False Starts and Missteps: How C.S. Lewis Found his Literary Voice (#WritingWednesdays)

writing_wednesdaysThis blog is part of a series of Wednesday posts on Writing Resources. Last week’s post was The Writer’s Spidey Sense.

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I have had dozens of false starts. Ranging from quick notes in my journal to several chapters in an abandoned computer file, I have a number of projects that I’ve sketched out, begun, and never finished. My satirical The DaVinci Load is an outline and a few scenes now ten years old, while my humorous post-apocalyptic loser novel, The Other Side of the End needs only a few pages to bring it to its end. I may return one day to the five chapters completed on a pants-less and hapless alien conqueror named Stanley, but I would have to change his name to Russell.

We all have these false starts, especially as we are working out our literary voices. C.S. Lewis was no exception. He was only twenty when he completed his first book of poetry and submitted it for publication (Spirits in Bondage, 1919). In the lacklustre wake of public reception, and in the midst of a heavy course load, Lewis struggled for several years on his next project, a narrative poem called Dymer (1925). It is a good poem, but again readership was poor. He began to reconcile himself to a life of literary obscurity.

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 19 60sIn your Lewis bibliography, you will see next the allegorical autobiography The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), an academic book in 1925 (The Allegory of Love), and then his first fiction, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). While well received, Out of the Silent Planet was not a bestseller. Still, it signals the beginning of his WWII period, where book-length projects appear in rapid fire. A decade later came Narnia, followed by his most critically-acclaimed work—and his only real novel—Till We Have Faces (1954).

Writers-in-waiting may be tempted to be over-awed by Lewis’ accomplishment. But I think it’s important to take a look at the earlier period of his writing life. There we see Lewis testing his voice by exploring various genres with false starts and self-conscious attempts.

Following Dymer, Lewis attempted several longer narrative poems. He successfully finished one called “The Queen of the Drum,” which editor Walter Hooper calls Lewis’ best poem. Written and rewritten over a period as long as fifteen years, from his late teens to his early years as a Christian (the early 1930s), it never found a publisher until after his death. Another poem, “The Nameless Isle,” was written in alliterative verse after the Old English form and was dated “Aug. 1930.” Like “Queen,” it was never published during his lifetime.

Tolkien Fall of ArthurIn about the same period as “The Nameless Isle,” J.R.R. Tolkien was working on an alliterative narrative poem called “The Fall of Arthur.” It was just recently published by his son and dauntless editor, Christopher Tolkien, and has inspired some new scholarship (including something I am working on for this project). C.S. Lewis also tried an Arthurian narrative poem, but abandoned the project after only 300 lines. “Launcelot” is tantalizingly short, and is published with his other longer works in C.S. Lewis, Narrative Poems (ed. Walter Hooper, 1969). Throughout this period until the end of his life, Lewis continued to write poetry, but under the pseudonym Nat Whilk (from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘I know not whom,’ which he resurrected for the pseudonym N.W. Clerk for A Grief Observed, 1960).

It is also the period where he began writing short essays. Thanks to Walter Hooper’s new collection, Image and Imagination (2013), we have quite a number of book reviews he wrote, beginning in the late 1920s. In these reviews we see Lewis begin in stock form. But he soon found that the brevity of a review gave him space to say a lot in a few words. As the 1930s continue, his essays become tighter, and his classic humour begins to slip in. By the time his articles are being published broadly in WWII, he is well on his way to being a successful essayist. While he isn’t as precise, humorous, and deadly in accuracy as his master, G.K. Chesterton, this exercise of writing reviews prepared him for his BBC broadcasts (later the short chapters of Mere Christianity, 1952). Still today, C.S. Lewis’ essay collection God in the Dock is a fan favourite.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis iceWhat many don’t know is that C.S. Lewis made a number of false starts in his fiction writing. His first sketch of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1949) began a decade earlier, and the LeFay Fragment (a copy of which is at the Marion E. Wade Center) shows his struggle to get going in a number of the Narnian chronicles. Several attempts in poetry and prose were made for a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche story before Lewis met his wife and wrote Till We Have Faces. And he had read three chapters of a development of the Troy story to his friend, author Roger Lancelyn Green, before he abandoned the project altogether. False starts were a part of his writing life, and were essential to helping him think through the stories he wants to tell.

But these false starts were also key to helping Lewis discover his own voice. There was something about the allegory of The Pilgrim’s Progress that allowed him to turn to fantasy—encouraged by the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. All of his fiction is speculative fiction. And although there are realistic elements in pieces like “The Man Born Blind/Light,” Lewis never wrote realism.

The Place of the Lion by Charles WilliamsRecently, a pair of leading American C.S. Lewis scholars have published the “Easley Fragment” with some commentary in the 2011 edition of VII. Bruce R. Johnson and David C. Downing’s comments are worth reading on their own, but what I was most excited about was seeing the two chapters of an abandoned novel dated to the summer of 1927. What I didn’t know was that these chapters are realistic in nature, not fantasy. These nine pages are among the only pre-Christian prose that we have surviving of Lewis (other than his childhood writings), and show him exploring his Irish-English identity and testing Christian ideas in character conversation.

Johnson and Downing suggest Lewis abandoned the two complete chapters because the genre of realism wasn’t to his taste. They are probably correct. Lewis is not at his best here. His caricature of the protagonist’s rich uncle Scrabo, who sees himself as poor, is an important commentary on his own father. His description of a ferry ride to Belfast and the conversations are clever, but there is a dramatic shift in tone and even of the protagonist’s character in the second chapter. As the conversation moves into (one-sided) philosophical debate, it ends abruptly. Even in his pre-Christian days, it seems, Lewis had to struggle with his didactic demons.

Sometimes as writers it is easy for us to get down on ourselves for our false starts and literary missteps. But in every case of Lewis’ abandoned projects that I’ve looked at, the writing wasn’t as good as what we can now read in print. Typically, he was wise to shelve the project. Some were later reworked, but many were never touched again. The only reason we have them is because he sketched them out in the journals he kept his teaching materials in. Otherwise, all we’d know of Lewis is his crisp, explorative, and diverse published works.

But these aborted attempts were essential in his own literary development. It is important to remember that there are no wasted words, no truly failed projects. All is preparation for the writers we are becoming.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to False Starts and Missteps: How C.S. Lewis Found his Literary Voice (#WritingWednesdays)

  1. robstroud says:

    I suspect you’re right about all of us “writers” having a few aborted projects resting in files awaiting possible resurrection. I do.


  2. “Didactic demons” – good description!


  3. I have more than a few bones in the grave yard – most that would do well to rest in peace! I don’t think I’ll be resurrecting too many of my abandoned projects. I think I was right to let them go!


  4. L. Palmer says:

    It is refreshing to see such a great writer have their own unfinished projects and dangling ends of ideas, discarding what doesn’t work in pursuit of what does.


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