So you can read my books

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonizing pincer-jaws of heaven.

—“Sanctity,” by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who died on this day in 1967;

the poem surfaced in the news when read by Russell Crowe when he accepted his BAFTA award for the movie A Beautiful Mind.

Many of us poured our creative energies into a month-long gauntlet called NaNo.

In that time did we create something worthwhile or just throw together the lumber of our minds in a hodge-podge of slapped together verbs and nouns?

A month is a long time to spend on words that were not distilled and carefully crafted according to a thought-out blueprint. Would you buy a house built without a blueprint?

We write, as Van Gogh painted, with little indication that we will ever be appreciated. He, himself, never felt appreciated in his lifetime. Very few of us who are not published in our lifetimes will ever be "discovered" after our death.

So are we wasting our time?

C. S. Lewis was born on this day in 1898 in Belfast. When young Jack was six, the Lewis family moved to a large house which his father, a solicitor, had built on the outskirts of the city.

In Surprised by Joy, his 1955 autobiography, Lewis describes the new family home as “less a house than a city,” and fertile ground:

"I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

Also, of endless books…. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcases on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic….

Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. "

Before long, and partly to compensate for having lost his only brother to boarding school, Lewis turned from reader to writer.

At a desk his parents had made for him, in “the little end room” of the attic, he began to write and illustrate stories of “dressed animals and knights-in-armour” — tales of “chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats.”

Soon the knightly bunnies needed a home and a past, and Lewis turned “from romancing to historiography.” He created “Animal-Land,” complete with maps and family sagas, and situated it on an island near the Himalayas, to be proximate to his brother’s India-Land.

"My brother rapidly invented the principal steamship routes" betweeen the two countries; eventually, the two worlds merged into “Boxen,” now published as the Lewis-world that predates Narnia.

Those stories never saw print in his lifetime.

Were they a waste? Are our dreams? I think you know the answer to that.

The pursuit of dreams is never wasted. If the dreams never seem to come to pass, the journey has been one of magic and renewal --

the renewal of that intangible, but essential, human element : our soul. A dream discarded never leaves us. It slowly decomposes in the attic of our being, slowly poisoning our zest for life.

A dream nutured and cherished is to have perpetual Spring in our hearts. We may be Don Quixote, never vanguishing the windmill but somehow the stronger and truer for the effort.

And to end with a nod to an old friend of mine :

Mark Twain's seventieth birthday celebration was held on this day in 1905 at New York’s Delmonico’s Restaurant. One hundred and seventy-five of Twain’s distinguished friends were there, to HEAR WHY HE LIVED SO LONG

(the headline in the NY Times report of the occasion), and to take home a foot-high plaster bust of the author.

In his speech, Twain attributed his health and longevity to several hard-earned (and oft-repeated) principles — "to go to bed when there wasn't anybody left to sit up with," and "never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake."


  1. I didn't do NaNo, for that very reason. I can't bring myself to write a hodge podge of a mess, simply because it's not how I write.

    Some others are great at laying down the bare bones of a story and then fine-tuning it later on. But I can't. I guess it just depends on the person, and how they work.

    For some I think NaNo is an excellent push to get a first draft completed. It's a pizza base. Then when they're finished they can add whatever toppings they please. Not MY style, but if it works for others, then good on them.

    I assume you're a lot like me, Roland. In which we spend too long trying to make something sing before we move forward. Am I right?

  2. I'm not a NaNo person, but I believe there is no wasted writing, and all creative energy that a writer exercises rebounds onto them.

    And you never know when your grand-children will pull out a couple of NaNo works and have them edited or ghost-polished for posterity...

  3. Jessica : How long is too long? Ernest Hemingway was proud of 500 words a day if they were true prose.

    I think the difference between a canvas of paint smears and a masterpiece is the discipline and the craft of the artist striving to create something of worth.

    To me, NaNo reinforces negative writing habits of just throwing something together without careful thought of where to place foreshadowing, character development, and a first and last chapter that act as "before" and "after" pictures in those weight ads. Learning to slap something together and hoping it all somehow mystically turns out all right is simply magical thinking.

    Your comments are always a pleasure to read as your own posts. Thanks for visiting!

  4. C.N. : Like you, I believe every word we write leaves its mark on us -- hurried, inaccurate words reinforce habits that will hamper us in our future.

    Days are coins we can spend but once. Why not spend them wisely, using the light to reinforce positive writing habits of diligence, discipline, and careful craft -- for none of us is promised the coin of tomorrow.

  5. @Roland - I definitely share your concerns about NaNo reinforcing bad habit for some people, but I also know that a lot of people who participate are (frankly) not ready yet to write much more carefully or with a lot of craft and will benefit from the raw exercise of their creative muscles.

    That said, my own perspective is much like yours: if I'm going to write anyway, why not do it well and properly, rather than simply spew words?

  6. Your prose is poetic, Roland. Love this:
    "A dream discarded never leaves us. It slowly decomposes in the attic of our being, slowly poisoning our zest for life."

    I can so see and feel that image.

    I agree on the NaNo comments here; it may work for many, but not me. I like to plot and plan and put in my detail AS I go, and I don't need NaNo, because:
    1)the details are the joy of writing; I enjoy the process along the way, rather than slopping empty/stark words on the page,
    2)lovely surprises come of more thought and time spent, that I can incorporate into later scenes or dialogues, such as an ongoing joke or symbolism,
    3)ugh, I can't even imagine finding the willpower to slog through editing and shaping up 200+ pages of a hurried mess afterward, and
    4)I have NO trouble finishing a novel so I don't need NaNo motivation (on my 16th novel now--LOL, talk about some works never seeing the light of day)
    Happy (more) leisurely writing.

  7. C.N. : Yes, I think NaNo definitely encourages the discipline of daily writing. It just seem such a sad waste of so much time that can never be regained. Thanks for caring enough to comment twice. It really means a lot to me. Now, the blood game calls me to the roads. Have a great day, everyone!

  8. Writing is not about a dated time and place set aside with a deadline where you breath a sigh of relief when it's over. No one should set themselves up to "fail". If you are going to be a writer, you need to write with ferocity, stealth and a ballet pirouette, every day - even if you only produce one page. I don't understand NaNo so I don't participate. I am trying to actively participate in the game we call writing every time I sit down at the keyboard.

  9. Hi,

    No Nano for moi: I've long since mastered the skill of letting distraction slip by unnoticed and thereby able to give full commitment to word production per day! End result I can bear to read what is written at point of completion, unlike the first Nano write-in I did, which was nothing more than bare boned plot in need of full rewrite! So no, no Nano.

    That said, I write for the love of characters who more often than shout out from a painting demanding their story be told, so that's what I do. ;)

    If you want to get a lit agent: check out my blog.


  10. Hey Roland--

    I am a NaNoer. But I went into NaNo, not with the expectation to finish a novel, but to make myself focus on one project for a determined amount of time.

    You see--my muse is a mulit-tasking pain in the neck. I get working on a great story and halfway through other voices and characters take over my brain.

    I didn't come out of NaNo with anymore discipline than what I went in with, becuase I had to stop in the middle and start ANOTHER book. (that makes for WIP'S-ugh)

    The story I chose to write has lived in my head for nearly as long as I've been writing--no not wow, only 18 months *cringes, waves* yes, I am a newbie to this art--

    I found I spent more time (like hourse of each day) staring at the computer screen in November than actually writing (two to three hours a day), and yet I still crossed the finish line. Why was I just staring? Because I didn't want the 'deadline' to hind my writing. I didn't want to produce crap.

    and my beta reader has confirmed from reading the unedited excerpts on my blog, that I did not fail NaNo, in any way.

    I'm dropping you an email later today. :) until then...

    have a great day


  11. I didn't do NaNo because I cannot rush myself. My method is tried and true and I don't like to change it because it means more re-writing! I did cheer my friends along though and used their energy to compel myself to write more. I wrote 25k this month and I have the spirit of NaNo to thank for that!

  12. "A dream nurtured and cherished is to have perpetual Spring in our hearts."

    Beautiful sentiment:)

    NaNo has no appeal for me but if it works for others, it's good.

  13. I did NaNo--I felt like the number of words was worth the clutter and mess that would result. I don't mind rushing, and I wanted to send my story into new territory, new directions.

  14. I relate to those who don't do NaNo. I often wish I lived in the time and place that C.S. Lewis did. Such a different world from ours where people seem to constantly rush to do everything! I didn't grow up this way, and am concentrating on slowing down, relaxing. I often sit with pen and notebook to sketch out a scene or write an idea, anything to get away from the computer for awhile!

    Thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking post!!

  15. "We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to." ~W Somerset Maugham For my part I would prefer my work be something worthwhile even if it never gets published. Ever. But that is just me.
    Very nice post today!!!

  16. HI Roland,

    I join the others and you. I find that rushing, the writing quality is lost. I think a writer can have a good writing spirt and write well for a day. I wrote as much as 6000 words in one day, but that was just that one day. I couldn't keep that pace up. Not for 50,000 maybe half that.

    As always your prose is just beautiful. Always a pleasure to read.


  17. I had written each of you a long reply each, but my weary little finger tapped some loathesome key and POOF! There they went. I don't have the heart or energy or time to re-write. Sorry, the phone just rang and I must be off on the midnight roads. Thanks, everyone. Your comments each meant the world to me.