Extending Gaze Beyond the Surface

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion…

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 45

Same goes for the preacher: don’t do what’s already been done to death, especially if you can’t do it as well as others who’ve done it. You’ll just end up being a bad copy of a bad copy. Extend your gaze beyond the surface always.

Spurgeon the Minimalist

I came across this quote HERE.

“Long visits, long stories, long essays, long exhortations, and long prayers, seldom profit those who have to do with them. Life is short. Time is short.…Moments are precious. Learn to condense, abridge, and intensify…In making a statement, lop off branches; stick to the main facts in your case. If you pray, ask for what you believe you will receive, and get through; if you speak, tell your message and hold your peace; if you write, boil down two sentences into one, and three words into two. Always when practicable avoid lengthiness — learn to be short” (Sword & Trowel, September 1871).

The Beautiful Butterfly Wings of Imagination (Edith Nesbit)

This one has been in the queue for a while: If you are unfamiliar with Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), you still might be familiar with C.S. Lewis. Lewis admitted that he imitated her style in writing the Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve read about half a dozen of her books with my children and recommend them highly (see my recommended reading page).
It is reminiscent of Chesterton’s line that as a child gets older, the door needs to have a dragon behind it to be fascinating, while for the younger child, the door itself is fascinating. We are prone to lose wonder. Lewis said, “Beware the unenchanted man.”
To the child, from the beginning, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery; to him our stalest commonplaces are great news, our dullest facts prismatic wonders. To the baby who has never seen a red ball, a red ball is a marvel, new and magnificent as ever the golden apples were to Hercules.

You show the child many things, all strange, all entrancing; it sees, it hears, it touches; it learns to co-ordinate sight and touch and hearing. You tell it tales of the things it cannot see and hear and touch, of men “that it may never meet, of lands that it shall never see”; strange black and brown and yellow people whose dress is not the dress of mother or nurse—strange glowing yellow lands where the sun burns like fire, and flowers grow that are not like the flowers in the fields at home. You tell it that the stars, which look like pin-holes in the floor of heaven, are really great lonely worlds, millions of miles away; that the earth, which the child can see for itself to be flat, is really round; that nuts fall from the trees because of the force of gravitation, and not, as reason would suggest, merely because there is nothing to hold them up. And the child believes; it believes all the seeming miracles.

Then you tell it of other things no more miraculous and no less; of fairies, and dragons, and enchantments, of spells and magic, of flying carpets and invisible swords. The child believes in these wonders likewise. Why not? If very big men live in Patagonia, why should not very little men live in flower-bells? If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? The child’s memory becomes a store-house of beautiful and wonderful things which are or have been in the visible universe, or in that greater universe, the mind of man. Life will teach the child, soon enough, to distinguish between the two.

But there are those who are not as you and I. These say that all the enchanting fairy romances are lies, that nothing is real that cannot be measured or weighed, seen or heard or handled. Such make their idols of stocks and stones, and are blind and deaf to the things of the spirit. These hard-fingered materialists crush the beautiful butterfly wings of imagination, insisting that pork and pews and public-houses are more real than poetry; that a looking-glass is more real than love, a viper than valour. These Gradgrinds give to the children the stones which they call facts, and deny to the little ones the daily bread of dreams.

Of the immeasurable value of imagination as a means to the development of the loveliest virtues, to the uprooting of the ugliest and meanest sins, there is here no space to speak. But the gain in sheer happiness is more quickly set forth. Imagination, duly fostered and trained, is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.

But Mr. Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly, the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David. There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubts about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the Spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little Materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?

-Edith Nesbit, Imagination, from Wings and the Child, Read it online HERE.

The End of the Pleasure Bar

To be all meat and raw nerve is to exist outside of time and – momentarily – outside of narrative. The crackhead who’s been pushing the Pleasure button for sixty hours straight, the salesman who’s eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner while glued to a video-poker terminal, the recreational eater who is halfway through a half gallon of chocolate ice cream, the grad student who’s been hunched over his internet portal, pants down, since 8 o’clock last night, and the gay clubber who’s spending a long weekend doing cocktails of Viagra and crystal meth will all report to you ( if you can manage to get their attention) that nothing besides the brain and its stimulants has any reality. To the person who’s compulsively self-stimulating, both the big narratives of Salvation and Transcendence and the tiny life-storylets of “I hate my neighbor” or “It might be nice to visit Spain sometime” are equally illusory and irrelevant. This deep nihilism of the body is obviously a worry to the crackhead’s three young children, to the salesman’s employer, to the ice-cream eater’s husband, to the grad student’s girlfriend, and to the clubber’s virologist. But the person whose very identity is threatened by such abject materialism is the fiction writer, whose life and business is to believe in narrative…

For Dostoyevsky – as for such latter-day literary heirs of his as Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Irvine Welsh, and Michel Houellebecq – the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever, the inevitable breaking of some bleak and remorse-filled dawn, is the flaw in nihilism through which humane narrative can slip and reassert itself. The end of the binge is the beginning of the story.

– Jonathan Franzen, The End of the Binge, from Father Away, pp. 279-282

Humanity doesn’t shine through until we realize we can’t hit the pleasure bar forever.

Trusting Something Enough to Find Your Own Words for It

Speaking of writers using cliches.

…dead expressions, the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for.

-From John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 11

Preachers, push the Scriptures enough into your own experience that you demonstrate you’re trusting them enough to find your own words for what they are saying.

Speaking Against Takes More Skill Than Speaking for and With

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 47

To speak against the culture takes more skill than to speak for it.

 

Using All Means and Helps Towards the Understanding of the Scriptures

If we thus ask the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit, it will follow, dear friends, that we shall be ready to use all means and helps towards the understanding of the Scriptures. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch whether he understood the prophecy of Isaiah he replied, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” Then Philip went up and opened to him the word of the Lord. Some, under the pretense of being taught of the Spirit of God refuse to be instructed by books or by living men. This is no honouring of the Spirit of God; it is a disrespect to him, for if he gives to some of his servants more light than to others—and it is clear he does—then they are bound to give that light to others, and to use it for the good of the church. But if the other part of the church refuse to receive that light, to what end did the Spirit of God give it? This would imply that there is a mistake somewhere in the economy of gifts and graces, which is managed by the Holy Spirit. It cannot be so. The Lord Jesus Christ pleases to give more knowledge of his word and more insight into it to some of his servants than to others, and it is ours joyfully to accept the knowledge which he gives in such ways as he chooses to give it. It would be most wicked of us to say, “We will not have the heavenly treasure which exists in earthen vessels. If God will give us the heavenly treasure out of his own hand, but not through the earthen vessel, we will have it; but we think we are too wise, too heavenly minded, too spiritual altogether to care for jewels when they are placed in earthen pots. We will not hear anybody, and we will not read anything except the book itself, neither will we accept any light, except that which comes in through a crack in our own roof. We will not see by another man’s candle, we would sooner remain in the dark.” Brethren, do not let us fall into such folly. Let the light come from God, and though a child shall bring it, we will joyfully accept it.

-Charles Spurgeon, from his sermon, How to Read the Bible

About My Posts on Writing

My posting on the blog is lagging. The reason for this is that I’ve generally posted on the blog about theological and cultural-theological issues, while at the moment I am reading a lot of fiction and don’t have the time to summarize everything I read. I am working full-time now as a pastor but I am also in a writing workshop and reading a bunch of good short stories and things about writing. I am not particularly interested in getting in conversations on the blog about writing, so I have not been posting most of it.

With that said, I have said from the beginning that the purpose of this blog is mostly selfish. I write things here to store them so that I can use them in the future (mostly in sermons, but not always). So, I’ve decided to start making some posts on the books on writing I’ve been reading so that I’ll have the stuff for easy future-reference. You’d be surprised how much this kind of stuff shows up in my preaching as illustrations and the like.

My point in raising this is simple – I am not making statements about writing that I want to debate, nor do I consider myself a great writer. I am a preacher who also writes and is trying to learn about writing. Pretty much everything good I take away from books on writing has some sort of application to preaching. I save them and share them because I find them useful. I just want to share that to say where I’m coming from since these posts are going to start popping up regularly for the next few weeks.