On Being a “Word” Guy

I’m a “word” guy, and becoming more so after writing two books in the past two years. I’m always looking for just the right way to say things, and I appreciate writers whose originality with words makes one rethink, or think more deeply, about life.

That’s why I’m attracted to the wordsmithing of people like Whittaker Chambers and C. S. Lewis. It’s not just what they say—which is truth-hitting-you-where-it-helps/hurts-most—but the way they say it.

Most of us have a hard time coming up with anything approaching what Chambers or Lewis have written. That’s fine. They were unique, and each of us needs to find our own way of communicating. I’m not pretending to be the latest incarnation of either, but I gladly try to incorporate anything I can from them to spice up my own style.

Why am I thinking about this today? Well, first, I’m currently teaching classes on both Chambers and Lewis. As I go through their writings with students, I’m renewed in my appreciation for their contributions; I also love it when students get their first taste of that quality of writing. For some, it’s like an awakening.

And that’s the true reward of teaching.

I’m also alert to commentary on how we speak and write. Sometimes, the best commentary can come from unexpected places:

Avoiding clichés is a constant effort. Then there are words that become so ubiquitous that you almost wish they would disappear from our national vocabulary:

My goal: to use only the “best” words. You know, like President Trump. Should he be my new model?

Lord, deliver me from such thoughts.

Why Do I Do This?

This is one of those mornings. I’ve written this blog for the last eight years. Why? What did I hope to accomplish? What have I accomplished?

There are times I simply want to walk away from it and never touch it again. Why bother with being called a racist because I accurately pointed to Michael Brown’s actions before he was shot in Ferguson? Why take the arrows of being considered bigoted because I warn against the homosexual agenda?

And lately, why do I continue to highlight the dangers of a Donald Trump presidency and then get accused of helping Hillary Clinton get elected? All this does is divide people who formerly were united, right?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with confrontations. I would rather write about things we all agree on and never ruffle anyone. But—what would those topics be?

Sometimes I want to give this up and let the world go its own way. My little scribblings in a blog that has a limited audience aren’t going to change anything big, are they?

JeremiahThe problem, though, is that I have a Jeremiah issue. That’s not to say I’m a prophet; God has never told me I have that gift. But I understand at least some of how Jeremiah felt at one point when he said in the 20th chapter of his book,

O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.

For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long.

I mean, who wants to feel like that? But he continues,

But if I say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name, then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.”

Jeremiah was calling his nation to repentance, yet he knew he probably wouldn’t succeed in that mission. He wanted to stop telling them they were going the wrong way, but the Spirit of God within him wouldn’t allow him to quit.

As I said, I’m no Jeremiah; my voice doesn’t go out to the entire nation; most have no idea who I am, and I don’t mind that at all. But God has called me to speak to whatever limited audience He gives me, and I am supposed to be faithful to that calling.

So, if you disagree with my warnings about our culture, the education crisis, and the political foolishness that abounds, that will just have to be. I will continue to write and say what I believe God has put on my heart.

If possible, though, I would hope your disagreements can be shared in a spirit of humility. My pledge is that I will never treat anyone who disagrees with me in an unchristian manner. I seek to communicate in the spirit advocated by the apostle Paul when he told us we are to speak the truth in love.

I guess I’m going to keep on writing.

Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis

Lewis Letters Volume 3My intensive reading of C. S. Lewis letters is part of another of my sabbatical projects, with a book as the end goal. This has been no drudgery; rather, it has been fascinating to delve into them and see how Lewis responds to his American correspondents.

Often, he writes to children who have read his Narnia books. One of his regular child correspondents was Joan Lancaster, who, for her age, was quite mature and thoughtful. Lewis seemed to take an extra interest in her advancement as a writer. One of his letters to her could easily have been written to an adult writer trying to hone his/her craft. I like the advice he gives:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. 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.

We all could use some timely advice like that—it would be “infinitely” helpful.

Lewis: Honest Workmanship & God’s Glory

Combing through the letters of C. S. Lewis as research for a book I want to write has uncovered some real gems. Whenever I get one of these, I like to share it. In 1954, Lewis wrote to an American woman named Cynthia Donnelly, who apparently had asked what was necessary to be a good Christian writer. His response clearly points to the concept that everything we do, whether overtly Christian or not, is part of the calling God has given us. There is no strict separation between sacred and secular if we are fulfilling God’s purposes:

C. S. Lewis 8I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer’s duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven’t. We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn’t write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away.

The first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY. When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it it was first and foremost a GOOD WHEEL. Don’t try to “bring in” specifically Christian bits: if God wants you to serve him in that way (He may not: there are different vocations) you will find it coming in of its own accord. If not, well—a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, just like cooking a good nourishing meal. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)

By the way, none of my stories began with a Christian message. I always start from a mental picture—the floating islands, a faun with an umbrella in a snowy wood, an “injured” human head. Of course my non-fiction works are different. But they succeed because I’m a professional teacher and explanation happens to be one of the things I’ve learned to do.

But the great thing is to cultivate one’s own garden, to do well the job which one’s own natural capacities point out (after first doing well whatever the “duties of one’s station” impose). Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit hutches) can be done to the glory of God.

His words are not for writers only, but have application for everyone, no matter the profession.

C. S. Lewis: Pictures in His Head

Collected Letter of LewisOne of the principal joys of my academic sabbatical is the opportunity to examine the letters C. S. Lewis wrote. They are now available in three massive volumes. He took special care in each letter, even to those who probably didn’t deserve such special care.

He wrote to all ages, even small children. Many wrote to him after reading his Chronicles of Narnia series. A most interesting letter of that type, written in 1960, provides some wonderful insight into his thinking about writing itself, as well as how he gets ideas for books. Here’s an excerpt:

  1. Why did I become a writer? Chiefly, I think, because my clumsiness or fingers prevented me from making things in any other way.

  2. What “inspires” my books? Really I don’t know. Does anyone know where exactly and idea comes from? With me all fiction begins with pictures in my head. But where the pictures come from I couldn’t say.

  3. Which of my books do I think most “representational”? Do you mean (a.) Most representative, most typical, most characteristic? or (b.) Most full of “representations” i.e. images? But whichever you mean, surely this is a question not for me but for my readers to decide. Or do you mean simply which do I like best? Now, the answer wd. be Till We Have Faces and Perelandra.

  4. I have, as usual, dozens of “plans” for books, but I don’t know which, if any, of these will come off. Very often a book of mine gets written when I’m tidying a drawer and come across notes for a plan rejected by me years ago and now suddenly realize I can do it after all. This, you see, makes predictions rather difficult!

  5. I enjoy writing fiction more than writing anything else. Wouldn’t anyone?

Come to think of it, I would love to write fiction sometime. Who knows? Predictions can be rather difficult.