C.S. Lewis’ Pretty Awful and Peculiarly Interesting Letter on Writing

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.

It could be that this might be the most valuable insight into Lewis’ writing that I have seen from him, from what is one of his least insightful letters. Here’s the entire letter, for your enjoyment.

As from Magdalene College,
Cambridge
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’.
Yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

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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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9 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Pretty Awful and Peculiarly Interesting Letter on Writing

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    That is a particularly good paragraph! But I like that emphasis on wanting to do something – ‘aesthetic’? – ‘creative’? – in the first one, too – would he have favoured visual art, if he could have managed it – or ended up doing both like, say, Blake and David Jones? And that last little one reinforces that nicely: that avid accent on ‘creativity’ in “fiction”. Does this, in December 1960, tie in interestingly with your thoughts about what he might have gone on to do, health allowing (after all the great non-fiction* of 1960-63)?

    *The ‘pseudepigraphal’ quality (or however best to describe it) of Letters to Malcolm (and, to whatever extent of A Grief Observed, taking Walter Hooper’s observations, etc., into account) is an interesting matter of its own, in the context of such things as the narrator of the first two Ransom stories, the commentator of Tolkien’s Lay of Leithian, the dreamer of The Great Divorce, and – how many related things?

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    • Good question. I have always read it as, “Since I can’t make shoes as a cobbler, I will write books.”
      I don’t know about Tolkien’s lay, but I have a whole article on Lewis’ epistolarity I’m trying to get off my desk. “Pseudopigraphal” is a great description! I also think Grief Observed was written “out loud,” but I have to reread Hooper. My last thought about it was that he argued that Lewis hadn’t consummated the marriage, but GO would go against that, so I have to get my Companion out again.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        There was something about the notebooks referred to in GO – and, of course, it was published pseudonymously: my impression (of Walter Hooper’s observations, and my own) is that there could be stylization of the the presentation of the ‘matter’ for publication.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Looking forward to that “article on Lewis’ epistolarity”!

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  2. Earthoak says:

    The use of quotation marks for ‘project’ seems to give the game away – I think you might be right that there is a wee bit of resentment from Lewis. I hope that’s not harsh – given how I feel towards emails at times, I can’t blame him and at least he still had the courtesy to respond.
    As for returning to old, nearly-forgotten ideas – that gives some hope to the rest of us. In fact, perhaps such a process allows for the slow sedimentation of ideas that lend them depth and richness. Thanks for sharing the letter with us.

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