Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written.
Warning: This document contains some truly jarring notes; I give sharp critiques to a man I owe inestimable debts.
Where to begin? Let me draw out one point, quoted, as it may happen to be, from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God.”
These words were original, not even in pretension. A historian would hear the clear and conscious echo. Thomas Aquinas said, “The divine became human that the human might become divine.” The phrase had been rumbling down the centuries, in its living form in St. Maximos the Confessor: “God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God.” The oldest source I’ve read it, inexactly and not yet crystallized into its wording, is in the second century St. Irenaeos: “Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods? Although God has adopted this course out of his pure benevolence, that no one may charge him with discrimination or stinginess, he declares, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are sons of the Most High.” … For it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”
I start with reference to C.S. Lewis because, more than any other he formed me as a writer. I’ve read almost everything he wrote across all his genres, and the biggest mark of a follower is this: at least when I am writing for certain audiences, I critique him out of his own resources. That is the mark of a follower; and incidentally it has nothing to do with talent; it is a standard remark in academia that the people who critique you are your own Ph.D. students.
For instance of critiquing him out of his own resources, in the last section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis wrote, “The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak… In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it, was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour.” And one line of reply is that Lewis left someone out in his narrative of the twin magician and scientist. He left out the (equally) towering figure of their overlapping contemporary, the Reformer, who stands as tall as a Renaissance magus in his plans to improve the despicable raw material of the Church and make of it something worthwhile. I explore this in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer.
Another, more extended quotation, has to do with “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”, which I really think C.S. Lewis violated his own positions to write. I do not necessarily say that such an essay shouldn’t have been written (G.K. Chesterton did better with a digression in his telling of Francis of Assisi’s story), but I do say that I was shocked that Lewis himself had written it.
The reason is that everywhere else C.S. Lewis is an apostle of “mere Christianity,” and tries to be dogmatic about common ground among in historic Christianity and exclusively about Christian common ground. This means, for instance, that in his book “Mere Christianity” he backs away from momentous questions about the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, directly affirming nothing save the Virgin Birth:
Some people draw unwarranted conclusions from the fact that I never say more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But surely my reason for not doing so is obvious? To say more would take me at once into highly controversial regions. And there is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic.
And contrariwise, the opposed Protestant beliefs on this subject call forth feelings which go down to the very roots of all Monotheism whatever. To radical Protestants it seems that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled: that Polytheism is risen again. Hence it is hard so to dissent from them that you will not appear something worse than a heretic—an idolater, a Pagan. If any topic could be relied upon to wreck a book about “mere” Christianity—if any topic makes utterly unprofitable reading for those who do not yet believe that the Virgin’s son is God—surely this is it.
C.S. refuses to take a position on this question, found momentous by almost every side, because his principle of sticking to common ground left him with almost nothing unproblematic to say. Out of his entire collection of writing, he avoids engaging controversy. And here he seems to change his story and bake, as it were, an endorsement of just war into mere Christianity. He also says things that I have never heard in extended conversations with Christian soldiers. I have frequently been told that soldier and pacifist are alike necessary, and that the presence of pacifists in the broader conversation gives something that just war alone does not. Out of all these voices, C.S. Lewis alone condemns allowing people to avoid military service even if their denomination and/or conscience forbid violence. I understand that he was addressing an audience of pacifists who wanted to know how he was not a pacifist, but the message he delivered was not just “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” It was fully “Why You Must Also Not Be Pacifists Either,” whether or not this was at all clearly labeled, but I studied at a school with a respected Army ROTC program, engaged people on multiple sides on the topic of peace and just war, and while I got questions of, “What are you going to do if you enter situation X?”, not one single soldier, not one military science professor, not one prestigiousI philosopher tried to convert me to belief in just war as something necessary for me to adopt. (I think they were showing a great deal more hospitality and charity than I was.) I heard many voices seeking to convince me that just war was a legitimate option. Not one warrior forbade me to be both a Christian and a pacifist.
I would like to quote at the summary provided on the official C.S. Lewis site. This summary leaves things out; it perhaps circumspectly omits that Lewis first asserts that there are situations where you can’t save the lives of all the people there are to save, and then uses this position as a rhetorical stepping-stone to say that there are times one must use proactive violence. The step is unwarranted. As an Anglican like Lewis should know, some roles within the Church are historically taken to be incompatible with violence, even if there are Christian soldiers and for that matter Christian soldier-saints. A priest is forbidden violence: which is to say that a priest may act and save some in a situation where you cannot save everyone. He is still forbidden to directly engage violence. Lewis never mentions this, or much of anything like it so far as I can tell.
To quote the summary:
In the frequently debated essay in The Weight of Glory titled “Why I’m Not a Pacifist,” Lewis asks a simple, provocative question: “How do we decide what is good or evil?” It seems easy enough. It’s our conscience, right? Lewis says that’s the usual answer, breaking it up into what a person is pressured to feel as right due to a certain universal guide, and what a person judges as right or wrong for him or herself.
The first is not arguable given its universality (something some argue nonetheless), but Lewis warns that the second is often moved and sometimes mistaken.
Enter Reason. We receive a set of facts, we have intuition about such facts, and we have need to arrange these facts to “produce a proof of the truth or falsehood,” Lewis says. This last ability is where error usurps reason or simply a refusal to see and understand the truth.
Most of us have not worked out all of our beliefs with Reason. Rather, we lean in on the authority on which those beliefs are hinged and we are humble enough to trust it.
Why not pacifism then? Here’s his rundown, in brief.
First, war is very disagreeable in everyone’s point of view. The pacifist contends that war does more harm than good, that every war leads to another war, and that pacifism itself will lead to an absence of war, and more, a cure for suffering. Lewis is pointed in his response:
I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terribly by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.
In other words, doing good in tackling immediate evils with deliberate force, does more good than setting up position statements based in some humanistic view that improvement will inevitably come just because… it’s suppose to come.
Hold on. Jesus says a person should turn the other cheek, right? Lewis presents three ways of interpreting Jesus. First, the pacifists way of imposing a “duty of nonresistance on all men in all circumstances.” Second, some minimize the command to hyperbole. The third is taking the text at face value with the exception toward exceptions. Christians, Lewis says, cannot retaliate against a neighbor who does them harm, but the homicidal manic, “attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, [so] I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” asks Lewis, who answers his own question with a resounding, “No.”
I might interrupt here and comment that what C.S. Lewis has established here is not what he thinks he has established. What he has established is that, quite simply, he does not know how to read.
I’d like to look at Gandhi for a moment. Not exactly that Gandhi was Christian (note: he was a bit soured after a Christian evangelist turned him down for the color of his skin), but his debt to Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount is incalculable. And he was a prominent contemporary to Lewis, who was a voracious reader of all kinds of writing (“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”). And he might provide insight into the pacifism Lewis falsely assumes himself to not need to put in any effort to understand:
My creed of non-violence is an extremely active force. It has no room for cowardice or even weakness. There is hope for a violent man to be some day non-violent, but there is none for a coward. I have therefore said more than once in these pages that if we do not know how to defend ourselves, our women and our places of worship by the force of suffering, i.e., non-violence, we must, if we are men, be at least able to defend all these by fighting.
The people of a village near Bettia told me that they had run away whilst the police were looting their houses and molesting their womenfolk. When they said that they had run away because I had told them to be non-violent, I hung my head in shame. I assured them that such was not the meaning of my non-violence. I expected them to intercept the mightiest power that might be in the act of harming those who were under their protection, and draw without retaliation all harm upon their own heads even to the point of death, but never to run away from the storm centre. It was manly enough to defend one’s property, honour, or religion at the point of the sword. It was manlier and nobler to defend them without seeking to injure the wrongdoer. But it was unmanly, unnatural and dishonorable to forsake the post of duty and, in order to save one’s skin, to leave property, honour or religion to the mercy of the wrong-doer. I could see my way of delivering ahimsa to those who knew how to die, not to those who were afraid of death.
“Turning the other cheek” is not about, as Lewis says, “stepping out of the way.” It is stepping into the way. The distinction is cardinal. Furthermore, this was something Gandhi took from the Sermon on the Mount. Lewis’s misrepresentation of his opponents’ position is of capital significance.
On a lesser scale, the glib “taking the text at face value with exception for the exceptions” seems remarkably convenient, whether or not C.S. Lewis made that position his own. What this means, as far as I can tell, is that the Sermon on the Mount forbids us from all recourse to violence, except of course for situations where violence is justified. This seems awfully convenient in responding to a potent objection, and Lewis appears to be begging the question. You cannot just say “with exception for the exception” to a text which is about exceptions!
Regarding hyperbole (meaning exaggeration), in my youth I wouldn’t hear of hyperbole playing a factor in the Bible. Now I do. But I believe that hyperbole is at least usually present in the Bible as a means of underscoring a major point:
Let us return to the last of the summary.
Further, Lewis says, “Indeed, as the audience were private people in a disarmed nation, it seems unlikely that they would have ever supposed Our Lord to be referring to war. War was not what they would have been thinking of. The frictions of daily life among villagers were more likely on their minds.”
Lewis ultimately lands on authority, referencing Romans 13:4, I Peter 2:14, and the general tone of Jesus’ meaning.
Here’s Romans 13:3-4: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
And I Peter 2:13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
Do you agree with Lewis’s rationale? How does your understanding of the Bible and Christian faith influence your feelings toward war?
One thing I have become wary of in my study is use of cultural context that evokes the saying, “Most people use statistics the way a drunkard uses lampposts: for support rather than illumination.“
I am personally on guard when convenient texts are given full authority in their plain sense and inconvenient texts are castrated away, whisked away, explained away by some purported cultural investigation. So a soldier told that serving as a soldier was a forbidden profession in ancient Christianity is simply answered by pointing out that idolatry was mandatory for a Roman soldier. Not that C.S. Lewis is unique in doing this; I’ve quite commonly found it in feminist, advocate scholarship (and the feminist on the street). But I would give a remark, perhaps disturbing to many of us, that study of cultural context to the Bible usually doesn’t help that much. The best way to understand the Bible is to live its truths, and academic understanding of cultural context is rarely the bottleneck. Deeper understandings do not arise from reading scholarship; one is better off reading saints!
One last point of disclosure for now: I am an Orthodox Christian, and as such am in full communion with both soldier-saints like St. George, and “passion-bearers” like Saints Boris and Gleb, who allowed themselves to be murdered without raising a hand in defense. I have no liberty to disown either, as I believe that one and the same God inspired the Romans 13; I have no liberty to reject either. As far as my own reflections, I’m not sure they’re terribly significant, but by way of disclosure I wrote Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength out of intense study when I was in college, and then revisited the topic about twenty years later in The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount.” In the latter, I soften some edges but on other point suggest that my original lecture did not go nearly far enough, and had too much in common with the opposing camp.
I might also mention that I have tangled with Orthodox online. (N.B. This may in itself put me in the wrong.) One loving father, in some conversation about violence, said that he has his priorities in the right order and if there is an intruder intent on doing wrong, he will first shoot the intruder and then take the killing to confession. How practical, how strong! But, while not speaking ill of firearms (I actually feel safer where criminals don’t know if there are armed and law-abiding citizens in a room, vs. where a sign guarantees that all gun(s) in the room are held by citizens), I asked if he had taken some much less sexy, far more basic steps. I asked if he had motion-activated lights and video cameras, for instance. I don’t remember if I talked about having a lock on every door and locking up all doors [and all windows], all the time when there’s not supposed to be someone going through them. I talked about Jack McLean’s Secrets of a Superthief and how its advocacy of home security said defense should be 40% physical and 60% psychological, and how to do things that will positively terrify a thief’s already wracked nerves. Even if you have a gun and train regularly, there are other things that are more important and more central, meaning the psychological tactics he mentioned. (E.g. a note on the back door that said, “Honey, Jed let his pet rattlesnake out of the cage AGAIN, and I can only find four of his pet scorpions. Can you tell him that this has to stop?”–or telling a nonexistent spouse, with as much icy condescension as you can muster, “Yes, HONEY, I know what the machine guns will do to the walls!” Far-fetched or not, this is beyond terrifying for a thief to hear at all.) The super-thief author talked about one theft where he actually believed there was a real, live bear following him around in the house he’d broken to. Boy, had he given it a terrified clubbing until he eventually figured out he’d snagged a shoelace on a tooth on a bear-skin rug! Somewhere in there I mentioned that some women who were living alone leave a pair of size 17 men’s boots out by the back door each night. Somewhere in there I gave a tepid and grudging endorsement to The Art of War, or at least one of its quotes: “All warfare is deception” / “All warfare is based on deception” / “All warfare amounts to deception.” I do not think in the end that I condemned his ownership and practice with a firearm, but it struck me as remarkably naive and impractical. Possibly there was something of real moral significance in that he was actively ready to fight quite literally to the death for his wife and children. There is something magnificent and chivalrous in that sacrifice that I simply cannot disown. However, he was only interested, so far as I can tell, in the sexy, macho Arnold Schwarzinator model of caring for his loved ones. He did not show the faintest interest or curiosity when I mentioned other and more basic ways of defending his family’s security such as flooding the area with a prowler’s clear #1 enemy: light. (I don’t remember if I mentioned a good home alarm system: they’re also probably worth it.) And in the end he struck me as very remarkably impractical, and out of touch with reality, for all his efforts to be willing and able to kill to protect each and every of his loved ones. I think I mentioned in there that killing another human being is a traumatic event no matter how well you believe it was justified, but if you are serious about security, there are a great many more practical things to do than make a quite literal shot in the dark. (And I do not remember the question coming up, but he mentioned owning a gun without any mention of owning night vision technologies. So it would have been quite literal shots in the dark. Getting to shoot and stop an intruder first is hard enough in broad daylight.) I respect his love for his loved ones, but I find his approach puzzling, and I am puzzled why some think this is automatically the most effective and practical way to really cure just one toothache (if I may use Lewis’s image).
That is enough, on this topic, I think. A Pilgrimage from Narnia talks about stepping from the fantasy of fairy tales to a real world that is more: and it says, more than anything else, what I embraced when I turned to Eastern Orthodoxy. There is something real that is more Narnian than Narnia, and it is found in the heart of the Orthodox Church. And it is explored in my flagship title, The Best of Jonathan’s Corner.
There is one other bit I should mention. Depending somewhat on how you look at things, I haven’t been very good at just being a human being. There are some basic things I haven’t managed well. I am hoping to go to Mount Athos and spend some time there, preferably for the rest of my life (my fundraising page has more information). This is something I don’t know how to explain and convey to others. The Holy Mountain, as it is called, is the jewel of Orthodox monasticism. But it is also understood to be as the Theotokos was told, “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.” I need that.
Monasticism is a bit hard to make, or even help, others to see. But one comment there: I have a philosophical background, and monasticism is classically called true philosophy, but it is best not to link the two as too quickly. I don’t really expect to be asked to build a philosophy of something-or-other. Most of us can sense or accept, even without necessarily knowing why, that practicing blocks and punches is a way of learning a particular philosophical way of life: philosophy is not something taught by reading and writing assignments alone. Orthodox monasticism does not have any kind of martial arts philosophy, but prayer and the prayerful performance of tasks in manual labor are in fact a certain philosophy, or rather a straightening out of the whole person. The intent is to build a humility that is worth more than the stars in the Heavens. It really does have the Philosopher’s Stone, Who Is Christ.
And on that point, I would like to end with a poem. It was written before I was particularly drawn to monasticism or realized my need, but
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.
How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy sufficeth not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
Monasticism is about the basics of Gospel, and this is what I seek.
Regarding the number of books, I don’t have an exact count. Sorry about that. Some dozens are available in a shuffled order at CJSHayward.com/books.
What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
I created https://eBook-Maker.Gifts as a customizable, made-to-order way to let readers make a custom collection out of my works, as well as adding a custom dedication, introduction, and if they have one to upload (I link to canva.com) their own cover.
Apart from possibly reaching an increased audience, this is intended to allow readers to put together something of their heart into a nice gift at a time that money’s a little tight. It produces the reader’s choice of Kindle, ePub, and (though these options are not presented front and center) XHTML and PDF.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I’m not sure how unusual this is, but writing anything good, or creating much of anything interesting, is an experience very much like prayer; it is a spiritual discipline like an Orthodox ascetical practice or monastic obedience. It is both an effort to master the work and to get out of the work’s way so that it can shine forth.
What authors, or books have influenced you?
Eclectic. There are some usual suspects for someone with my background: not just C.S. Lewis but the Bible (dozens of versions in several languages; it’s nice to have a patristic translation of the Bible), the Philokalia, and somewhere below half of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (http://OrthodoxChurchFathers.com). My favorite children’s book was “A Wind in the Door” by Madeleine l’Engle ( https://www.amazon.com/Wind-Door-Wrinkle-Time-Quintet/dp/0312368542/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512240468&sr=1-1&keywords=madeleine+l%27engle+a+wind+in+the+door ), and I was hooked on it for a very long time. When I heard of her passing, I let Within the Steel Orb stand as a tribute to her.
I’ve also read various medieval versions of Arthurian legends; most English readers start with Sir Thomas Mallory as the fountainhead; I treat his synopsis (I would call Le Morte D’Arthur essentially a thousand page synopsis of bookshelves’ worth of medieval “romances”) as essentially the last major text that interested me. Geoffrey of Monmoth’s 12th century pseudohistory “Historia Regum Brittanorum” (“History of the Kings of Britain”) was history as people would like it to be, a bit like the Da Vinci Code, and it spread like wildfire. (And I’ve read maybe half of the more major authors from the Middle Ages. The literary output represented by medieval Arthurian legends is enormous.)
One thing that I think interesting is that my writing style for The Sign of the Grail (included in Merlin’s Well) was modeled as much as reasonably possible on the way medieval Arthurian legends were told, and not only does that classic style of storytelling work, but readers have been riveted.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am taking a breather. After that I want to look for a part-time job. After that, maybe tinker with one of my open source software projects. There is a kind of program called a “Unix shell” (or “Linux”, or “Mac”) which is in the language a computer programmer uses to tell a computer to do things with other programs, something like an index to a book. I have years back started work on a shell you could program with Python; now I would like to return that project and add a dimension related to UX (“User eXperience”), bringing things just one step closer to proactive laziness, and just one step closer to “Do what I mean.” But explained that way it sounds a lot more impressive than it actually IS; Python’s power tools put a lot of things in very easy reach.
N.B. I had a brief career on Quora.com; one of the questions I addressed was what language Adam and Eve spoke in the Garden of Eden: in other words, “What was the language of Paradise?”
One person answered, “Hebrew.”
Another person tried to summarize speculation about “proto-human language” with a link to Wikipedia.
I answered, “Python,” and was immediately upvoted to the top.
(N.B. I’d give a brief plug to Christmas present shoppers for Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming and its parent-oriented companion Teach Your Kids How to Code: A Parent-Friendly Guide to Python Programming.
What is your best method or website when it comes to promoting your books?
In an academic setting, someone made a point that has every relevance to the web.
The point made was simply that academic articles and books that were available to people via the web were getting new citations at about five times the rate as works that scholars could only get in print.
You want your work to be findable. I do not necessarily say that you need to share everything. What you decide to share is up to you. But in terms of findability, or SEO, the single biggest thing you can do for SEO is to have unique, high-quality content that other people will genuinely want to link to.
Do you have any advice for new authors?
My biggest advice would be to love your creations.
When I was a youth, Franklin Peretti’s This Present Darkness was in vogue. I read it, loved it, and could not understand why literature professors seemed to look down their noses at it.
Then a couple of decades later I returned to the book, and wow, had the book gone downhill! I couldn’t put a finger on was that I was much too aware of the skill that had gone into it. (Good acting does not impress an audience with “Wow, what an actor!” Good writing tends to share this self-effacing character.)
Soon after that library visit, I had an appointment with a literature and writing professor, and I began to voice my confusion over the series. He cut me off very quickly (N.B. and was in a very unfortunate situation at that time), and said bluntly that the difference is whether you love your characters; the problem with the This Present Darkness series was simply whether the author loved his characters. He didn’t, and that alone made the series an example of bad literature. And the one additional thing I could put my finger on is what I would consider part of the question of whether you love your characters. While the overall picture showed quite a lot of author’s skill, the characters did not move themselves and did not have life in them. They were rather moved about, skillfully, like someone moving pawns in both sides of a chess game. And pretty much every work of fiction I like now is one on which the characters have, at least partly, their own motives and act, at least partly, of themselves.
His point about loving characters in a story is part of a broader principle: good creative writing and good works arise when you love your own creations regardless of genre or almost anything else. This is something that I would pair with a perspective from Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. The artist, male or female, treads in the footsteps of the Birth-Giver who said, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” The professor talked about loving characters; Madeleine l’Engle talked about serving the creative work, but it is the same thing being discussed. You write your best work when you love your work, and serve it as it comes to be.
There is one other thing I would add, as a P.S. to starting authors in particular. In great writing, the characters come alive and you are more recording their story than deciding what they will do. However, few of us start there. In many cases there is a lot of gruntwork before the characters take over your story and make it their story. While it is an important goal to eventually work for, you get to that point by a lot of writing in the daily grind.
There is nothing shameful about spending time in the daily grind, or about having to keep on working on basics. In my own case, the works on eBook-Maker.Gifts represent a highly curated, cherry-picked selection. I got to the point of writing well by a lot of bad and largely incomprehensible writing in some particular online forums. All but the faintest trace of that output is lost and gone forever, and, honestly, I really don’t think much value has really been lost.
What is the best advice you have ever heard?
To enter monasticism, and more specifically to just enter monasticism with the intent of repenting of my sins for the rest of my life.
Put that way, it sounds strange, but there is gold inside. Repentance straightens us out like a chiropractor straightens a warped spine, and I have called it Heaven’s best-kept secret.
Monasticism is a position of extreme privilege in Orthodoxy, no matter how counter-intuitive its benefits may seem. (See A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop). What I was told was essentially you do to enter the path of optimum spiritual growth.
However, I do not wish to suggest that monasticism is a necessity for everyone. Possibly it is to me. But many other people get along without needing such power tools.
What are you reading now?
Outside of prayer? Almost nothing. At least for now; one of Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims was to speak and think no more than is necessary.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I don’t know. My best work is almost never something I can command at will.
If you were going to be stranded on a desert island and allowed to take 3 or 4 books with you what books would you bring?
The Bible, the Philokalia, and the Prologue by Ochrid. Or maybe an in-depth story of the life of some great saint.