C.S. Lewis’s Tips on Writing

You may have noticed I haven’t had a post in almost 2 months. It’s been a  particularly busy term. I’ve been revising my thesis on ‘C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,’ taking a class on Thomas Aquinas, and writing essays on Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve also been submitting my applications to graduate programs at St Andrews, Duke Divinity School, Oxford, and King’s College London, as well as serving as the University Catholic Chaplaincy’s Master of Ceremonies, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society’s Vice-President (and Reviews Editor for its journal), and one of the two primary docents for tours at the Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s house nearby.

I have several blog posts in draft form, including one on how we define Christian art, but sadly they’ll have to wait a bit longer. I’m going semi-off grid for the next couple weeks before term starts, as I have to finish my thesis, study for my Aquinas collections, read several books by Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, do background reading for the capstone God, Christ & Salvation paper, catch up on a year’s worth of New Testament Greek, finish my grad school applications, and write my first couple essays of term, all within the next 15 days or so.

In the meantime, to get myself (and any other writers out there) in the mood for putting words on paper, here are some tips on writing from our favorite Narnian author, C.S. Lewis:

To a young girl

CL3 766 (Joan Lancaster, 26 Jun 1956):

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.’

To a seventh-grader, in answer to a school assignment to ask a famous author about writing

CL3 1108-9 (Thomasine, 14 Dec 1959): ‘It is very hard to give any general advice about writing. Here’s my attempt.

(1) Turn off the Radio.

(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 shd. 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 needs 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 {1109} my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.

(7) Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.

(8) Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.’

To a woman

CL3 502-3 (Cynthia Donnelly, 14 Aug 1954): ‘I 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 all 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 {503} 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.’

*CL3 = The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. III, ed. Walter Hooper.

Happy New Year!

Benedictine Theatre Company: Seeking Peace (+ C.S. Lewis Matters)

I just realized I haven’t had a Benedictine theatre company post in four months, so here’s another. Before we get started, though, I’d like to point out my new friend Ryan’s blog, which I’ve added to the blogroll on the right. Ryan Pemberton is a new theology student at my college, from Seattle, and is also a great C.S. Lewis fan, and an apologist in his own right (with a book and everything!). He is blogging about his and his wife’s new life in Oxford at Ryan & Jen Go to England. (He also has an apologetics/devotional blog at hands&feet, which provided source material for the book. If you like it, leave him a comment saying you want a copy!) He’s an engaging writer, and you’ll read about his many Oxford- and Lewis-related adventures. The guy’s been here a little over a month, and he’s already had tea with Walter Hooper, briefly Lewis’s secretary and now literary adviser to his estate, multiple times, as well as visited the Kilns and taken in meetings of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. All that while diving into essays and New Testament Greek (which I returned to myself as of today, since I recently decided to take the optional Greek translation paper during my final exams – don’t ask me why). If you like his blog, leave him a comment

Also, if you’ve ever wanted to take a tour of the Kilns, but can’t afford the airfare – now you can! I just put up a photo tour of 68 pictures on Flickr. ETA: Had to temporarily place the Kilns photos behind a privacy barrier, to make changes. Sorry! I’ll edit this if/when I open them back up again. Re-ETA: Kilns photos available again! Seeing the real thing is still best, though, so if you’re going to be in England and want to come visit, you can either contact me (as I am a docent) or the Warden to book a tour. More information about touring the Kilns can be found here.

Oh, and final piece of news – I finished the first draft of my thesis last Monday! 63 pages and 21,046 words, a full 40% OVER my maximum word limit. Now to begin the cutting and revision process, so I can hand in a revised draft to my supervisor in 2.5 weeks. (Thankfully, I know at least a portion of the cuttings will go to serve as seed for another paper.)

Now back to Benedict:

Prologue – Day 3

And the Lord, seeking his laborer
in the multitude to whom He thus cries out,
says again,
“Who is the one who will have life,
and desires to see good days” (Ps. 33[34]:13)?
And if, hearing Him, you answer,
“I am the one,”
God says to you,
“If you will have true and everlasting life,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps. 33[34]:14-15).
And when you have done these things,
My eyes shall be upon you
and My ears open to your prayers;
and before you call upon Me,
I will say to you,
‘Behold, here I am'” (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9).

What can be sweeter to us, dear ones,
than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Behold, in His loving kindness
the Lord shows us the way of life.


What strikes me is the line: “keep your tongue from evil.” I think a Benedictine theatre company should be known for its integrity, love, and respect for others. One of the ways it should show this respect is in the avoidance of gossip. It is the responsibility of the leaders to set an example. We all know how gossip thrives backstage, often leading to hurt feelings and petty rivalries. One of the ways leaders of a Benedictine theatre company can help avoid the creation of such a negative atmosphere is by listening to the artists with whom they work.

An example from my own life: My first time as a young producer, my superior at the theatre company I was working with called me to pass on a complaint from some actors about an action taken by a member of the production staff. Since I knew and trusted these actors, I assumed things had happened the way they had said, though from my experience with the staff member, I figured the problematic action must have been unintentional.

So, I sent out an e-mail to the production team reminding them of the staff policy in question. I didn’t name names, but I did mention that I had been told there was a violation. Unfortunately, even with the somewhat vague wording of the e-mail, I had still left in enough detail to enable other staff members to identify the alleged violator. Another staff member, who had brought the first staff member on as part of his team, e-mailed me upset that I had basically made a public, though indirect, accusation against his team member, without consulting her to get her side of the story, which was very different.

Right there, I realised my big mistake. I hadn’t even thought to ask her, and I also (albeit unknowingly) made it very easy for other production team members to know who I was talking about, leading to deeply hurt feelings.

What I should have done was handle it privately, and get both sides of the story before I made any decision. (After talking to both sides, I’m still not sure what actually happened, but I suspect that we could have worked it out if I had led with better communication.) I also learned that taking care of one’s team is the most important part of being a producer. Not even advertising, budget, or ticket sales trump showing your people respect and love.

That’s what a Benedictine theatre company is all about. We’ll see later that St Benedict says that guests should be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. I think this courtesy and care extends not only to guests (e.g. patrons), but also to all the company members, visiting artists, support staff, and anyone else with whom the company interacts. And it begins by refusing to get caught up in backstage gossip, and by giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

“Keep your tongue from evil.” “Seek after peace and pursue it.” These are two of the mantras of a Benedictine theatre company.

Previous posts:

1) Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

2) Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

In Oxford!

I arrived in Oxford last week, and have been busy reviewing my Greek and reading my primary texts (i.e. the New Testament) and secondary texts (i.e. books on patristics and Biblical background, such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church – which I highly recommend for even non-academic types – and Rogerson and Davies’ The Old Testament World). I’ve also been working on setting up my bank account, getting a cell phone and bus pass, and generally getting sorted.

I realized that one of the reasons I haven’t been posting lately is because I’ve developed the personal expectation that each post should be lengthy and insightful, and posting is feeling more and more like a chore. Therefore, I’ve decided to do smaller posts, that may or may not be particularly in depth, but will hopefully come more often.

I’m living in the room at the Kilns in which C.S. Lewis collapsed and died, which means it holds a particular reverence for me, and I feel I need to treat it with respect. Thankfully, I’m relaxing into it (as I’m sure Lewis would want me to do), but it is a useful external discipline to have to clean my room and make my bed every other day, so that it looks tidy for the tours of the house that are giving to visiting groups on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays. (To learn more about touring the Kilns, click here.)

I’ve found a few good food-serving pubs, including the Mitre (in town) and the Six Bells (in Headington, the neighborhood that includes the Kilns). I’ve also made contact with the Jesuits at the Chaplaincy. They’ve signed me up for the Rite of Christian Initiation class that begins in November, and the newest chaplain, a young Jesuit named Father Simon, has agreed to meet me periodically for spiritual direction. I picked up a copy of the Divine Office at Blackwells Bookshop, and have found praying all seven of the Hours to be like refreshing oneself with clean and cool spring water, thick, rich bread, and hearty red meat several times a day, and at perfectly allotted portions. What’s best (though difficult for structure-loving me) is that, when a word or phrase speaks to you, you can stop and just meditate on it for a bit. (Incidentally, if any of you are interested in praying any of the Hours, I found an excellent website called Universalis. It takes you step-by-step through each day’s readings and prayers. It eliminates the confusion that comes from jumping around from section to section and using half a dozen ribbons in one’s breviary.)

I’m thinking of getting an iPhone, but in any case the phone I get will have a camera, so I’ll be able to upload pictures, perhaps directly from my phone. Let me know if there’s anything y’all would like me to post about, and I’ll try to do it. Thanks for everyone’s support during this next stage of my life!

ETA: Completely forgot the quote I read that prompted me to post. Gakked from the blog The Deacon’s Bench, who himself gakked it from The Anchoress:

“You know, the church is the one who dreams, the church is the one who constantly has the vision, the church is the one that’s constantly saying ‘Yes!’ to everything that life and love and sexuality and marriage and belief and freedom and human dignity—everything that that stands for, the church is giving one big resounding ‘Yes!’ The church founded the universities, the church was the patron of the arts, the scientists were all committed Catholics. And that’s what we have to recapture: the kind of exhilarating, freeing aspect. I mean, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who brought down the Berlin Wall. It was Karol Wojtyła. I didn’t make that up: Mikhail Gorbachev said that…I guess one of the things that frustrates me pastorally is that there’s this caricature of the church—of being this oppressive, patriarchal, medieval, out-of-touch naysayer—where the opposite is true.”
— Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in this profile in New York Magazine.

Winter at the Kilns

Kilns Warden Donna McDaniel has posted about activities at the Kilns over the past few winter months. Visiting scholars included Diana Pavlac Glyer (author of The Company They Keep, about the Inklings as a writing group, which won this past year’s Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies), theologian/academic/poet/musician/priest Malcolm Guite (whom I met at the Kilns seminar), and Michael Ward (author of the controversial new book Planet Narnia, soon to be a BBC documentary called The Narnia Code – whom I also met). Donna also talks about local families coming to play with their children in the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve during a beautiful winter’s snow. Donna and company were wonderful hostesses during the seminar, and I look forward to spending more time with her and the rest of the Kilns community in the next year.

Read Donna’s post here

The aptly-named first post

The First Week of Lent, 2009

Welcome and well met!

My name’s Cole, and I’m a blogger. I’m also an actor and arts administrator here in lovely Charm City, Baltimore, Maryland. I perform children’s theatre in schools, and am the office administrator for the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, a collection of approximately 65 theatres and film companies and about 250 theatre and film artists in central Maryland. As of October 2009, I will be an undergraduate at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, reading Theology for a second BA. I will also be a Junior Resident Fellow at the Kilns, Christian author C.S. Lewis’ former home, now maintained as a study centre by the C.S. Lewis Foundation. As a Scholar-in-Residence, I will be living there my first year.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an account of one American student’s time at Oxford and at the Kilns. When I was accepted as a student and Scholar-in-Residence, I searched the blogosphere to learn more about the day-to-day life of an Oxford student, and a Kilns resident. While I found a lot of good information on Oxford and C.S. Lewis, I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. So, for the benefit of future Oxford students and potential Kilns residents and visitors, I’d like to provide a glimpse into day-to-day life at Oxford and the Kilns.

My residency begins in September, and my course begins in October, so in the meantime I’m going to be posting weekly about my preparation and local acting career. One of my goals before I start is to learn Biblical Greek. I was accepted as a Senior Status undergraduate because I had already earned a good undergraduate degree (BFA in Theatre & Psychology from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated 2006). Therefore, I’m skipping the first year of the 3-year Theology degree, along with Preliminary Examinations. The first year is generally when Theology students learn either Greek or Hebrew, so I have no scheduled Greek coursework before Finals in Trinity 2011. (The Oxford academic year is divided into three 8-week terms – Michaelmas, October to Christmas; Hilary, Christmas to Easter; and Trinity, Easter to June – with lengthy holiday vacations in between.) However, I have to be able to translate New Testament passages into Greek for Finals, so I need to learn it before then, and preferably before I start. I’ve got my copy of Jeremy Duff’s Elements of New Testament Greek, and my Greek New Testament, and 7 months to go. Oh, and my reading plan includes a theology book a week, plus re-reading the Bible. So far I’ve read David Brown’s Invitation to Theology, and re-read the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Woohoo!

Oh, and on a side note, I recorded my commercial voiceover demo today. For the past two years, I’ve made my living primarily as a performing artist, so even though I’m moving to England in the autumn, I need to keep working on my business!

If you’ve gotten this far (and even if you’ve skipped to the last paragraph), thank you for reading! I love comments, ideas, and suggestions. If you have any questions, post in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to answer them. I plan to get a blogroll of online resources on C.S. Lewis, Theology and the Arts (my academic area of interest), Oxford, acting, the Inklings, theology, and other relevant subjects. So, if you have any suggestions for links, or want me to link to your blog or website, just ask in comments, and I’ll evaluate your suggestion.

Thanks again, and Dominus Vobiscum!