The Wisdom of C.S. Lewis

Real joy seems to me almost as unlike security or prosperity as it is unlike agony. It jumps under ones ribs and tickles down ones back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o nights. It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep.

C.S. Lewis (letter to Mrs. Ellis)

Every once in a while the stars align and I get a freelance assignment on a topic I’m genuinely interested in. Last week I got to do some research on C.S. Lewis and in the process stumbled on some fabulous quotes about writing (and some about life, like the one above).

One of my favorite discoveries was a letter Lewis wrote to a young fan named Joan Lancaster in 1956 (you can read his whole reply here). In answer to a grammatical question, he tells her:

‘Good English’ is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another.

…which is such a delightful turn of phrase, and also a very excellent point. Someone who wrote like Charles Dickens in today’s world would sound, to most, antiquated and old-fashioned. Of course, that also makes the grammar distinctions between “proper” and “conversational” English feel slightly arbitrary, but that’s a debate for another time.

Later in that same letter, Lewis gives Joan five pieces of writing advice:

  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.

…which is very similar advice to that I’ve heard given by Kurt Vonnegut, interesting to me because I would regard Lewis and Vonnegut as being quite far apart in terms of style though they apparently approached their craft in a similar way.

I also stumbled across an interview conducted May 7, 1963 by Sherwood Eliot Wirt entitled “The Final Interview of C.S. Lewis.” Most of it concerns Christianity and theology, but there are a couple interesting passages related to writing. When asked what he would tell an aspiring Christian writer, Lewis responds:

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.

Later he’s asked about his light and often witty tone when discussing Christianity, and the interviewer asks him if spiritual writers should try to be funnier. His response:

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.

…which is one of the reasons I love Lewis so much even though my own beliefs fall closer to atheism than Christianity. There’s never a sense that his way is the only way. He’s relaying truth as he sees it instead of trying to be right.

To finish off, a couple of my other favorites. From Mere Christianity:

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.

And, finally, from the wonderfully-named essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare” out of his 1939 collection Rehabilitations:

For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but it’s condition.

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