How many times have you heard of the struggling writer providentially bumping into an established author or writing a letter? And then that writer on the edge of hopelessness becomes the recipient of a little piece of advice or encouragement that changes their life, setting them on the path to fulfilled dreams of their books in print?
This is not one of those stories.
Lewis wrote thousands of letters, and many of them contain advice to writers and other kinds of personal support. The Letters to Children and Letters to an American Lady collections have those sorts of letters, and he took time with people who would go on to be important writers, like Arthur C. Clarke, J.R.R. Tolkien, Joy Davidman, and Roger Lancelyn Green. In 1960, however, Lewis just did not have it in him to take much time with a Meredith Lee. Many of his Q&A-style letters are desperately thin, and I wonder if he resented them a wee bit.
In this case, the letter contained all those generic questions that inexperienced or uncreative journalists ask established authors: Why did you become a writer? How do you come up with your books? Why did you choose to write fiction? and the like. Lewis gets off with the briefest possible answers without brushing Ms. Lee off altogether. Why did he turn to writing as a career? Lewis’ answer was,
“because my clumsiness of fingers prevented me from making things in any other way.”
Even Lewis must have known that almost any of us would like to know the heart and grit and vision of that calling to creation, not the clumsy reason he first picked up a pen.
Out of this clearly awful letter comes something, though, that I had suspected of Lewis but never found confirmation for until recently. Lewis admits that he carries around dozens of plans for books at any one time, but that the emerging happenstance of book ideas often thwarts his plans:
Very often a book of mine gets written when I’m tidying a drawer and come across notes for a plan rejected by me years ago, and now suddenly realise I can do it after all.
As from Magdalene College,
6 Dec. 1960
Dear Miss Lee,
1. Why did I become a writer? Chiefly, I think, because my clumsiness of fingers prevented me from making things in any other way. See my Surprised by Joy, chapter I.
2. What ‘inspires’ my books? Really, I don’t know. Does anyone know where, exactly, an idea comes from? With me all fiction begins with pictures in my head. But where the pictures come from I couldn’t say.
3. Which of my books do I think most ‘representational’? Do you mean (a.) Most representative, most typical, most characteristic? Or (b.) Most full of ‘representations’ i.e. images. But whichever you mean, surely this is a question not for me but for my readers to decide. Or do you mean simply which do I like best? If so, the answer wd. be Till We Have Faces and Perelandra.
4. I have, as usual, dozens of ‘plans’ for books, but I don’t know which, if any, of these will come off. Very often a book of mine gets written when I’m tidying a drawer and come across notes for a plan rejected by me years ago, and now suddenly realise I can do it after all. This, you see, makes predictions rather difficult!
5. I enjoy writing fiction more than writing anything else. Wouldn’t anyone?
Good luck with your ‘project’.
C. S. Lewis