The Art of Restraint | Words of Wednesday

The myth says all the author wants it to say and (equally important) it doesn’t say anything else. –C.S. Lewis, The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers


From C.S. Lewis’s essay “George Orwell” in The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers. 

I’m deeply enjoying listening to some of Lewis’s thoughts on writing (which inevitably means, to some extent, C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on fantasy/fairy tales) — many (most?) reprinted (and reread) from one of my favorite collections of his work, Of This and Other Worlds

This particular essay is, by no means, the highlight of the collection (which includes many of Lewis’s various defenses of children’s literature, fairy tales, and fantasy, along with such treasures as Lewis’s glorious review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, his reflection on “The Novels of Charles Williams,” and his “On Stories” — which, along with Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” and Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,”1 remains essential reading for anyone who believes that stories somehow matter), but, like so much of Lewis’s work, it is sane and insightful — thrilling with the magic of recognition: oh yes, exactly!

Lewis is ever capable, it seems, in putting the most complex of thoughts into the most straightforward of words. 

Reading the last of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books (a series I’ve been engaged in since the fall), I can’t help finding the quote above particularly pertinent. 

Knowing what to include, and what not to include, seems one of the hardest skills to get right as a writer. The Dark Tower series is — ironically — both an example of a writer excelling in this regard (The Gunslinger getting it so, so right) and utterly failing (Wolves of the Calla getting it so, so wrong).

And there is a world of difference between getting it right, and getting it wrong. 

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Footnotes:

 1. A chapter in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy.

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A Year in Books (2018)

Looking back over my reading this past year, I have to say I’m pretty pleased with the results. Over 15,000 pages read, across 45 books (which is 3 more books, and 1,500 more pages, than in 2017). But it’s not just the numbers I’m pleased about — it’s the books themselves.

I read some good books this year, from excellent contemporary fiction (which is not my usual fare) to inspiring memoirs — with quite a few joy-rides thrown in. With only a few exceptions, my reading was enjoyable and thought-provoking (sometimes one or the other, but often both at once) — ranging in topic from bird-watching (A Guide to the Birds of East Africa) to writing (Word by Word) to technology (You are Not a Gadget) to depression (Noonday Demon). If I was forced to group this year’s reading by category,  however, the prevailing theme would overwhelmingly be faith. Whether rooted in contemplative tradition (Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh), Christian heritage (Anne Lamott, Emily P. Freeman, Henri Nouwen, Jan Karon, and Sigrid Undset), or elsewhere (Malala Yousafzai, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Elif Shafakmore), much of my reading this year was concerned — directly or indirectly — with the question of how one is to know and follow God. Of where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found. Those that resonated the most strongly invited the reader to encounter the divine in the ordinary, holy moments of their lives — here, in this present moment, one inch above the ground.

I’m also proud that, of 45 books read, 20 were written by women. While this is not quite 50%, it’s closer than it could be (closer than it’s often been in the past). Flipping this ratio is one of my goals for 2019 (which is boding fairly well, given that, of the seven books I’ve either completed or begun since January 1st, six were written by women).

Best “Just Fun” Book

Shockingly, despite having read a Rainbow Rowell this year, it’s not making it on the list. Attachments was light and fun — the perfect read to buffer transition and dampen jet-lag — but it was a more forgettable version of the normal Rowell magic, and did not, ultimately, leave much of an impression.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles)The winner, therefore, is the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. By no means life-changing, this young adult series was just so unapologetically fun (with the noticeable exception of the second book of the series, Scarlet, which left something to be desired). I inhaled these, staying up reading late into the night, despite my work schedule and teaching commitments — something no book had made me do in a long, long time.

Runner up: It seems only fair to give this to another series which also kept me reading late into the night — this time the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. Hardly faultless, it was, nonetheless, gripping — and for the days it took me to complete the series, I could barely put the books down. (Unfortunately, unlike the Lunar Chronicles, which started and ended on a high note, Red Rising took the more expected trajectory of starting strong and weakening over the course of the series.)

Best Audiobook

The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhat Hanh’s The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of MinfulnessIt would be hard to overstate the impact this audio-recording had on me. It was enlightening in the deepest sense of the word — a door swinging open onto life, and life abundant. Though I’ve listened to some Thich Nhat Hanh in the past, this (in combination with a first-hand account of his lived reality, as told by Sister Chan Kong at the end of Hanh’s novel The Novice) clicked for me in a new way, and I suddenly get what all the fuss is about.

Runners up: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — which was beautiful, powerful, life-affirming, and among the best nonfiction reads of the year — and Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malalawhich was educational and inspiring.

Best Fiction

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)I read several amazing novels this year, but I have to give this honor to Stephen King’s The GunslingerNot a fan of horror, the only King I’d read before this year was his guide to the craft, On Writing. I’ve had several friends recommend his fantasy, however, so I finally took the plunge, shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz this fall. I’ve read the first four books of The Dark Tower series thus far (inhaling them, one after the other), and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed them all. It is the first one, however (which many cite as the most difficult of the series to enjoy), that I absolutely loved. It is terse and sparse (much like the man, and landscape, it describes), and I was blown away with how much King does with how little. A piece of art.

Runners up: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of the most brilliant executions of tone I have ever encountered), Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (stylistically masterful and not quite like anything else I’ve read), Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (strange and haunting, even if somewhat incomplete in narrative), and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (essentially a thousand or so pages of character study — yet every word delightful).

Best Non-fiction

Texts of Terror by Phyllis TriblePhyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativesThis is a fairly technical piece of biblical scholarship, yet it would still top my list of books I’d recommend from this past year. Even beyond the powerful treatment of its content (which grapples with violence against women in the pages of the Old Testament), I loved this book for how it engaged with scripture. For the care and respect it gave the living text — the attention it paid to the mechanics of syntax and structure. Trible is a scholar who understands that respecting a text means questioning it, wrestling with it, demanding answers of it — and then trusting it to speak for itself.

Runner up: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. A unique and powerful exploration of language, exile, and identity. And Sigrid Undset’s Stages on the RoadA fairly uneven collection of essays, yet it has stayed with me in the subsequent weeks and months.

Most Read Author

Stephen King with the first four books of his Dark Tower series and Marrisa Meyer with her Lunar Chronicles (though, in pages read, Stephen King wins out by far).

Runners up: Pierce Brown with his Red Rising trilogy and Jan Karon with the first three books of her Mitford series.

Worst Read

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely DiscipleThough I prefer avoiding this category whenever possible, I’m afraid Roose’s book earned it. While the premise (a Brown University student spending a semester undercover at Liberty University) might be intriguing, Roose (or perhaps Liberty) does no justice to the complexities of faith or culture that such an exchange should elucidate. There are many people I deeply respect who recommend this book, but I personally found it maddening and not enlightening. And couldn’t help feeling that Roose (and perhaps Liberty) had utterly missed the point.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here or follow me on Goodreads for an up-to-date record of my reading, rants, and reviews.

Okay, your turn: What were the best books you read in 2018? What did you love about them? Any reading goals for 2019? 

On Writing With Fear

I first put stories to paper the year I learned to write in English.  Travelling across America in the back of a very blue, very bumpy van, I discovered that my native tongue possessed its own alphabet, its own magic of symbols and sound.

I was eight, going on nine, and was considered fairly bright for my age.  Despite this fact, the only words I could spell in English were the three we had learned in language class, tracing the strange letters (so similar to our French familiars, yet used in all the wrong ways) at the direction of our highly accented teacher: apple, ice-cream, aeroplane.

But that year in the van, hovering between countries, schools, and languages, I learned that the language I’d been born speaking (though never used except at home) could do more than put disparate objects to paper (apple, ice-cream, aeroplane) — it could create sentences, and sentences could create paragraphs, and paragraphs worlds.  I lost myself in books that had hitherto been closed to me (or only accessible through the translation of my parents), and decided that if someone else could trap magic on the page, then surely so could I.

And so I began to write.  I wrote the stories you’d expect a nine-year-old child to write (stories about talking animals, with awkwardly drawn horses in the margins); I wrote the stories I knew to be true — stories unique, perhaps, to my position as a blonde American, with an Arabic middle name, growing up in the Middle East (stories about unlikely friendships unhindered by barriers of skin-tone or culture or religion or language); and I wrote the stories that hovered on the furthest reaches of my imagination (stories that somehow turned, inevitably, into passionate love-tales, despite my disinterest in romance as a general rule).

I still have these stories locked away somewhere — notebook pages held together by haphazard stapling or worn-out paperclips, the ink smudged or fading, the paper beginning to yellow.

Looking back on these first forays into the world of writing, I suppose what strikes me the most is the utter absence of fear.  I could barely spell my name in this new and unwieldy alphabet (and if you had asked me what a comma was, I doubt I would even have recognized the word), yet I had no compunction about letting my imagination run far ahead of my knowledge.  Language existed as a door to release all that was within me — and it was a tool to be used, not a master to obey.

I approached writing with all the confidence of a child who knew herself to be, not only loved, but lovable, and not only valued, but valuable.  It never entered my head to doubt the worth of my imaginings, and though my mother tried to reign me in with exhortations to edit and spell-check, I mostly ignored her advice in favor of unhindered creativity.

So when Stephen King says in his biography/guide, On Writing, that fear is at the heart of all bad writing, I suppose I can testify to its reverse: all good writing must have fearlessness somewhere at its root.

Because writing, like everything in life, requires room to fail.  Putting your thoughts on paper — exposing the deep darkness (and deeper light) of your own heart, and brain, and soul — requires excruciating vulnerability.  It is always a risk, and risk is difficult when one is afraid.  For fear demands that we protect ourselves.  That we put up walls and refuse to engage, for we can’t fail (according to fear) if we refuse to try.

But the other thing we can never do is learn.  We can never plumb the depths of our own hearts, and brains, and souls, and discover what there is within us.  What burns to be said, and how best to say it.

The road to great writing begins with faith.  With the enthusiasm of a child who knows that what is in her to be said is beautiful and valuable — and all the rest of it, the getting it down on paper with commas and spell-check, is just detail.  Detail that will come over time, through effort and risk.  And yes, it will come through failing.  But it is worth the fight, because what you have to say can be said by you alone.

It’s a sacred trust, so hide it not.