“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C. S. Lewis)
I’ve been thinking about and appreciating anew Oxford scholar and author, C. S. Lewis. Earlier this year, I read his classic–one of many–The Screwtape Letters. He was a remarkable thinker and writer.
Addison’s Walk is a pathway around Oxford’s Magdelen College. Lewis used to indulge his peripatetic urges with friends on this footpath, among them J. R. R. Tolkien of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring fame.
When one walks in nature, it gives one time to think about things, especially these days when we are bombarded with stimuli from numerous sources, a product of the digital age. Sometimes it is helpful; sometimes it hinders through noise, interruption, and distraction.
Lewis never fully entered the 20th Century. And I think we may well be the richer because of it. He never owned a wristwatch; learned to drive only later in life and rarely; wore the same clothes to the point of threadbareness. I’m not sure he would’ve integrated gracefully into the 21st Century. But no matter.
But he gave us The Chronicles of Narnia. And Mere Christianity. And The Pilgrim’s Regress. And a whole lot more. I’d be willing to bet that these contributions were a by-product of these walks and talks, many of them occurring on Addison’s Walk.
Take some time to walk. I’m sure you have your own pathways, perhaps similar to Addison’s Walk. Think. Meditate. Ponder. And see what is borne of such activity.
Phil Keaggy, deeply inspired by the work of Lewis for about forty years, wrote this piece called, appropriately, “Addison’s Walk.”
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
I believe that every human being who is living or has ever lived was made in the image of God, the Creator. I believe this, first of all, because I am a Christian and believe the biblical record that says God made man in His own image.
From that reality follows certain things. We are moral creatures, capable of choosing good or evil. We have personality and intellect, heart and soul, drive and ambition, capacity and ability.
And creativity. Like Creator, like creation.
Yesterday’s post, unpacking a quote by bestselling author Stephen King, highlighted the importance of reading as preparation for writing. King’s goal, without a doubt, is to stimulate literary creativity. He wants writers to write and to do so with skill.
I think I need to bring a necessary balance.
One might be left with the unfortunate conclusion, having read King’s quote, that unless one is a reader, especially an avid one, he or she ought not try to write. Following on that logic, unless one has music or art lessons—especially “proper” ones—one ought not try to draw, paint, sculpt, or play piano. Really?
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Training in the arts is often helpful. It gives one exposure to the best that creatives have offered fellow human beings throughout our history. Such training often helps us along with instruction in techniques, interpretation, style, and grace.
But sometimes such training, though well-intentioned, has had the effect of stifling or even truncating one’s gifts. Not all the time for sure, but too often.
The creative instinct is by nature a wild, exuberant, and wonderful thing. It tends to defy a leash and, indeed, often withers by such an attachment. It was because he thought about the universe as a child, rather than as a scientist, that Albert Einstein formulated his theories of relativity (General and Special).
What to do then? Simple. Write! Draw! Play! Compose! Sculpt! Act! Do so with wild abandon. There’s little you cannot do unless someone tells you that you can’t. That’s not the purpose of this blog. My biggest regrets have come by believing I couldn’t do something significant because someone older and “wiser” told me I couldn’t.
And as for training? Think it through and do so carefully. If it enhances the gifts you’ve been given, then try it out. If not, continue creating and let the snowflakes layer the ground where they will.
Most of all, enjoy the ride. There’s nothing quite like creating, inventing, and reimagining. It is, in fact, a divine partnership with the One who made you.
“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King)
When I first read this quote, I thought it a little harsh, candidly. But as I’ve chewed on it over the past year or so, I think it is a statement of reality.
I’m a voracious reader. If you’ve visited The Upside regularly, you know that. So I am not intimidated by Stephen King’s perspective on the importance of reading as preparation for effective writing. Why?
I am a musician. I play guitar and piano. In fact, I’ve been playing guitar since 1976. I acquired my chops by learning the songs and imitating the styles of my heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Phil Keaggy, etc. Imitation, in writing as in music and an array of other disciplines, is the way we learn and then cultivate our own voice, our own style. What we see modeled, we emulate.
So, is King’s observation fair?
I think it is. His excellent and hilarious book—from which the above quote is taken—On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, details his own development as a writer and the importance reading played in his own life, inspiring him to write. It is an insightful and easy read. Just the other night, I laughed myself to tears as I worked through about eighty pages. Stephen King is one of the most unpretentious writers one will ever meet.
Confession: Though I’ve read most of his book on writing, I’ve not yet read one of his novels. But I’m sure I will.
But why is reading important for an aspiring writer? Simply this. For one, you are exposed to information and perspective which you’d otherwise have not considered. But more to the point, reading is apprenticeship. An apprentice learns his or her craft, whatever it is, by sitting at the feet or standing beside a master or mistress of the same. We learn by what is modeled to us. To avoid reading is to diminish perspective and stunt growth in skill.
It is interesting to me that John Wesley once told the Methodist ministers under his leadership either to read or leave the ministry. Was he being harsh? Uppity? Not at all. He just knew that failure to read was to leave oneself vulnerable to the prison of a very narrow perspective: One’s own. Same with King.
Illiteracy is certainly a problem in our land. And, to be fair and charitable, reading does not come with ease or delight to all. But you must keep at it. We have at our disposal these days all sorts of vehicles that deliver us information—books, blogs, websites, audio and video files. Whatever you do, if you are a communicator with an audience, you must learn and process information, perspective, and style. There are no shortcuts.
So…if you’re not reading and learning and growing, begin now. You’ll be pleased with the results in your writing and in your life.
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” (Ray Bradbury)
Do yourself a favor and read Ray’s inimitable book on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing. You will find yourself ablaze in passion and wonder.
I had an interesting discussion with a friend some time ago. He is trained and makes his living in the biological sciences. We discussed a variety of topics related to his discipline—Charles Darwin, natural selection, evolution, Intelligent Design and the book of Genesis.
I told him that one of the things that bothers me—a pet peeve, to be honest—is the way in which people comment upon and dismiss out of hand concepts about which they know little or nothing. Most of the people I know who eschew anything remotely connected to Charles Darwin and evolution have probably never read On The Origin of Species. If you mentioned the word “beagle” to them in context of a discussion about Darwin, they’d think you were talking about a dog rather than a ship.
Disclaimer: I’ve never read On the Origin of Species, though I’d like to in order to hear Darwin on his own merits. And for my purposes here, I’m not even discussing my own personal beliefs about how the universe came to be.
What I’m after is giving people a fair hearing on every matter rather than going on hearsay. This leads to libel, slander and all sorts of misunderstanding. And it gives ignorance a platform it doesn’t deserve.
When I attended seminary years ago, one of the strengths of the program in which I was enrolled was its insistence on reading primary sources. In other words, we got our information from the horse’s mouth, rather than from those who kept—or thought they kept—the horses. For example, we didn’t read an analysis about Thomas Aquinas; we read Aquinas. You encounter trouble rapidly when you get your information second-, third-, or fourth-hand.
- How much do you know about Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon from a) their own writings, b) their public lives and service, c) their respective voting and executive records, and d) their tax returns? You get this from going to the source. And that source is their own lives, their tax returns, public records and writings, not necessarily mainstream media.
- Where, in the Scriptures, is the verse “God helps those who help themselves?”
- Was the Peter, Paul & Mary song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” written by Peter Yarrow, about drugs? (You will be surprised!)
These are some teasers. You can find your own. You must do your homework–you can’t outsmart the work. But whatever you do, have the integrity to get your information first-hand. From the principals themselves, not their defenders or critics.
That is, from the horse’s mouth.