Fed up with Life and Ready to Write

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

“Ink is the great cure of all human ills.” So wrote a young but perceptive C.S. Lewis to a childhood friend. Lewis was only 17 years old when he gave this council, but he seems to have proved wise beyond his years. Let me give you the full comment in context:

Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing. Ink is the great cure for all human ills.

That’s a significant statement about writing.

Now, before those of us who are self-identified as writers feel congratulatory about this, or those who don’t think of themselves as writers despair, I think it’d be worth saying that “all human ills” rings of overstatement, does it not? But don’t let that disclaimer give you permission to push aside this profound insight from a young C.S. Lewis about the discipline of writing. Writing is a good cure for a great many ailments, both in ourselves and in others.

Writing is perhaps one of the quintessential ways of making sweet drinks from life’s sour fruit. Lewis had a contemporary named Robert Frost, who died in the same year as Lewis, 1963. This is what he said:

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a love-sickness.

The best writing isn’t forged in ivory towers or quarantined to cushy writers’ respites. The best is inspired in the midst of this world’s mess. It’s stirred by the sin in ourselves and in others. It’s catalyzed by the pain of life in this age. Writing is ready-made for those of us with some great angst. It’s appropriate for the anxious and for the angry. Writing is for the lonely and for the depressed, and for the misunderstood. It’s for the fearful and for the frustrated, for the lowly in spirit and for those who mourn.

Everyone a Writer

So whether you think of yourself as a writer or not — and I think you should think of yourself as a writer, even if it’s just emails and social media — I want to challenge you, and I think C.S. Lewis would join me in this, to not just be a writer, but to be two writers. I’m commending a kind of literary Christology — two writers in one person.

Private Writing

The first writer flows from the counsel we just heard from C.S. Lewis: make writing part of the antidote for whatever it is that is ailing you. When you’re fed up with life, write. There’s a healing power in getting your passions onto the page. Ink indeed can be a cure for many human ills. This is the call to the private writer. But let me also suggest that you be a second kind of writer: the public writer. One writes for the self, the other writes for others. One expresses himself in some secret journal just for himself, not for others, and it’s better off that nobody pokes their nose in it. But the other embodies another way in which the fed up soul can cure human ills — not just our own, but those of others. Public writing is its own distinct animal.

Lewis’s council for the private writer is plain enough. Just write. Break all the rules. Get it out there. The blank page is your canvas. The letters are your ink. When you’re anxious, sad, lonely, or depressed, express yourself. Write your way through life’s worst days and best. Get your hidden thoughts into the light on the page. Spread out the embers of your anger and let them cool in the air of hope. And if you have no hope of your own to bring to them, at least turn them Godward in some prayer or a psalm of lament and let the very act of writing them to God be the distant glow at the end of the tunnel.

Further advice from Lewis for private writing would be, “Do a lot of it and keep doing it.” Or as the 17-year-old Lewis said in another letter to a friend, “What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write at our age, so long as we continually write as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or verse with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.” So I’d say to the private writer in you, write. And keep on writing. Capture life’s greatest joys to keep them fresh, and medicate life’s harshest pains by turning them into words.

Public Writing

But it’s quite another thing to give counsel to the public writer. Some clear and sharp distinctions must be made. For Lewis, and I think for every Christian, what passes as good public writing is fundamentally different from much of what is permissible and desirable in private writing. Writing for others at its best is not an exploration of our own selves, nor a digging deeper inside of us. It’s not an exposing of our own souls or a peeling away of our onion. Rather, it is catching some great glimpse of objective reality outside ourselves and laboring to enable our readers to enjoy this reality with us.

Here’s how Lewis puts it:

The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him. He is a man who says, “Look at that!” and points. The more I follow the pointing of his finger, the less I can possibly see of him. To see things as the poet sees them, I must share his consciousness and not attend to it. I must look where he looks and not turn round to face him. I must make of him, not a spectacle, but a pair of spectacles.

This is at the heart of good writing, not burrowing deep inside ourselves, our subjective psyche and basking in ego-stroking self-disclosure, but straining to open the reader’s eyes and observe wonders in God’s created world and do the hard work to put on display some objective reality outside of us. Lewis touches on this again in a little essay called Christianity and Literature. He says:

A writer should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely is trying to embody in terms of his own art, some reflection of eternal beauty and wisdom.

Creative writing may be a misnomer for the Christian. We are not truly creators. We are imitators of our Creator. We draw upon what he has already created, and we put some scraps together in our little poems and stories and arguments for the true and beautiful and good. All good writing is derivative. So in public writing, don’t just write to give vent to your own soul, but to apply the balm to others. Let your personal writing, let your personal angst get your car on the track, but run your laps with love and the desire to serve others. Let your communicating clearly and winsomely to the reader power your exertion of energy in public writing.

This means that when writing for others, we won’t let our focus gravitate toward ourselves and our emotions, but on the great things of the universe outside of us. We won’t fixate on the way we want to say it but on how we can make it readable. We won’t focus on serving ourselves and our existential desire to be read, but we set our sights on serving others. The good public writer labors to make his writing readable and simple and clear. There’s a great humility that stands behind such writing that we would be free from the need to draw attention to ourselves and eager to point to God in his world and humanity and sin and Jesus and salvation, and the dynamics of life and faith, and to make it clear.

The Word That Cures All Ills

Here’s Lewis again:

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right, the readers most certainly will go into it.

Such an insight I think throws open the door to what made Lewis such a good writer and so relevant for us in the 21st century, whether it’s his mingling of short and long sentences, or his attention to cadence and rhythm and how his writing sounded when read aloud, or his relentless use of illustration, or his own manifest interest on every subject and his ability to be contagious about whatever he was writing on. Which brings us back around to Lewis’s point about ink being the great cure of all human ills. All human ills?

I think Lewis might agree that’s an overstatement, but he might also respond by saying that it depends on how flexible one is willing to be with the image of ink on the page. It is after all a Word who is in fact the great cure of all human ills. The Word who didn’t stay in the writer’s head but is eternally spoken and was subjected to criticisms and pains of taking shape in our world. God wrote his Word on the page of our story and the spilling of his ink became the great well that is the cure for all ills and the writing of all wrongs. If God, when fed up with sin and ready to apply the remedy, did so with a Word, then perhaps you and I, whether we identify as writers or not, should give some serious thought and attention to what ills we may also cure with our words.