Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Writer's Nugget from C.S. Lewis

I'm not talking about something he wrote, say some fiction or non-fiction, that was especially good intrinsically for writing's sake. No, in a lecture he made a statement that is of considerable worth for writers. Here it is.

What are the key-words of modern criticism? Creative, with its opposite derivative; spontaneity, with its opposite convention; freedom, contrasted with rules. Great authors are innovators, pioneers, explorers; bad authors bunch in schools and follow models. Or again, great authors are always 'breaking fetters' and 'bursting bonds'. They have personality, they 'are themselves'.

This comes from the lecture titled "Christianity and Literature", which was read to a religious society in Oxford. It was originally published in Rehabilitations and Other Essays (Oxford 1939). I have it in a book titled The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, which is a recent reprinting of some collected lectures and articles by Lewis published in separate volumes.

I find Lewis' words to be particularly insightful, instructing, and inspiring for an aspiring author, one who is planning to write secular works with a Christian worldview underpinning them. It is not convention that marks the great author, but spontaneity; not works patterned after someone else's but creativity, perhaps also or better stated as originality. Great authors should break fetters and burst bonds.

This is something I must look at in my own writings. Am I bursting bonds, breaking fetters? Seeking not to bunch in a school but rather be an innovator, a pioneer, an explorer? I sort of think so, because I haven't really sought to pattern my work after anyone, and, perhaps, my lack of learning in the great literature that preceded me means I don't know a whole lot about those who I might pattern after.

True, as much as I love Robert Frost a lot of my poetry sounds Frostian. On-line critics have said as much, always in a good way. As to the mechanics of my prose, so far no one has said "You sound like ———." The ideas I have for novels don't seem to easily fall into genres. The Alfred Cottage Mysteries are almost cozy mysteries--except they won't always involve a murder, and Alfred, while an amateur detective, will be solving crimes of years past, not of the present.
Documenting America is neither history nor politics, but rather a mix, and I think unlike anything I've seen before. Will it sell? We'll soon see.

At writers conferences and on writer/agent blogs I keep seeing advice such as: follow the genre rules. Lewis would say "Innovate. Break the fetters of genre. Be spontaneous."

I'm going to be thinking long and hard about this advice from Lewis. Well, he wasn't purposefully giving advice for writers. He was defining what he thought were the characteristics of great writers. I think I'll have more to say about this over the coming days.


Poppy White-Herrin said...

A nugget indeed. Something for me to chew on today, and every day. Thanks for sharing that.

David A. Todd said...

Thanks, Poppy.