After weeks of too little sleep, I have had two terrible half-nights awake. These torturous midnight hours of hazy, half-insomniac puzzles and quandaries and obsessions, the darkness that infuses weariness into the bone-soul of life… I would purchase a single eight-hour night of sleep if it weren’t so dear. Even six hours would do.
However, I do tend to sleep well after about 3:30am, so I was looking forward to this morning. Tonight is time-travel night where the gods of time steal an hour from our lives (where I live anyway), and at 8am tomorrow morning (really, 7am) I will be playing bass to Brit-pop worship songs. So today was my day to sleep in. There were no worries to keep me awake. Following a great week of work at my desk, there was a glorious Saturday before me: a couple of hours of stacking wood in warm weather (it is just below the freezing mark here), my day to make eggs and toast for the family while Kerry prepares her neighbourhood-famous Thai curry, some guitar time with Nicolas, the beginning of a reno project, a hike, an evening with friends…. Nothing requiring anything but my hands and my smile.
And … I was wide-awake at 6am. Too blurry-eyed to read, too sore and restless to discern the constellations in my stucco ceiling, I gave it up as a bad job and set my feet on the birch wood floor.
However, as my household is either at rest or out on royal errands, I decided to sneak to my desk with the goal of stilling the whirling dervishes of my mind. Of course, that’s the wonderful thing about dervishes: their whirling calls them to something beyond, so all the busy patterns of flare and movement are really a kind of stillness that is also a making, the poetic unity of form and image. So it is with ideas and ink and all arts of mind and heart and hand. Mysteriously, after a restless night of journeying endlessly through the halls of my mind, I arrive at my desk and find my imagination alive with sheer possibility in the adventure of writing.
The scientists tell us that songbirds practice their melodies while they sleep, dream-singing in new ways as they imaginatively test the limits of their art. Finch am I, then, and words my song.
Somehow through these wakeful hours and nights, my decade of C.S. Lewis scholarship has coalesced and I see where it all fits together. I awoke with a playful thought about Dymer in my head, a follow-up to a talk I gave in Oxford in 2018 about Lewis’ obscure 1920s narrative poem. It is also a feature of the central part of a chapter I have been working on. There was something there that I hadn’t seen before. Indeed, even as I awoke, it was still skirting the corner of my vision. But when my fingers touched the keyboard, the words were there.
This is how it is for us little makers, I believe. We see the image in the stone only in the cutting, we find the story in the telling, we know love in the loving.
The other day, I was listening to an interview on CBC‘s arts and culture show, Q. Tom Power was interviewing JP Saxe, a Grammy-nominated Canadian singer-songwriter. JP was talking about how his partner is also a songwriter, and the dynamics of expressing their love to one another through their art. Then JP gave listeners a blessing of profound worth:
“I would wish everyone the kind of love that feels bigger than they’re able to describe.”
Wow, yes. When Tom Power asked what the goal of songwriting was, JP answered in a way that resonated with me:
“My goal is to be honest in my music… The exciting thing about honesty is that I don’t know what that means, exactly, until it happens. So to me the process of discovering my music is the same process of discovering myself. I often learn things about myself in these songs that I didn’t fully understand until I was able to sing it back to myself.”
The words of the ages in pop music sensibility. The moment was so intriguing to me that I pulled the car over and shared this tweet:
I loved today’s compelling @cbcradioq interview by @tompowercbc with @jpsaxe. The way J.P. describes the discovery of truth in songwriting resonated with me as a nonfiction writer. Sometimes you have to say something out loud to know if it’s true. https://t.co/Nqu3QWGo8k
— Dr. Brenton Dickieson (@BrentonDana) March 11, 2021
This is what writing is for me: saying things aloud to know that they’re true. Teaching is discovery–for me, at least. I write articles and essays and books in order to know what I mean. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the 600 or 700 analytical pieces I have done on this website, the lectures and public talks, the book that I have been shaping for five years and the ones in me to write–bringing these words to life is not just about sharing what I know, but about inviting others along in the process of discovery. I write because there is truth in these words that I didn’t fully understand until I was able to read them back to myself. I pick up a chisel and hammer to find the image that was in the stone all along, but only discoverable when iron meets the ages.
Intriguingly, C.S. Lewis wrote Dymer, his first published work of fantastic fiction, in very much the way I describe. Like Harry Potter arriving fully formed in J.K. Rowling‘s imagination during a bus-ride nearly three decades ago, C.S. Lewis discovered Dymer. He tells the story in his 1950 preface to the reprinting of the poem:
I am told that the Persian poets draw a distinction between poetry which they have “found” and poetry which they have “brought”: if you like, between the given and the invented…. Their terminology applies with unusual clarity to my poem. What I “found,” what simply “came to me” was the story of a man who, on some mysterious bride, begets a monster: which monster, as soon as it has killed its father, becomes a god. This story arrived, complete, in my mind somewhere about my seventeenth year. To the best of my knowledge I did not consciously or voluntarily invent it, nor was it, in the plain sense of that word, a dream. All I know about it is that there was
a time when it was not there, and then presently a time when it was.
Making as discovery, the image in the stone.
And so, I am awake–not out back by the woodpile, in the early morning sunshine splintered by fat flakes of snow that never seems to fall, but here at my desk with keys beneath my fingertips. I awoke with a thought, an itch of an idea that I thought worth attending to. In writing out that Dymer idea–it was only 29 words in the end–I began to see the connecting thread to another project, and from that project to the work I am doing as a whole. I study C.S. Lewis using my tools as a theologian, as a literary critic, as a cultural critic, as an educator, as a fiction writer, and as an archivist. I know on the outside that these seem like different kinds of things, winding and disparate paths. But in waking, in taking a breath and then making words appear on the screen, I can see the symphonic unity of the whole. I, at least, can see the image in the stone.
For most readers, the details of the discovery are far less interesting than the process. Following my current project (book proposals going out in a week), I now see that I have a trilogy of studies that has been building inside of me for years. The narrative arc is there, the throughline is clear, all the pieces are fitting together. In stepping back from the slab after years of roughing it out, I am starting to see the image in the stone. I can see my way forward with remarkable clarity.
But oh! To find the time! I am not unique in this, the struggle that little makers–artists, writers, parents, teachers, philosophers–have faced for ages, I know. Perhaps I should repent of my accusations of the gods of times that they are thieves, for they are capricious. However, these sleepless nights and the lost hour of “time-savings” seem like an apt metaphor for days that fill with good and urgent tasks, while the sculpture is still a stone slab beneath a dusty sheet.
If I can make the space, though, I know what to do with this trilogy of books–and more! I have a book-length study of L.M. Montgomery that is slowly building in me but not yet fully formed in my imagination. I am still waiting and watching. I have two novel manuscripts good enough that they should be out in the world, and a third that might be worth the time. If the time-gods are thieves, not all the muses fail. I cannot complain that I am lacking in inspiration. I could write for a decade just from my work-in-process folder and never want for things to do.
Perhaps time, too, is one of these making-discovering things, the paradox of the image in the faceless stone. It is one of Screwtape’s clever tricks to let me believe that “My time is my own,” that I am “the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.” Perhaps that’s why I feel such a betrayal at the loss of time–for “he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen” (The Screwtape Letters, letter XXI). Despite all my lament about the want of time, I cannot buy time any more than I can buy sleep or a good idea. We are all traveling “at the rate of sixty minutes an hour,” Screwtape reminds us (The Screwtape Letters, letter XXV). So all I know how to do in the meantime is to use my time well, to put my fingers to keys, to pull back the dusty sheet from the work of art that is not yet, even when it terrifies me.
I used to think that this process of discovery was like stepping back from a Seurat. There certainly is a Gestalt effect to writing nonfiction, to recognize random points and static lines as a meaningful image of subtlety and movement. But for artistic discovery as in spiritual life, I am attracted to the image in the stone, the central metaphor of C.S. Lewis’ great and surprising work of literary fiction, Till We Have Faces. For me, scholarship and fiction-writing–as it is in teaching, and in being a parent, a partner, a friend, and a follower–is like the stone carver’s art. What appears to be a final form, a work of art for ages or hours, is really the thousand hours the carver bends over the piece, the days and nights in between, the dust and breath and dust and breath, hand and mind in movement and waiting as the little maker slowly destroy the stone to find the life within.
Meanwhile, for me, there is the image in the stone. So I must discover it.