OVER A YEAR AGO, I read Don King’s Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. I was struck by how quickly I felt Joy’s presence and personality in her correspondence with her sons, ex-husband, and husband-to-be, C.S. Lewis. Brash, opinionated, desperate, loving. Spanning years, these letters revealed more than a screen could. I felt who she was through her words.
As one of my tutorial students and I finished discussing Pride and Prejudice this week, I was reminded of this same crystal realism. He had never read a book where letters were used so much, and he was surprised at how effective they were in fiction. As our conversation meandered, we gradually spoke of one of the most significant letters, one that Austen must have crafted with great care.
As readers, we have joined Elizabeth in her misinterpretation of several characters, including Darcy. In Volume Two, Elizabeth has just rejected Darcy’s proposal of marriage and accused him of malice towards her sister Jane and towards Wickham. He then graciously extracts himself from her rudeness and sends her the longest letter of explanation the next day. It is a pivotal moment for Elizabeth and for Austen’s readers.
As Elizabeth reads, we hear Darcy’s truth through his voice. In person, he speaks little in contrast to others, but here, in a letter, he is vividly present. His manners, his balance of diffidence and kindness are all revealed in his measured choice of words. We know him. I know him, and the feel of it astounds me still.
But as in real life, letters can carry a sense of who a person is or was.
I realize letters in literature are not new. But as in real life, letters can carry a sense of who a person is or was. Perhaps it is the deliberate time and care they take to write. My writer friend Michael De Sapio says, “It is an act every part of which expresses care, attention, and deliberate intent. It costs more, in every sense...writing a letter forces you to filter your information and set down the essential and significant. It is a true act of creation, with nothing random about it.” (Why Letter-Writing Is Essential to the Good Life)
To me, the personal creative act must be what reveals our essence, our personality in a selection of words. Whether fiction or fact, letter writing can express who we are.
So how about it? I noticed lots of articles and features on writing letters at the beginning of the pandemic. I didn’t write much by hand, did you? Do you hope to? Has writing letters or reading them enriched you? Comment below or email me back. I’d love to hear more.
When we think of love sonnets, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or perhaps the mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly.
FORGET THE LAW
Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire. Naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
A MUSE IS BORN
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders as a cleric and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a more popular form was born. Though he did not invent the sonnet, the personal and spiritual nature of his verse is intensely compelling. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
Petrarch was not selfishly obsessive, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
In his first sonnet, for example, Petrarch speaks of himself, not Laura.
O you who hear within these scattered verses
Petrarch does hope those who have loved before will understand his suffering. This, of course, is typical of the ideal of unrequited love sung of during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The greater the sighs, the greater the suffering, the greater the love.
He may appear to be in despair, but he is actually debased, drawn to humility and repentance as he wrestles with his flesh. His spiritual state is clear—he is humbled by how he is drawn to “vanities” or his love for Laura because he knows it is not eternal, but “a quick passing dream.”
From her to you comes loving thought that leads,
It is God’s Love that shines from within her as Petrarch envisions Laura. With gratitude, he is drawn to a Higher Love. Petrarch seems to know that he must pursue the “highest good” or his love will become common and fleshly, “what all men desire.” Rather than wallow in despair, he is filled with hope that his Muse is leading him heavenward.
War, or perceived war, affects our imagination.
More than one reader shared a war account with me and wondered the same thing I did. During the pandemic, many hospitals and entire cities have been described as battlegrounds in a war against a virus. The word trauma appears regularly.
Another reader responded that her foster children experienced the same lack C.S. Lewis observed in his London evacuees. Their imaginations had simply stopped. Her family continues to love and nurture and create opportunities for these children, for their imaginations to work. Play is crucial, she wrote. After a year, they are seeing creativity return.
Lewis’s theory about limited imagination in wartime proves true. The imagination can shut down to protect itself from grief, from imagining too vividly what happened. It will try to prevent itself from reliving trauma. The mind and spirit protect themselves.
I read parts of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, to understand a psychiatrist’s perspective. Whether through trauma, abuse, or neglect, traumatized people anticipate rejection and deprivation and are certain new options will lead to failure. When they are compulsively and constantly being pulled into the past, they cannot envision a different future.
Dr. Karyn Purvis agrees and advocates for trauma-informed care for children who come from hard places. Severe trauma physically affects brain growth on a physical level. Cognitive processing and emotional regulation slow. Higher level brain growth is stunted. Purvis says that brain behavior must return to the place before trauma happened. We help trauma victims by rewriting their brains with new safe experiences. Some psychologists call this imprinting. Some call it bonding. But all of it relates to resurrecting this thing called imagination.
In my reading this week, I’ve realized the deprivations of the pandemic have affected me more deeply than I had guessed. Is that too simple? I’m pretty sure I’ve ignored it. For me, it’s a first step—acknowledging that it’s there. Many of you have been shaped by layers of loss that go deeper. Maybe you've thought the word trauma is too strong. Your body, mind, and imagination have all been affected.
I can’t offer a plan of action or the care of a therapist, but I can offer encouragement as we seek together to understand this thing called the imagination.
Imagination is integral to the quality of our lives. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships. Without it, hope fades.
We are designed this way.
In the words of George MacDonald,
The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God. Everything of man must have been of God first; and it will help much towards our understanding of the imagination and its functions in man if we first succeed in regarding aright the imagination of God, in which the imagination of man lives and moves and has its being."
Please share any resources and thoughts below.
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.