
As stout suburban people lead.
Too often have I sat alone
When the wet night falls heavily,
And fretting winds around me moan,
And homeless longing vexes me
For lore that I shall never know,
And visions none can hope to see,
Till brooding works upon me so
A childish fear steals over me.
I look around the empty room,
The clock still ticking in its place,
And all else silent as the tomb,
Till suddenly, I think, a face
Grows from the darkness just beside.
I turn, and lo! it fades away,
And soon another phantom tide
Of shifting dreams begins to play,
And dusky galleys past me sail,
Full freighted on a faerie sea;
I hear the silken merchants hail
Across the ringing waves to me
—Then suddenly, again, the room,
Familiar books about me piled,
And I alone amid the gloom,
By one more mocking dream beguiled.
And still no neared to the Light,
And still no further from myself,
Alone and lost in clinging night—
(The clock’s still ticking on the shelf).
Then do I envy solid folk
Who sit of evenings by the fire,
After their work and doze and smoke,
And are not fretted by desire.