How C.S. Lewis Wrote Books

From The Narnian, by Alan Jacobs:

“[C.S. Lewis] did not know what difference being a Christian was supposed to make, or could make, in his life as a literary writer. He needed clarification—he needed a better grasp of the intellectual landscape through which he was moving. In August 1932, when he was taking an Irish holiday at Arthur’s house, he found himself sketching that landscape and forming the story of a man’s travels through it. In two weeks he had written his first book of prose, an allegorical narrative called The Pilgrim’s Regress. 

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on this achievement. As we have just seen, all of Lewis’s literary ambitions to this point in his life had revolved around poetry. His prose publications at this point consisted of a mere handful of book reviews and brief academic articles, though he had been working (fitfully) on a scholarly book for several years. This burst of fluency had therefore to be completely unexpected to Lewis—unexpected, but also gratifying, for he learned, in that fortnight with Arthur, that he could write vivid prose and write it quickly, with minimal revision. And so he would write prose for the rest of his life: with a nib pen flowing across page after page of paper with few pauses—except to dip the pen in the inkwell—and still fewer corrections or crossings-out. (He never learned to type.) After The Pilgrim’s Regress he would produce thirty-five more books of prose—slightly more than one a year—and hundreds of articles and essays on an astonishingly wide range of subjects. And during his most productive years he was not only working as a tutor but caring for an increasingly infirm Mrs. Moore. He had to be fluent, else he would have gotten nothing done.

To be sure, fluency did not always serve him well: the sloppiness of many of Lewis’s books was immensely annoying to Tolkien (than whom a more obsessively careful writer never existed) and actually became a cause of significant tension in their friendship. Probably all his books—with the signal exception of the long-labored-over history of sixteenth-century English literature—would have benefited from at least one more good revision before being sent to the publisher. The inconsistencies in the Narnia books troubled Lewis, and had he lived longer, or been in better health in his final years, it is likely that he would have cleaned those up. But in general he seems not to have worried much about the flaws in his books—nor could he have, since by the time he sent one to the publisher he was halfway through the next. He felt he had work to do, a calling to fulfill, and given the limited time and difficult circumstances in which for most of his life he had to write, surely he would have appreciated that great maxim of Chesterton’s, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.'” (Emphasis mine.)

I absolutely love this picture of C.S. Lewis’ explosive writing productivity. It has inspired me recently to write in my spare time, which is precious little these days. My best opportunity is around 9p.m. after the kids are in bed. I have two or three choices besides sleep at that point: read, write, or watch something. You can imagine which is the most appealing option.

Lewis’ approach is a great reminder, moreover, to get comfortable with “good enough”. I think I am rather like Tolkien in my perfectionism, which can be as crippling as it is useful. It’s also worth noting that while Lewis was exceptionally bright, he (like Tolkien and his fellow Inklings) was reading often, a habit that was a vital wellspring for his imagination.

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