What if my imagination was stunted, having never really grown?
I admit I haven’t considered this idea before. Call me naïve, but I supposed everyone had an active imagination whether it was sluggish or bustling.
When I recently read David Beckmann’s account of C.S. Lewis and the London evacuees in Life with the Professor: The True Story Behind the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I realized I had forgotten much of Lewis’s experiences during World War II when a number of school-age girls stayed with him, his brother Warnie, and their household help at the Kilns.
Evacuees stayed for a few months or a few years while attending school nearby. Lewis quickly realized he and his brother could be positive influences on the children. Yet both men were also quick to admit they had had “little experience” with children in general.
Lewis soon found he was a father figure, a homework helper, and chore enthusiast. He also was adept at spoiling the girls. Bypassing his housekeeper Mrs. Moore, he slipped snacks and treats to them regularly.
But Lewis noted one thing was missing in the girls’ development—an apparent lack of imagination. It was as if the imagination muscle had atrophied. If he told a story on a long walk or at bedtime, the girls hardly knew what to do other than listen.
Beckmann is certain Lewis began work on the Narnia Chronicles at this time, as early as 1939. Cultivating the imagination of children was simply one more motivation in his fiction journey.
By the time the war was over, Lewis had a true, loving appreciation for the young and a compassionate concern that they learn to love the imaginary."
Not all of us as children could craft the Boxen stories as Jack and Warnie did nor as the Brontë siblings did with the kingdoms of Angria, Gondal, and Glass Town. Maybe some would say our imaginations are lesser in comparison to these literary greats. Maybe so, but I'm not discouraged. Our imaginations are not extinct.
Beckmann’s short and relatable account quickened a train of thoughts for me. I wondered what role war and separation from family played in stifling the imagination of those girls. What about now? What other stressors inhibit creativity in the young? What about the old and all of us in between? Is it possible to kill the imagination entirely? Can we stir our own imagination?
Join me in my ponderings this January. Share a comment or two below.
December 25, 1956, New York City
It was Harper Lee’s seventh year away from home in Alabama. When she wasn’t working at her job as an airline reservation agent, she wrote fiction. She never expected to make a living from it.
Christmas away from home was hard and lonely every year. In Lee’s essay, “Christmas to Me,” the yearning she describes for home, the desire to return, is so similar to our yearnings this year. Not in nostalgia, but in the true sense of the Old English word yearn, our desire is eager to seek, beg, and demand what we no longer have. Yearning embraces all of these connotations. Like Lee, we ache for those family and friends who have died, and for many of us, we long for a return to the senses—to touch, smell, taste, hear a familiar voice. These—these help us to know how God has created us as beings. Our yearnings are felt physically and spiritually. It is with these types of vivid memories that Harper Lee writes--
I missed Christmas away from home, I thought. What I really missed was a memory of people long since gone, of my grandparents’ house bursting with cousins, smilax, and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dressing. I missed my brother’s night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude, and my father’s bumblebee bass humming ‘Joy to the World.’
Over her early years in New York City, Lee had joined young writer Michael Brown and his family for many get-togethers. Their Christmases were always simple and light--We limited our gifts to pennies and wits and all-out competition. Who would come up with the most outrageous for the least? The real Christmas was for the children, an idea I found totally compatible, for I had long ago ceased to speculate on the meaning of Christmas as anything other than a day for children. Christmas was only a memory of old loves and empty rooms, something I buried with the past that underwent a vague, aching resurrection every year.
Yes, Christmas brought pain, but in 1956, Lee again joined the Browns on Christmas Eve to be woken up by one of their boys early the next morning. The two boys and each member of the family opened gift after gift with great joy and gratitude, and Lee’s ache intensified. She started to believe she had been overlooked. Finally, Joy Brown said,
‘We haven’t forgotten you. Look on the tree.’ There was an envelope on the tree, addressed to me. I opened it and read: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas’....They assured me it was not some kind of joke. They’d had a good year, they said. They’d saved some money and thought it was high time they did something about me. They thought I had a great talent...and they wanted to show their faith in me the best way they knew how.
Lee was stunned by the gift. A full, fair chance for a new life, she remembers. Not given me by an act of generosity, but an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say….and as I stood at the window, looking at the lights and the snow, the ache of an old memory left me forever.
Not only had she been remembered, but Lee had also received trust, faith, and love—the most liberal gifts that removed the burden of the workaday world and gave her life-giving freedom to create. Harper Lee knew the love of her friends because she was seen and cherished.
May we as parents and teachers and humanity remember this truth. No matter our longings or limitations this year, we are able to give of ourselves. We are able to show our trust of others, to demonstrate our faith in them, and to love unconditionally. To be loved is to be truly seen and cherished just as God sees us fully, for His act of love for us brought us His Son.
In that year off of work in 1957, Lee wrote her first drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, the novel won the Pulitzer in 1961. “Christmas to Me” was originally published in the December 1961 issue of McCall’s Magazine.
“I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.
But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books
kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.
Honesty drives me to emphasize it.” —C.S. Lewis
I can’t explain it as well as I’d like, but there’s something to George MacDonald’s preachy style. As a teenager, I read voraciously and whipped through a number of his romances such as The Seaboard Parish (1869) and The Fisherman’s Lady (1875). In each story, a prominent character is in need of a rescue, and in a predictable pattern, MacDonald provides a devout Christian who could guide and lead the needy to Christ. Simple conflicts, happy endings, nice and neat.
Yet these are only one type of novel he wrote. The fairy and fable of his early years feature deeper, even darker thoughts. Consider Phantastes (1858). Here, young Anodos, meaning pathless in Greek, discovers an atypical fairy world, a place of goodness and darkness. The inexperienced Anodos doesn’t always know who to believe among the world of fairies, trees, and creatures, and most alarmingly, he unearths his own shadow, a being that is himself and yet wholly evil. After many adventures by fable’s end, Anodos reawakens in the real world and finds he has been asleep for twenty-one days. This type of fantasy along with MacDonald’s children’s stories and poems is only one small part of his writings though. Having been a Congregational minister for a time, MacDonald can’t seem to keep himself from sermonizing, let alone moralizing, in his stories.
So recently I picked up a piece of his I hadn’t read before, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1866). Our story begins with the honest and friendly greeting of Harry Walton, a new vicar in a rural parish harmlessly called Marshmallows. The story is replete with stereotypical characters such as the rich old widow manipulating others through her position, the old geezer working the local grain mill, the young working-class couple separated by a gruff father, and so on.
What’s unique is MacDonald’s perspective. Young Walton is ever the narrator and describes what he sees: “Why did I not use to see such people about me before?” He recognizes that he is learning to truly see each parishioner as they are, and his ideals are clear. He is driven (or is it inspired?) to make God real to the people in his charge:
a man must be partaker of the Divine nature; that for a man’s work to be done thoroughly, God must come and do it first himself; that to help men, He must be what He is—man in God, God in man—visibly before their eyes, or to the hearing of their ears. So much I saw.
Through Walton’s eyes and ears, we see his encounters and hear his sermons. We see his sincere desires and his need to bring people together, even if he must solve the mysteries of people themselves. He is a winning protagonist, even if pedantic in times.
Personally, I enjoyed hearing the voices of the Victorian age, whether the Spenserian carols at the vicar’s Christmas party or the pulpit pounders straight from MacDonald himself. Unlike other MacDonald novels, Scottish brogue and dialect are hugely absent since our narrator is a cultured man, all the easier for his audience to enjoy the style and theology that is MacDonald’s.
Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood is available in several volumes now as a reprint or digitized for public use at projectgutenberg.com. The Wade Center at Wheaton College and the George MacDonald Society websites provide a delightful array of resources and texts.
Librivox also features 19 hours of MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons.
Perhaps the word inspiration has become trite. Whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction, I've been asked more than once if I ever "feel" inspired to write. I know it's a standard author-type question, but I don't quite believe in the idea of a grand light-bulb moment or a guiding Muse.
I do, however, often read something that gives me an idea or image.
That definition of inspire I do agree with--to produce or arouse a feeling, thought, etc.
Two years ago, I was trying to choose a John Donne poem to teach to my high school juniors. And, as often happens, I kept reading because I was enjoying reading Donne for the delight of simply reading poetry much like C.S. Lewis's idea of "receiving" versus "using" the poems we read. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis also mentions how we delight in the stir of our imaginations.
When I encountered Donne's Holy Sonnet V [below], I had a glimmer of an idea. In the moment, I wasn't stirred by his purpose of calling us to repentance. No, I was captured by the image of new spheres and new lands as Donne cried out for the eternal hope of seeing them. I am a little world? The angelic juxtaposed with black sin? New spheres? New lands?
It was then I sensed it.
I call it a compelling.
What new world could I picture? What could I write of? These were the moments that led me to begin writing fiction for the first time, the completed middle-grade fantasy novel I am querying today.
I am a little world made cunningly
*My favorite Donne collection remains the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets Series because...well, who doesn't like a pocket-size book of poetry?
“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence,
and by reason of their very duration, great misfortunes are monotonous.”
As an independent teacher, I was eager to make a curriculum shift to my World Literature class this school year. I added Albert Camus’s best-selling novel The Plague because I wondered how my students would see a fictional epidemic.
Why not use our times as a secondary context to the novel?
I was not disappointed by our discussions in September. Though Oran, Algeria, is beset by plague, the novel is relatively static. It is also uniquely ahistorical. It may be set in 1947 but there are no references to World War II. Neither the Arab nor African populations of Oran are mentioned. Centuries of segregation are never described. And then there are the facts. It is not possible for a town to have sustained itself for the period of time described in the novel. Yes, the characters are realistic, but the novel is not.
This unique paradigm, however, lends itself to the timelessness Camus captures. Within the bubble of Oran, Camus’s commentary as narrator allows him to describe the “portents and panic” with searing truth.
As COVID broke out in March and April, The Plague, of course, was referenced and quoted repeatedly. Penguin Classics has already had to reprint it twice this year.
From my class discussions, here are my top timeless quotes:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind of autumn is no longer accused of bringing a permanent death. Winter is not an evil. Yes, the seeds that the wind blows will die and be buried for but a season because the warm spring wind will certainly return to bring life.
As much as I thrill to the autumn Keats describes in “To Autumn,” I find a deeper, more intense awareness in Shelley’s poem. Both poems are personal, yet Shelley’s feels like a prayer by the fifth and final stanza.
With great earnestness, he asks the wind to play upon him, that he would be the harp just like the trees of the forest are strings for the wind to play upon. Shelley’s plea extends to his heart. Would that the wind could drive his dead thoughts away like nature’s seeds and bring those dead words to life. He commands the wind to do so, to scatter his words across the earth. I know, I know. Shelley may have been prompted by thoughts of glory and fame, but what if the spiritual parallel goes further?
What if Shelley knew of David’s words in Psalm 49:4-5?
My mouth is about to speak wisdom; my heart’s deepest thoughts will give understanding. I will listen with care to God’s parable. I will set his riddle to the music of the lyre."
How unique that Shelley’s earnest determination parallels David’s. A similar passion drives them as both desire to make a mystery known through lyric.
Their expressions continue to resonate with me, and my hope remains—that I too can echo Shelley’s words in prayer, “Make me thy lyre.”
I’m no stranger to George MacDonald. In fact, I would say I often feel like his welcome companion when I’m immersed in his fiction or poetry. You may have read my reviews of Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood or Castle Warlock on this blog or my thoughts on Sir Gibbie or MacDonald’s Christmas poetry, but I recently read George MacDonald’s 1893 essay “The Fantastic Imagination” for the first time. For those who write, read, or teach fantasy or fairy tales, MacDonald provides a delightful perspective.
Fairy tales really have nothing to do with fairies, or at least they don’t have to. They do, however, have a “natural law” unto themselves as MacDonald writes. Our imagination won’t work without it.
This is what he means. When we create from our imaginations and write a story, we naturally follow a pattern of harmony. MacDonald explains it this way: if you were to give a bizarre or crude accent to “the gracious creatures of some childlike region of Fairyland,” then wouldn’t the tale sink then and there? The pieces of the tale must harmonize and not stick out.
Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church."
MacDonald continues with a lively question and answer section in his essay. He repeats relevant questions I’m sure he must have heard many times during his literary tours at home and abroad.
"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have meaning?"
And so on. We each bring our own meaning to what we read and what we experience as we read, but children don’t worry about such things. It seems only adults do.
This is where MacDonald introduces us to my favorite simile. Maybe I like it because it’s a musical term. Maybe it’s because it’s not black and white. But MacDonald says, “The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata.” He argues that words aren’t as precise as we suppose. If a few men were to listen to a sonata and then write down what they thought it meant, the very action would destroy its effect upon them. The tale is to be experienced, not analyzed. It is for the beauty, not for facts and knowledge. It should stir and wake us.
The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists.”
What do you think of MacDonald's observations?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
To read MacDonald’s full essay found at the George MacDonald Society, click here.
IN BOOK I OF HIS CONFESSIONS, Augustine writes that for all the literature he read, for all the glory and passion and tears shed as his teachers required him to read about Aeneas and Odysseus, he never thought to apply what he read of the “empty romances” to himself--
I was obliged to memorize the wanderings of a hero named Aeneas, while in the meantime I failed to remember my own erratic ways. I learned to lament the death of Dido, who killed herself for love, while all the time, in the midst of these things, I was dying, separated from you my God and my Life, and I shed no tears for my plight.”
I realize that in his youth Augustine was lamenting his separation from God, even his ignorance of Him. Yet I wonder to myself how he skipped the step of application, whether spiritual or otherwise. He obviously experienced the pathos of the stories as led by his teachers. But story is more than emotion. Did he not wonder if he would do as Aeneas did. Augustine did admit to tears by the end of reading. Did he not learn about himself by reading The Aeneid? Oh, I wish I could ask him.
This is the question for me. Story is experience. We want to connect to characters, to empathize with them, to cheer, to rage, to grieve, to love because our life experiences are stories.
But if we fail to learn about ourselves from literature or history,
Augustine simplistically concludes that stories are “empty fantasies dreamed up by the poets.” Though they are “enchanting,” they are “futile.” He feels there are more valuable studies and would rather jettison them entirely.
I don’t know what Augustine’s teachers modeled, but I do know that as a teacher, I want to model application. Yes, I want my students to understand a story. But that is the simplest step, the first shallow one leading into the water at ankle depth. I want to equip them with tools and methods and context to analyze a piece further in knee or waist-deep water. And most importantly, I hope to model application to the heart. If I have not asked, “What does this show in our humanness?” Or “How can God use this story regardless of the author’s intent?” then I will have drawn up short.
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash
Spanning generations and political views, the authors I teach here have influenced how I see people, how I see my own students, and hopefully how we all see the world we live in.
1. Booker T. Washington
If you read my blog, you know I’m an ardent fan of Washington and his words. [See An Educator’s Devotion and Booker T. Washington’s Compromise.] When I read his Character Training (1902) in January this year, I was inspired to be more intentional in laying excellence as a standard in my classrooms. I’ve continued to read more of his works and biographies by others, including the singular The Negro in the South lectures with W. E. B. Du Bois. It's interesting to see the two men juxtaposed. Even if you've never read these men before, Washington is naturally more positive in these lectures while Du Bois's deep sense of injustice permeates his words.
2. Lorraine Hansberry
Just as Washington believed hard work and perseverance were noble efforts, Hansberry depicted a different reality in the 1950s, the limitation of the American Dream for black Americans. I know it’s not her only work, but her play A Raisin in the Sun (1957) is such a living picture. She writes to her mother, “It is a play that tells the truth about people. But above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.” It is the essence of a merciful humanism, a good kind, that stirs understanding in the middle of activism.
3. Chinua Achebe
Like Hansberry, Achebe was published by the age of 28. I first read Achebe in college under the tutelage of a visiting professor from Nigeria. More than the class discussions about Things Fall Apart (1958), I remember the sense of my cultural ignorance. Yes, suffering, pride, and injustice are human frailties, but more than that, a native son can criticize his own country for allowing Western values to compete with traditional African culture. I also read his second novel No Longer at Ease (1960) and include my reflections here in Reading Binges. It very much reminded me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
4. Christopher Paul Curtis
I first read Bud, Not Buddy (2000) with my oldest son when he was in third grade. Bud, a ten-year-old African American boy, runs away from his abusive foster family in Flint, Michigan. He embarks on a journey to find his father, enduring the fears and horrors of the Great Depression. Written in a strong, compelling voice, Bud, Not Buddy beautifully evokes what life was like for African Americans, especially musicians, in Michigan during the Depression. Since then, my family was captured by Curtis’s historical fiction, having read The Watsons Go To Birmingham and Elijah of Buxton. I continue to recommend Curtis to families looking for compelling historical reads.
5. Harriet Ann Jacobs
At the recommendation of Karen Swallow Prior, I finally read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) two years ago. Not only had I never heard of the account, but my students hadn’t either. I now include excerpts from Jacobs after I teach Washington's Up from Slavery. Jacobs addresses her autobiography to white Northern women who fail to comprehend the evils of slavery. Published in 1861, it is a harrowing account of hiding for seven years before being reunited with her children in New York. After the Civil War, Jacobs traveled to Union-occupied parts of the South together with her daughter to organize help and begin two schools for fugitive and freed slaves. Her book was well-received in America and England.
TEACHING MY STUDENTS how to improve their own writing is no easy task. I emphasize content and typically focus on one to two stylistic elements per assignment. At the beginning of the school year, I quickly noticed that my seniors were overfond of the verb “use” in most any casual or formal writing assignment. We quickly built a synonym base for the word on the whiteboard and discussed connotations. For several months, I had them search and highlight the word, allowing for a single use.
As I worked on my novel these past months, my editor had to repeatedly teach me how to balance my use of active and passive voice in both dialogue and narration. Repeatedly. It took a number of attempts for my brain to get it. And practice was very much a part of the process.
My point is that it often takes mini-lessons like these as we each take steps in our writing or even speaking. And that is when writing style guides can be such a help. But forget writing classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The concept of spelling out rules with writing examples was tackled well before the 20th century. Think of Aristotle’s Poetics in 4th century BC. Though he focuses on drama and epic, he does address the use of language and a playwright’s diction.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider a short but splendid stylebook of the first century, one that considers the written and the spoken word. More than our contemporary guides, Cassius Longinus explores the motive of the writer. Why is he writing? What is his end? But more importantly, can we attain sublimity of language? Are we capable of learning it?
A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no.”
In On the Sublime I especially enjoy how Longinus speaks of the artistic turn of phrase, the creator's craft, as he cites concrete examples from Homer, the Bible, Sappho, Herodotus, Aristarchus, and so on. The sublime is a simple term that implies so much. The "loftiness and excellence of language" remain the ideal in writing as opposed to fluff or bombast. And yes, Longinus, fully discredits those as false writing. I think today we would call that emotional or reactionary writing. Bombast is simply writing that goes too far. The writer recognizes the need to be original in his use of description and goes overboard. Longinus eventually calls it pathetic. It seems everyone wants to be original. Too true.
In Part XV, Longinus provides real examples from Homer, Sophocles, and others that we can imitate. Grand language and perfectly crafted imagery are praised most, but his third and fourth principles are the most practical. Combine figures of speech or rhetorical devices for the most effect. A “close and continuous series of metaphors” is distinctive. Use conjunctions intentionally. Arrange your words in a certain and best order.
There is so much more to his advice and criticism, but I especially appreciate Longinus’ analysis of a writer’s style. After we have picked at all the parts, how do we determine what the best writing is? His final pages explore this very question--
Is it not worthwhile to raise the whole question whether in poetry and prose we should prefer sublimity accompanied by some faults, or a style which never rising above moderate excellence never stumbles and never requires correction? ... these are questions proper to an inquiry on the Sublime, and urgently ask for settlement."
And Longinus finds it hard to do. At first, he says a reader can discern an innate harmony within an essay. The reader simply knows it is sublime writing. But then, Longinus provides several examples of what sublime language is not. In other words, good writing remains to this day something easy to recognize yet hard to define.
Read "On the Sublime" at Project Gutenberg.