Top Ten Ways to Do Better on Exams

sharp-pencilI am at that point in the semester when I am getting my exams ready for students to write. I am always unsatisfied with exams–and many of the ways that we evaluate students. In first-year religious studies overview courses, though, exams and papers work on multiple levels. Especially, they keep students focussed on the material throughout the semester, they help shape study skills students will need throughout their school life, and (in my exams) they give me multiple ways to assess students, and a number ways to help address student life issues that emerge, like sickness, the death of a loved one, a bad break up, an undiagnosed learning disability, or critical writing problems.

What exams and papers don’t always do is give space to the benefits of cultural diversity, match the great breadth of things a student needs after university, or make up for the typically terrible education they have had for the last 5-15 years. When students get to higher levels, I adjust papers and exams to do other things, but I  haven’t found a better way to run a first-year intro course.

Still, exams and papers do something. As I was thinking about how to get my students ready, I found this old file from the first time I taught first year students. It was also the moment I discovered for the first time how radical a student’s growth path is between September of year 1 and December of year 2.

Generalized, the list isn’t bad if you are preparing for exam writing. Here are my top ten ways to do better on exams–besides becoming an expert on the material, which is the long-term goal. What tips would you add?

  1. Always answer the Multiple Choice Questions–a bad guess is better than no guess at all, unless the exam penalizes. Doing some research into how “process of elimination” words would help reduce chances from 1:4 or 1:5 down to 1:3 or even 1:2. There is almost always a choice or two that is certainly wrong. By being clever you can increase your 20% chance to as high as a 50% chance.
  2. Give the essays a try. A blank answer is 0%, but at least sharing an uneducated opinion may get you 25%–still an F, but it will contribute to your overall mark. And if you accidentally add some facts in there, you may even get a D-. When you are writing, and those accidental facts flow, you may form an idea about the questions, and pretty soon you have a B-, which is a pretty decent mark for someone clearly unprepared. And writing only 4 sentences on an “up to one page” essay shows that there is room to grow, so fill the page with your intelligence.
  3. Make it up if you don’t know. While I might catch you in the act of filling in blank space with inferior knowledge, it is amazing how often a well-written response will be appreciated by a professor going through a stack of papers (or a boss going through a stack of reports). While I might call out your BS, as long as you don’t risk too much, you can shape what you know about the world into a pretty good essay more often than not.
  4. Do your best essays first. Often students will do poorly on the multiple choice, but nail the essays. Exams don’t always test the breadth of a person’s abilities, so you should highlight where you are strong. By doing your best essays first, you may find that a good essay will “leak” over into the marking of the other essays. Some of that is psychological–it can never hurt to make a good impression on a professor. But some of that is a discovery that takes place in playing to your strengths and potential overlap between the essay areas.
  5. Use outlines/telescopic style or visuals in essays. I know, I know, we all know how much fun it is to grade 168 first year essays written in gigantic paragraphs with no spaces. But there comes a time when a visually crafted essay can simply communicate more to your audience (which is always your professor: me, the guy with the red pen!). Honestly, it is a relief to see an essay that is shaped well, and professors will find their eye wants to fall on the good points in a visually clever response.
  6. Show critical thinking. A well-thought out critique is encouraging for a prof to read, and shows the student is engaging with the material and growing as a student in university. So put your mind and heart into the essay. Most professors in general science and humanities are thrilled when students show competency–even if it isn’t as precise as we might like.
  7. Use the textbook or resource materials. The top 10% of essays in any class will be by students who have read and integrated the textbook and supplementary material. How do I know? It isn’t that students will quote–though some will have memorized snatches of text that can work as signposts of learning to a professor. But I really know that a student is engaged because they accidentally put things in their answers that the text said, but I did not. This shows student investment outside the classroom, which I like to reward.
  8. Create for yourself a “Cheat Sheet. Often professors will do this for you with the headings, graphs, charts, lists, handouts, and sample exam questions they leak out throughout the semester. Take the time to gather those items and the course’s key points and distil them into a single double-sided sheet that you carry around with yourself for a few days. It is amazing how much downtime you might have to browse the sheet and make it even better. This is sort of like the “flash card” move that works in language study, maths, and some sciences.
  9. Learn how to take notes. Man, students are bad at this! There are resources throughout the web to help people learn how to do this very key indicator of university success. You may even find your local college or university has seminars throughout the year on note-taking.  Knowing what to record and how to use that record later is key to university success.
  10. Take an interest in the material. Peek around the web. Visit a place referenced in the class–in my case a church or mosque or synagogue. Read some of the links your professor put online. Watch a Simpson’s episode on the topic–there is likely more than one, whether your topic is conservation, multiculturalism, heaven, economics, or schoolyard bullying. Whatever works to hook you into the material–it doesn’t matter. But engage with the material in ways that make it personal, and you will excel.

Good luck!

red yellow green apple

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A Pilgrim in Narnia … in Italian (Friday Feature)

I had a gentleman from Italy contact me to see if he could translate a blog post I did back in the Spring, when this sort of thing was still kind of a joke. The original blog was, “David Foster Wallace’s Parody of Donald Trump’s Presidential Run.” In the gargantuan and brilliant Infinite Jest, by drawing the trendline of American culture forward David Foster Wallace predicted selfies, the smartphone revolution, and Netflix. He also predicted a culture in identity crisis. In sheer jest I threw this post together, clearly not aware of all the trendlines of American culture myself. A blogger in Italy has translated the post for his own blog. To that huge cohort of Italian readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia, enjoy “La Parodia di David Foster Wallace sulla corsa presidenziale di Donald Trump — Traduzionne” at PaperLifeBlog.




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“New Every Morning” by Jessica Shaver Renshaw, a Review

I am at the point in my PhD on C.S. Lewis where everything is narrowing to a point. I have a number of canonical lists pinned up on a bulletin board next to my desk. These are lists of SF, fantasy, classical, and theological books that I think are essential to my long-term work. It also includes a list of the Discworld novels, which I’m trying to read in order. As I come to the point of spending most of my time writing, my TBR list is dominated by the works that are necessary for my project now. I’m checking off far fewer of these foundational books in these past few months.

As my reading comes to a point, I am very selective about even my bedside reading. When I am given a book by a well-meaning person, usually I put it away and it is never seen again. I appreciate the gesture, but I just don’t have the luxuries I used to have to be flirtatious with books. Besides what friends and colleagues what to hand me, I am offered a few dozen books every year by publishers. I have to be selective.

Still, because of some of the connections I have with people, or my interest in the material, I queue in some of the books that are given to me. One of those was Jessica Renshaw’s New Every Morning. Jessica is a west-coast writer whom I’ve met in the blogging world. I have been working long hours and I needed a book that I could pick up that was outside my critical field. New Every Morning is a thin volume with an inviting cover, so I picked it up the other night and finished it the next.

I hesitate to say anything critical as it is so far out of my wheelhouse. New Every Morning is well within that genre of books that Jodi Piccoult or whoever wrote Still Alice produces, though I know so little of either to make good comparisons. It is entirely realistic, rooted in a critical problem of our day. The character struggles are the ever too real struggles of daily life in a world that seems itself to be coming to a point, where there are no longer enough margins for error or enough room to catch a full breath.

new-every-morning-jessica-shaver-renshawThis character struggle can happen in fantastic or realistic fiction, but New Every Morning is set very solidly in a California of the last decade. And while there are no impossible worlds or speculative realities, Renshaw takes urbanites to one of the most foreign and almost legendary spaces possible on American soil: a great Redwood forest where the trees grow slowly, where roots dive deep into old, rich soil, and where modern life melts back into the wild. Even without the structure of a fantastic world, Renshaw is able to use America’s under-utilized backyard to provide that escape into a secondary world that provides a recovery in our primary world.

New Every Morning, as the title might hint, is also a work of Christian fiction. I find myself reading a book of modern literary Christian fiction–and no doubt I’m one of the few males who have read it, though that sort of thing has never bothered me–as I work on speculative fiction scholarship. Fortunately, there are no Amish lovers pining in that strange evangelical dream of simpler days and simpler love stories. There are Quakers, though–but they are an entirely different thing.

Rather than alienating, I found the experience of knowing almost nothing about the literature I was reading somewhat liberating. The prose was well constructed, and without the highly sophisticated construct of a speculative universe I was able to get to the text in a much more immediate way. I was able to enjoy the textures of a world I do not know very well, and yet there were enough clues embedded in the text to draw me in, like a Narnian hint, a Japanese link, and a connection to Prince Edward Island.

I know I can’t say anything truly critical about the book, but it was for me a refreshing read. It is a very quick read, and my volume was devoured in a couple of nights. Because of the intensity of some of the matter, I think it could stand to be a bit longer, moving more slowly through the impossible situation the protagonist finds herself in. But it is hardly an insult to say that a book should be bigger.

AmishnessitySo, my thanks to Jessica for this read. You might want to look into her writing if this is your kind of book, or if you are one of the thousands of American Christians who have that longing to write but have not yet found a voice. I haven’t reviewed a lot of contemporary Christian fiction on this blog ( see here for a good one), but there has to be something better than the wall of come-hither Amish women that meet us when we walk in a Christian bookstore.

Then again, I’ve already said I can’t afford to be flirtatious in my book choice.

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The Shocking, Horrifying, You-Can’t-Believe-It! Reason This Blogger Isn’t Taking A Break

Last week I wrote a rather personal post about how I was drowning in work. As converging rivers can crush stone, my worlds of work and study have crashed in upon my already eroded personal strength. Even after taking steps to get things under control, it will be months before I am caught up.

Among the many public and private shows of support which have energized me this week, a  question came up in different forms. If I’m so busy, why am I still blogging? Surely with all the responsibilities pressing in on me, my blogging network would excuse me for taking a step back. Why not take advantage of this pressing season to focus on other things?

Hand writing on old parchment / paper using quill pen

A couple of quick responses came to mind, though I didn’t really give voice to them at the time. I was tempted to point out that my blogging has not been particularly strong this year. It has pushed the boundaries of my core areas and paid no attention whatsoever to the building of my blogging network. And although I just passed 100,000 hits for 2016 the other day, it has only been a moderate growth year for me.

And although there were doubtless strong moments, I think, my writing was not particularly excellent this year. I recycled a lot of material and published all my back-up posts that I had in the hopper. I normally have a half-dozen posts in various stages of readiness; as of last week, I’ve got nothing left but these words on this screen today.

Still, these responses are really only ways of avoiding the question. If I’m stretched thin anyway, why not step back a bit?

writing-scriptWell, there’s the point that in my goal to build a network to test material, expand my skill base, and ultimately launch products (books and research, and, of course, a hip hop album), my plan relies on Google’s algorithm. Google metrics place a high value on consistency. I took a week off in the spring and had an immediate drop in readership of about a third. It took about four months to recover that level of traffic again. In my long-game goals, I want to keep readership up.

Honestly, though, that’s still another way of avoiding the question and hardly the main thing for me. When faced with the honesty that 5:00 in the morning brings on a blustery morning where I finally get up because I got tired of dreaming in powerpoint slides of economic data, none of these complaints really addresses the core question of those who have been so supportive.

typewriter-writing-the-endWhy not take a blogging break?

So here’s the truth of it: I like to blog.

I know, not a very clickbaitable answer, is it? The Shocking, Horrifying, You-Can’t-Believe-It! Reason This Blogger Isn’t Taking A Break is that I like to do it.

But, for all the bots that had the poor miscalculation of linking my blog this week with a picture of a human who is far more attractive than me—and for regular readers and those in my network that have been supportive—let me break down that reason a little bit. Here are the top 4 reasons I find blogging fulfilling.

  1. typewriterBlogging Allows Me to Explore Writing Styles

One of the reasons I love blogging is that I get to play within its versatile forms. Unlike writing for books, maganizes, and journals–all of which I do–the blog form is never narrowly defined. On Thursday I’ll produce a post that is a popular-level version of literary criticism. Next week I’m doing a micro-review and something out of my Daily Planet alter ego job. December will likely have some reflections on my blogging year, some advent thoughts, more posts out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters, and some thoughts from the chapter I’m writing. Each of these have a different kind of feel to them. Blogging allows me to explore my writing voice, testing the limits of

I know not everyone loves the genre, but blogging allows me to explore my writing voice, testing the limits of humour, political commentary, cultural criticism, literary commentary, and creative prose.

  1. typewriter-writingBlogging is Autoethnographic

This $5 word might be new to some, but “autoethnography” is a research approach that uses one’s own life as part of the “data set” of the research. In my PhD research I am studying C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology. As I do my analysis of Lewis’ work, I am also testing the material on my own life, setting the ideas in context of a real searcher who has to live with the implications of the academic discoveries. The personal triangulation gives a sense or urgency and accountability to my work.

At its best, blogging has always been autoethnographic in this very same way. The blogs I follow are by writers who weave their personal life into their topic, so that philosophy, social theory, theology, literary criticism, and history are front-line conversations for the writers I follow. In the blogging world, what we write about matters to us, and that personal investment makes it matter to others.

  1. typewriter-writingBlogging Gives Me Space to Test Material

This was, in fact, my very first goal in launching A Pilgrim in Narnia back in the dream-bloggy days of 2011. Quite apart from readership, blogging gives me the necessary space to test out an idea. Like a joke that falls flat in a room, the work we do as academics always makes better sense in our heads than it does on the page—at least initially. We need the page to help us form our theories, to lace them with interest or wit or connectivity to other ideas. I often quip that I know what I think when I write it down.

The blogging world allows me to test out my academic ideas in a popular form long before they land before an editorial board, on a peer-reviewer’s desk, in an academic reviewer’s critique, or in the terrifying situation of a doctoral Viva. Most of those academic testing spaces are digital experiences—an on/off switch between acceptance and rejection. The blogging world is much more of analog space, allowing for the gradient realities between absolute uselessness and total perfection. In clarifying what I think, I then test it before an educated audience who weighs its value, tests its credibility, teases out its possibilities, and discloses its limitations. Often the reader doesn’t know I am running an experiment on him or her, but that makes the results even more helpful!

  1. keyboard-coffee-writingBlogging Makes Me Better than I Am

One of the features of blogging that I could not have predicted when I first began five years ago was the connectivity. According to WordPress, there are 5,869 people connected to A Pilgrim in Narnia. Every day this site gets 300+ hits from 200+ visitors. The blogging world is broad and deep. While most of the books on your shelf are written by people with thousands or millions of readers, most of the writers in the world have very few. Blogging gives me a broader readership than the academic world can provide. There are some downsides to that networking capability as I feel like I have reached the limits of my mental room for new possibilities. But there is a lot of benefit to having a community of dialogue.

Quite apart from the network I have available to me for the day I launch a book, this blogging network allows me to take my blog to unprecedented levels of possibility. Through guest blogs, WordPress linkages, reader comments, and my “Friday Feature” series, A Pilgrim in Narnia transcends the natural boundaries of my own gifts and knowledge base. In C.S. Lewis and Inklings studies, theology, literary criticism, and fantasy studies, I am able to accentuate my strengths and shore up my weaknesses with the work of others.

It’s shocking, I know, the reason why I keep blogging. The long and the short of it is that I like blogging. I could add to this short list that even in a busy time, I can write a blog, produce it, and publish it in the time it takes to do a grocery trip or put the winter tires on the car–both jobs I have avoided this week. I like the visual possibilities of blogging, the portability, and the living text reality of our work. There are many reasons I like to blog, but for those who are considering launching a blog, here are the four that strike me most deeply.

Next week: The Reason They Never Suspected I Bought a Pair of Shoes.


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“Hungering After Old Books with C. S. Lewis, Anne Carpenter, and the Benedictines” Guest Blog by Karl Persson (Signum Series)

SignumBadge_300x90Karl Persson holds an MA in Early Modern literature from the University of Regina, and a Doctorate in Old English literature from the University of British Columbia; he currently works as a preceptor and lecturer for Signum University. His scholarly work focuses on the intersection of literary and Biblical/theological material, with a particular interest in commentary on Job and Ecclesiastes and its role in shaping the literary reception of wisdom cultures. He has published on the final riddle in the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book, and is a regular and active participant in the Early Proverb Society. In addition to formal scholarly writing, he also publishes poetry and reflections on spirituality in a variety of venues, including Patheos Catholic’s The Inner Room, and he is currently contracted through Wipf and Stock to write a book introducing contemporary Christians to the beauty and depth of Old English spirituality. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada with his wife and eight-year-old son.

This is the third guest blog in my fall Signum Series.

It started with hunger. I was a hungry teenager. Hungry for God.  And hungry to find myself. Not in a superficial way, but in the way Socrates means when he talks about the examined life. I knew instinctively there had to be more to these matters than what I found around me, me the odd child with undiagnosed OCD and prone to melancholy that would eventually become depression.

athanasius-on-the-incarnation-lewis-introduction-sr-penelopeI didn’t see much in modern culture that answered my hunger. And although I deeply wanted my spiritual hunger to be answered by my faith, there was often a disconnect between the deep magic I longed for – the layered kind I encountered in the Inklings and their compatriots – and the more insistently immediate kind I encountered in the Evangelical context I grew up in. I was ripe for guidance. And that guidance came in the form of C. S. Lewis’s Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, often published separately under the title “On the Reading of Old Books.”

Almost without thinking I absorbed it as part of my practice. Perhaps the self I was looking for, the layered conception of God I was looking for, could be found in old books. Not in the sense that I could simply open an old book and there discover a single overarching answer. But rather in the sense that the encounter with old books allowed me to imagine in ways I couldn’t before.

The critical imagination I developed from reading old books kept Christ and Scripture from collapsing into the one-dimensional uselessness so often found in modern interpretive contexts. And in the pages of those books – brought deep into dialogue with my own experiences and thoughts – I began to discover fragments and pieces of myself.

However, if this was a good thing, it was also difficult. Not because of anything inherent in my search, but rather because I had positioned myself as an incomplete human caught between an active present and an inherited past.  This critical posture was exhausting, and left no place for recovery from the radical suspension of selfhood; if one is always going to be looking for the self in the ruins of history, there is no “reserved” self-understanding left to rest in. Bits and pieces here and there certainly. But nothing whole. And this led me to discover the genius of the premodern monastic educational system, particularly that practiced among the Benedictines.

It is a Benedictine spirituality that suffuses the primary material I work with, Anglo-Saxon poetry. As I drew close to this spirituality through my scholarship, I realized that these monastic scholars had both anticipated and responded to the hungry restlessness that characterized my ongoing grapple with old books.

wanderer-exeter-book-first-page-bernard-muirThe monastic scribes’ intimacy with spiritual restlessness is redolent in the poetry they transcribed: a hafeþ longunge, se þe on lagu fundað (“he always has longing who strives on waves,” line 47) says the speaker of The Seafarer,” typically using the trope of the sea as a way of concretizing discussion of psychological turmoil; similarly, the speaker of The Wanderer laments that he sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan (“must send very often the weary spirit over the bind of waves,” lines 56-7), presumably hunting for his identity.

But what kept the monk from losing his spirit altogether as it went out figurally over the waves, or roved the pages of the literature he was tasked with synthesizing and transcribing, was prayer – the ora (prayer) set as a counter over against the potential dangers of the labora (labour). Knowing the dangers of a too deep attachment to one’s work and the accompanying potential of getting lost in it, the Benedictines established prayer as their grounds of self to protect against the lostness that the ruins of history can evoke. Or perhaps put in a more Benedictine way, prayer was central, and the stability it provided for that still elusive self hidden with Christ in God was precisely the anchor that allowed them to rappel into the void of history and so acutely observe its matter. The thing I was missing, apparently, was a life of prayerful listening.

To understand what such prayerful listening might look like, it is helpful to turn to the work of theologian Anne Carpenter, who has been working out of a methodology she calls dialectical traditionalism, which resembles a more sophisticated outworking of Lewis’s notes on old books. As a professor of theology, she regularly encounters the collision of the different worlds of traditionally inflected theology and contemporary students, and last year a campus protest evoked her to write both a public note for her institution and an explication of the methodology behind it. In these pieces, two aspects she highlights as important on all sides of the conversation are the recognition of one’s own poverty and the patience necessary to listen to all the others. Of the blessed poverty of both past and present perspectives, she writes:

“Theology is a double-writing of sorts. It writes simultaneously with the past and the present – at least in this form – and neither are unaffected by the other. They press upon each other. It is an incomplete theology that refuses to look into the past for help; it is incomplete as well to think that old answers are enough for new questions. We only have this moment before God, which is double-written with the poverty of the past and of the present.

“And blessed are the poor.”

anne-carpenter-theo-poeticsThis poverty in turn leads us to a stance of deep, expectant listening for the very heartbeat of the other, whomever he or she may be. Referring to the Benedictine rule’s advice to the disciple to “incline the ear of your heart,” and noting further on this that “to listen to someone” is “to be in some way listening to God,” she continues with an astute reflection on what this means for her in practice:

“And who is my neighbor? Christ says that I must love even my enemy. That means that I must love absolutely everyone, without exception, especially the people nearest to me. I do not mean nearest to my heart; I mean before my very eyes. How much I have not seen that is in the people before my very eyes, in the classrooms filled with students, walking down the halls of St. Mary’s. God has been speaking, and I did not listen; I saw God, but I did not really see. As the scales fall from my eyes, I see suffering that all of us—even those who point it out—can barely name.”

The world hurts – and before any attempt can be made to bring this pain into conversation with the fullness of Christ or even simply with one’s mere self, some very, very deep listening must happen.

Evocatively, Carpenter’s observations are reminiscent above all of a time when learning was monastic, grounded in the love of learning and the desire for God. It is easier to listen and focus when your time is kept sanctified by the liturgical Hours rather than the frantic world of academic professionalism – the structure opens particular silent spaces for the practice of listening. Similarly, Carpenter’s call to maintain holy poverty through hope and trust is far more achievable in religious communities that help sustain such poverty.


A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” IX

These practices are of a piece with our need to anchor our selves in the mystery of prayer lest we, like Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, bind ourselves up too tightly in the catastrophe of the mysteries we study. Such prayer is not, to be sure, a mere removal from the material, as though our understanding of ourselves and God is not bound up in it. Rather, prayer is the diaphanous point of stability that stands firmly in the historically rooted camp of our work, yet somehow also contains the Holy of Holies and keeps us from dependence on mere material. We are no less for that invested in the material battles when they come, but likewise we know the victory is in the hands of the Lord.

I speak here out of my own Christian tradition, but by all means invite others of you from other faith and secular traditions to contribute to this conversation. Whether we are discussing the rise of a particular interest in reading old books or our movement into the collapsed remnants of post-theoretical disciplines, a marked confusion of students is increasing as they attempt to navigate the ruins. I fear that if we do not provide the kind of holistic support needed to navigate these ruins with sanity, we will be forced to settle for simplistic versions of our fields adapted to those unprepared to face the radical uncertainties deep scholarship entails.

Whatever our stance on old books or theoretical paradigms, one of the “new directions” we love to talk about must include establishing a culture of personalist holism beyond the diversity offices and buzzwords so often louder than they are useful, signifying our deep need on campuses for compassion and psychological safety, as well as our failure thus far to offer satisfactory responses to this need. Prayer and old books have their place, but indispensable as well is the support of academic communities, so whomever you are and whatever you bring, I am ready to enter into deep listening and discussion regarding the ways we together can keep our fields healthy, kind, rigorous, and human.

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Battling a Mountain of Neglects with J.R.R. Tolkien

Carpenter Tolkien LettersIn my morning reading of J.R.R. Tolkien, I came across this note to his publisher, Stanley Unwin:

“I have treated you very badly. I think you would be disposed to forgive me, if you knew the true tale of my troubles, domestic and academic….

“I have been ill, worry and overwork mainly, but am a good deal recovered; and am at last able to take some steps to see that at least the overwork, so far as it is academic, is alleviated. For the first time in 25 years, except the year I went on crutches (just before The Hobbit came out, I think), I am free of examining, and though I am still battling with a mountain of neglects, out of which I have just dug a good many letters from George Allen and Unwin, and with a lot of bothers in this time of chaos and ‘reconstruction’, I hope after this week actually to – write” (July 21st, 1946).

It was this phrase, “a mountain of neglects,” that caught me up short. I have been in constant battle with this mountain, and I have been losing. Tolkien helped me find a metaphor—albeit a mixed one—that captured the weight of my struggle.

The last time we encountered the idea of “neglect” in Tolkien it was something entirely different. In “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings” I talked about a tipping point in 1938 that finally got the “New Hobbit” on its way. In a busy period, Tolkien finally succumbed to a “sanctioned neglect of duty” and took a few days off. The result was an inspiration for a sequel to the bestselling Hobbit that would set the framework in place for The Lord of the Rings. A little space and time allowed Tolkien to quickly set in place about two-thirds of LOTR.

lord of the rings banner“Quick” for Tolkien, though, is still very slow for the waiting world. Perhaps we forget how long that time was as we can pick LOTR up at most any bookstore—used, new, or digital. As time went on, Tolkien lost that early momentum, though it wasn’t all procrastination.

book-tolkien-sir-gawain-green-knight-pearl-orfeoIf Tolkien thought he was busy in the late 30s, he could not have anticipated how overwhelmed he would become during the war that was ahead. Tolkien’s letters in the early ‘40s are soaked with worry about his sons at war in Europe and Africa, as well as the bulk of work at home and school that kept him from his real work (academic and literary writing, but especially the Legendarium). A letter to Unwin in March 1945 is typical of Tolkien’s apologies for having missed deadlines:

“I have ‘special exams’ until Easter, and some trouble with the University of Wales. Also all the trouble caused by the death of my colleague, H.C.K. Wyld, to find whose successor will chiefly devolve on me this vacation. I am in trouble with Blackwell who has set up my translation of Pearl, and needs corrections and an introduction. I am in trouble with the widow of Professor E.V. Gordon of Manchester, whose posthumous work on Pearl I undertook, as a duty to a dead friend and pupil, to put in order; and have failed to do my duty. But I suppose I may get a few weeks in the year to myself. Though I’m also in serious trouble with the Clarendon Press; and with my lost friend Mlle. Simonne d’Ardenne, who has suddenly reappeared, having miraculously survived the German occupation, and the Rundstedt offensive (which rolled over her) waving the MSS. of a large work we began together and promised to the Early English Text Soc. Which has not forgotten it – nor my own book on The Ancrene Riwle, which is all typed out. If instead of B.D.S.T. [British Daylight Savings Time] you could invent a scheme for doubling the day (and relieve me of house-boy’s duties), I’d drown you in stuff….

That burdened paragraph with monstrous sentences shows the weight of Tolkien’s tasks. As far as I know, none of these tasks were complete that decade, or even the next. The Lord of the Rings, which is 75% complete at this point, takes at least another 5 or 6 years to get to the point where he can show it to the publisher.

Imagine being so far behind, so burdened with projects and work and absolute necessities that you aren’t certain you can meet a deadline by the end of the decade.

the-misty-mountains-anduinAlthough I could not have imagined it could be this way, that is exactly how I feel.

On the surface, I am surprised to find myself here. I have typically been capable of balancing the tasks of study, writing, teaching, and my work as a consultant in higher education for the provincial government. It never leaves me enough time to write—what writer has enough time to write?—and no time to move my work to publication. When I am busy, I end up taking fewer risks as a teacher, and my at-home “to-do” list grows to Grendelish size. With the support of friends and family and church, though, I have kept the chaos to a minimum.

But in this season, the mountain of neglects threatens to bury me completely.

Part of my problem is that I have simply over-committed. I find it hard to pass up teaching opportunities, and in my government work I have only taken on tasks that I think are both meaningful and difficult. I agreed to being a conference speaker in the Spring and did extra archival work in June and August. I have filled up my time past the brim.

There is also the matter of timing. At the very moment when student papers are due, I find that I am at a critical point in my PhD research, I have legislation being introduced in the PEI legislature, the final draft of a Population Growth Strategy I am writing is going to cabinet this week, and I am past deadline on two academic writing projects. I have never missed hard deadlines before, but I find myself simply unable to keep up. “Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.” And so the burden goes.

hobbit-cover-fullAs I count the peaks on this mountain range of neglect, I realize there is more than sheer over-commitment in the mix. My exhaustion is not merely about work. What should be relatively minor rockslides have occurred twice this Autumn—once with an ill-timed cold; more recently when I threw out my back and spent a week alternating between the sharp clarity of constant pain and the dull nauseating fog of treatment.

And behind all of these rockslides and avalanches there is the seismic event that shapes them all: the death of my mother this past February. My mother’s cancer—her all-encompassing illness and her untimely death—was followed by a family health scare that winded me even more.

Part of this is practical and will seem trite to some, I know. But the reality remains that in her too brief 8-months from diagnosis to passing, my work slowly piled up on the edge of my desk. It never goes away; some of it is waiting still.

tolkien-lonely-mountain-in-the-hobbitWhat amazes me, though, is not the practical but the spiritual. While at any moment of the day I may be happy, or introspective, or useful, I have been months without the kind of energy, clarity, and focus that I am used to. It isn’t like my core processor is damaged, but that my RAM has been cut in half. My brain is less lithe, my faculties less acute, my capacity for challenge choked at some unseen point in the background. I search for words and cannot find them. My journal lays almost unused on its shelf. Emails remain unanswered for far too long.

I do not lack friends, love, or support. And, yet, I am walking wounded. Just when I feel I can lift my eyes to the mountain of work, a storm blows through the valley and I flee for shelter.

So it was encouraging for me to turn to this passage in Tolkien’s letters. When I read his note, when I see the pain he is experiencing, I have the benefit of the God’s-eye view of history. I can see down the road that is not yet even a dim resemblance of a path for him. I know where his work goes, and how the precious hours he stole from his commitments—hours that seemed impossible to find at the time—inspired millions of readers. Though he did not complete The Lord of the Rings by the end of that decade, the 1950s—with LOTR at the centre of them—redefined the nature of fantastic writing forever.

Mountains are climbed by steps. Books are written by words. I know that the brush of these fingers across this keyboard will somehow become a policy book, a strategic plan, a novel, a paper, a thesis. While I don’t have a God’s-eye view of my own history, there is One who does. And for that One, the rise and fall of mountains across aeons of geology is, in the cosmic view of things, a light morning’s work.


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Course on C. S. Lewis and Prayer

This week’s feature is a new course by Rev. David Beckmann on C.S. Lewis’ late-in-life book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. This little book, set up as letters to a fictional correspondent where Lewis and Malcolm discuss the idea of Christian prayer, is often forgotten. I think, though, that it has its own unique strengths and can be a powerful and unusual reconsideration of prayer. As my family was walking up to the Kilns in August, we bumped into David on the path, and he told us about the series. It is now live at Teachable.

The Oddest Inkling

A while back, I was honored to contribute a tiny amount to a Kickstarter campaign to send Rev. David Beckmann to England to record a class on C. S. Lewis and Prayer. The course is now available to purchase! Check it out here:

C. S. Lewis on Prayer

A study of the book by C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, in 8 video sessions – filmed in Oxford, England.

Here is Rev. Beckmann’s description of the project:

At the end of his life, in 1963, C. S. Lewis finally wrote a book on prayer. I say “finally,” because he had been thinking about it for many years. Lewis struggled with prayer. He did so, not only intellectually, but also – as we all do – because of the pains and difficulties that he encountered through his life.

Christian trials are always trials of faith and obedience, and we work…

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