Writing good literature

Speaking on the evolution of Arthurian legend to include Galahad, the Round Table, a more interesting Merlin, etc:

It is occasionally forgotten, or seems to be, in the great scholarly discussions, that anyone who is writing a poem or a romance is primarily writing a poem or a romance. He will, of course, be affected, as the Crusaders in their task were affected, by all sorts of other things – his religious views, his political views, his need of money, the necessity for haste, the instructions of a patron, carelessness, forgetfulness, foolishness. But he is primarily concerned with making a satisfactory book. He may borrow anything from anywhere – if he thinks it makes a better book. He may leave out anything from anywhere – if he thinks it makes a better book. And this (it can hardly be doubted), rather than anything else, was the first cause of the invention of the glorious and sacred figure of Galahad.

-Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, p.62

This is another thing you can put in the “captain obvious” file, but it’s worth bringing up. His point is that this is forgotten in some SCHOLARLY discussions. It’s also why a person you share nothing with politically, religiously, or socially can still write a book that you recognize as outstanding. If they’re intention was excellent literature, they will do whatever they need to craft it well. However, if they’re primary intention was to preach (be it about global warming or eschatology), they may easily end up writing garbage. Even if the agenda is something you favor, it doesn’t make the literature any better.

Metaphor changes language

This is one of the more lucid passages I discovered reading Owen Barfield:

Now apart from the actual invention of new words (an art in which many poets have excelled), the principal means by which this creation of meaning is achieved is – as has already been pointd out – metaphor. But it must be remembered that ANY specifically NEW use of a word or phrase is really a metaphor, since it attempts to arouse cognition of the unknown by suggestion from the known. I will take an example: the painter’s expression “point of view” was a metaphor the first time it was used with a psychological content. This content is today one of its accepted meanings – indeed, it is the most familiar one – but it could only have become so AFTER passing, explicity or implicityl, through the earlier stage of metaphor. In other words, either Coleridge or somebody else either said or thought (I am of course putting it a little crudely) ‘X is to the mind what “point of view” is to an observer of landscape’. And in so doing he enriched the content of the expression “point of view” just as Shakespeare enriched the content of ‘balm’ (and of ‘sleep’, too) when he called sleep the ‘balm of hurt minds’ (‘sleep is to hurt minds what balm is to hurt bodies’). Reflection will show that the ‘new’ use of an epithet – that is to say, its application to a substantive with which it has not hitherto been coupled – is also a concealed metaphor.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: The Making of Meaning, (Reader p.20)

Barfield goes on to explain in quite some detail how the word “ruin” evolved (via metaphor) to mean several different things over the course of history. This stuff is interesting, but Podictionary makes it more fun!

Years of creative output

One things that strikes me about the Inklings is that many of them led short lives by our standards. Charles Williams died at 58, before retirement age. Same with Lewis, who passed away at 63. Tolkien finally expired at 81, but even that is not so long. Nearly all my grandparents have or will likely surpass them. My grandfather Walter died at 101.

Perhaps I still have time to make an impression on the world. As I approach the age of 30, I have to switch to older models. My standard so far has been Ralph Vaughn Williams, one of my favorite composers, who, notably, didn’t write anything good until he was about 32. This is rather unusual among musicians, who typically show signs of rocking the house by their late teens or earlier. See Mozart, Brahms, etc.

Only Owen Barfield stuck around long enough to see his friend’s names become famous, to be interviewed for documentaries about…himself. He far outlived the rest of them (1898-1997).

Lewis on literary ghosts

“I mean the damned have holidays-excursions, ye understand.”
“Excursions to this country?”
“For those that will take them. Of course most of the silly creatures don’t. They prefer taking trips back to Earth. They go and play tricks on the poor daft women ye call mediums. They go and try to assert their ownership of some house that once belonged to them: and then yo get what’s called a Haunting. Or they go to spy on their children. Or literary Ghosts hang about public libraries to see if anyone’s still reading their books.

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p.66

And the ghosts of internet writers hang out on their stats and analytics page to see if anyone is still reading their blog.

Photo credit

Doubt as a seed, a story worth retelling

Kathleen Norris tells of a long intellectual battle against the faith of her childhood, finding it impossible for a time to swallow much of Christian doctrine. Later, experiencing problems in her personal life, she felt drawn to a Benedictine abbey where, to her surprise, the monks seemed unconcerned about her weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations. “I was a bit disappointed,” she writes. “I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused and intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow.” Rather than address her doubts one by one, the monks instead instructed her in worship and liturgy.

-Philip Yancy, Reaching for the Invisible God, P. 219

Two things to mention here:

First, you’ve probably heard the phrase “seeds of doubt”. As in “Her friend’s gossip, though she brushed it off initially, planted seeds of doubt in her mind concerning the fidelity of her new boyfriend.” I find the notion described above by the monk to be fascinating and encouraging. A doubt we have may in fact be a seed of faith, ready to grow. This assumes that we come to God as sinners, unbelieving, looking up, wanting to believe. This, in contrast to the idea of being His people and our doubts being something that drag us down and make us fall away from the faith and prevent us from sustaining devotion on our own. I think I like the first idea better!

Secondly, citing the source of this idea presents an obvious problem. Some old and wise man of the Benedictine order taught his novices this encouragement of “doubt being a seed”. A monk down the line passed this on to Kathleen Norris (a poet and novelist I’m not really familiar with). She wrote it down in a book somewhere and it was recounted by Philip Yancy in one of his works.

I think Yancy has largely made a writing career out of compiling pertinent excerpts from other’s writing and then sprinkling in a little bit of his own commentary. There are lots of good one liners and illustrations, but ultimately not much is added to our collective body of literature and understanding. A lot of academic research can end up looking like this too! When your primary motivation for writing a thesis is to gain tenure at your institution, why not just recycle and repackage ideas? It may still take quite a bit of effort to produce, but there is no risk and little burden to be creative. Digging deep into original sources and experiences can be a lot of work with little to offer the casual reader.

Nevertheless, I guess I’ll appreciate Yancy (and other folks like him) for what they doing anyway.

Who is quoting who?

I was typing notes down from a stack of books yesterday and realized how much time theologians spend quoting the people that came before them. Sometimes they have long stretches of their own original ideas, but most of the time is spent quoting someone else and then discussing it. That’s exactly what I’m doing on this blog. Maybe I’m in good company. Or maybe we ALL aren’t very original!

Anyway, I found it kind of funny.

In “Wild at Heart”, I’m amazed at how often author John Eldridge quotes Philip Yancey.

From what I’ve read of Philip Yancey, he likes to quote C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.

Lewis and Chesterton in turn quote Augustine a lot.

Now we’re starting to get into some more meaty content. I feel like I’m traveling down a funnel…

Augustine quotes, hmmm, lets see, the New Testament quite a bit.

And in the New Testament, we have some really good fresh material from Jesus and Paul, but even they are quoting stuff all the time! From where? Well, the Old Testament! (Jude also quotes the Apocrypha a bit too. Apparently he didn’t get the memo.)

And now in the Old Testament, we’ve got the raw WORD OF GOD, in the law and the prophets. Along with some inspired hymns, poetry, wise sayings, and a lot of straight history.

I think this is why sometimes, we just need to skip all the middle men and read BIBLE.

Just keep blogging, just keep blogging!

I’ve decided to quite trying to blog in a structured fashion. I have a whole list of things I wanted to write about specifically, but have had to force myself to shift gears most of the times I sat down to write. Shifting waffle squares can be hard work. Now I am going to not conform to the plans and just write about whatever I feel like writing about at the moment. I sat down today to blog more of “Reaching for the Invisible God”, but wrote a post about what was currently on my iPod instead. If I had tried to go with the plan, I probably wouldn’t have written anything at all!

So my wife made me do this

OK. I read a lot of blogs. I’ve been thinking about starting one for months. I have lots of ideas written down for topics I would like to write about. I have books filled with little Post-It note bookmarks to help me remember important spots I wanted to mention. I think about it a lot, but I have yet to actually start it after nearly 2 years. Why? Oh let me count the ways…

1. I’m afraid to let my thoughts be made public. Some of it is fear of being flamed, but I think I can handle that. Specifically, I fear destroying future job prospects. The field I work in is filled with people that are explicitly anti-Christian. I guess I try to transcend that at the workplace by not being very opinionated about anything. Nonetheless, I have a whole stack of horror stories from places like The Chronicle for Higher Education where a person’s blog got them fired or passed over. I’m not talking about the obvious things like flaming your co-workers online and then reaping the consequences. Those people deserve exactly what they get for letting their tongue slip. I’m talking about more subtle things like political persuasion, religion, etc. So I’m pretty sure I’ll have to always use a pseudonym. The goal isn’t to achieve anonymity’s, but to discourage casual readers from figuring things out without any work at all. I don’t want this to come up if you Google my name.

2. Writing is hard work. I love to read good blogs. I hate reading bad ones. In fact, I don’t read them! I don’t want to post anything that sucks, but that means a lot of time and thought to invest in it. As if I didn’t have plenty of other things to be doing in the meantime, like the dishes. One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” Bad writing is often disguised as long-winded writing. I don’t just want to blah blah blah, I want to say something significant. With every post! Sound too ideal? Yes, I’m sure it is.

3. Software. I’m a programmer. I don’t want to use some prefab blog like LiveJournal, BlogSpot or WordPress, etc. I don’t even want to install an engine on my own hosted site. I want to write a full-featured blog from scratch using Ruby on Rails and Scriptaculous with integrated load balancing and validation in FireFox, IE, Safari, and Konqueror! With a plan like that, I would spend the next year writing code and not actually make a single post!

4. I’m not sure whether to stick to one topic or post on a smattering of interests. Some possible topics? All the wise people out there say that a successful blog should stick with one topic. If you want to write about more than one thing, you should probably have multiple blogs. Nobody cares about your personal little eclectic grotto. I want to do this eventually, but remember this blog here is just to break the cycle of procrastination.

Speaking of how Blogs should be written… A lot of people say that lists are good. Use lots of lists. Here are 10 reasons why you should use lists, etc. OK. So what will I be posting on? Without further ado…

Christian Theology
More specifically…
Ecumenicalism (Church unity)
Christian Mysticism (Along the lines of St. John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, etc.)
My journey from Baptist to Charismatic to partially Reformed to “More confused but more certain”.
Quotes, book excerpts and commentary from authors and speakers I have enjoyed (Larry Crabb, C.S. Lewis, Peter Leithart, could go on and on.)

More specifically…
Classical guitar
Celtic Music
Celtic guitar (of course!) As typified by Pierre Bensusan, Steve Baugman, James Kline, etc.)
Renaissance Lute
Trance techno (Ha! Topic whiplash!)
Music pedagogy

Web application development
More specifically…
My journey from ASP.NET (C#) and MSSQL to Ruby on Rails and MySQL. (Lots to cover here.)
A place to keep a list of by favorite code snippets.
Miscellaneous musings.

Well, that’s all for now. I’m getting tired and my son (who has been on my lap the entire time) keeps falling asleep on me. He thinks blogging is boring. I guess I will sign off for now!