Month: January 2014

Author Quotes – C. S. Lewis, Reality, & Children’s Literature


Excerpts from the essay “On Three Ways Of Writing For Children,” by C.S. Lewis. (I highly suggest that you read it in its entirety.)

My first picture book, Wandlung, should be coming out within the next month. If you’re interested in understanding my philosophy on children’s literature (and children in general), these excerpts come as near to defining them as I could myself. I tore apart this essay to find the most impactful statements.

“Sentimentality is so apt to creep in if we write at length about children as seen by their elders. And the reality of childhood, as we all experienced it, creeps out. For we all remember that our childhood, as lived, was immeasurably different from what our elders saw. Hence Sir Michael Sadler, when I asked his opinion about a certain new experimental school, replied, ‘I never give an opinion on any of those experiments till the children have grown up and  can tell us what really happened.’

. . . I think we have stumbled on a principle. Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age. I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.

. . . I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write—or burst. Partly, I think, that this form permits, or compels you to leave out things I wanted to leave out. It compels you to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me. It also imposes certain very fruitful necessities about length.

. . . About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children.

It is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did.

. . . The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of I longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children’s literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened. I suffered too much from night-fears myself in childhood to undervalue this objection. . . They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

. . . I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

I feel sure that the question ‘What do modern children need?’ will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask ‘What moral do I need?’ for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children’s stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”

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The Empty Plinth


There are three women with whom I share my deepest secrets.

The first is my wife. She is my lover and my co-laborer. She helped to make my babies and she nurtures them so that I have no worries when I am not near them, for the warmth between them warms me from afar. We march through life gently, arm-in-arm, and are not swayed; head-long, we step into the unknown and terrible future. She is the tree which Silverstein asked to give, for “though she be but little, she is fierce.”

The second woman lives above the water with her daughter, in the midst of the rose garden. She is Galatea at play, full of mirth and triviality. She is a vision in the sun, distracted most by the summer joy which distracts all together and without offence; we smile upon the Blinding Light as one. She and her child, Metharme, belong among the bees and the roses and the splashings of fish in the pond. Her company is sweet upon a summer lawn, and the days seem an eternity stood still in her hazy presence.

The third woman is downcast, standing among holly and thorns. She stands uncovered, naked and abandoned in the recesses. She weeps gently, though I know not why, hands cast about, her very frame ever on the verge of despair. She speaks not her sorrow, but on her bench I find my place when all the world faces downward; when the winter’s wind rips me I find solace in my sorrow at her side. She is the beacon for the hopeless, and when I lose my own I find refuge at her side, tucked away within the dark depth.

I visited the downcast woman and I noticed in the darkness something I had never seen before. Far back in the depths of her holly home there stood, decayed, a plinth with no owner. Fighting against the needle leaves and unwealding branches I made my way closer, though little closer was I able to come. No sign of the owner, no rubble or dust remained. And suddenly I knew for what, for whom, she despaired.

Be he marble or be he stone, he was gone and it did not matter. Their is no form a man can take which assures he will remain.

Do You Feel Changed By Non-Fiction?


I rarely commit myself to entire books of non-fiction. That sort of discipline requires a certain skill I have yet to gain, and I usually find my mind wandering to thoughts of how much better my time would be spent on fiction. Or with my kids. Or outdoors. Or doing anything else.

I am, however, 100% converted to be pro-non-fiction when it concerns the lives and philosophies of artists and creatives. As an adult, I never really cared to read any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. As all good children do, I once thrived on The Hobbit as a child and I watched the old Rankin-Bass animated adaptation nearly daily. I stopped caring much after middle school. Then one day, I was handed a thrift store copy of a book of essays on the man himself. Reading about Tolkien fascinated me. I became suddenly motivated to read all his books (starting with Children Of Hurin, oddly enough), and it was key to my eventual wider interest in all sorts of other fiction. It is often the artist that I am interested in as deeply as the work itself.

Lately I have been making my way through the recently published tome Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno. It’s written in oral biography form, meaning simply that the entire book is a well organized collection of quoted statements from a variety of J.D. Salinger’s friends, family members, and business associates, along with some other scholars. This is my first oral biography, and I find it wonderful and fascinating to read a story as you would watch documentary interview footage.

Anyway, the main point I’m trying to come to is actually a question for you, the reader. It is simply this.

Do you feel that reading non-fiction changes you?

I think it is obvious to me that much of the time we read fiction to be changed. We read genre fiction to be swept up in a certain formula of a world, to get away or put on a certain mindset. We read high literature to test and expand our world-views, to endeavor to understand a wider range of real-world experiences and emotions.

But what about non-fiction? I consider myself a novice, but I assume that non-fiction reading is generally more of an attempt to gain information. Is this true for those who read lots of non-fiction?

As I have been reading Salinger, I’ve witnessed in detail the life of a very odd but relatable man, a highly intelligent and sensitive fellow who holds materialism, war, and first-world society at large in contempt while struggling also with the desire to be accepted and validated by the only world he sees around him. He gets weirder and weirder as his life goes on, troubled by WWII memories and a publicity that grows more as he tries to hide from it. As I pour over the details and see some aspect here or a statement there which I can relate to, I feel something familiar to me which I’ve never really heard discussed.

I walk away from the book in the spirit of the subject.

I am overwhelmed by thoughts that I might have had myself, independently, but never so consistently or overwhelmingly as after reading about a similarly-plagued mind. I tend to feel like I’m understanding him a little too well, like I am perhaps agreeing too much with his understanding of the world.

Does this happen to everyone? Without getting too mystical (that would be a great conversation for another time) or sounding too much like a creeper stalker or obsessive fan, I wonder honestly how our attempts to understand something through non-fiction affect us regardless of whether we intend to agree with the subject or not. We humans have a knack for studying things which are ugly, and I don’t stand opposed to this at all. I very firmly believe that we should be learning to cope with the reality of both the unspeakable beauties and horrors of this world. I do wonder, though, if perhaps we don’t recognize when a healthy understanding of the world fades into an attempt to reconcile or justify something in ourselves. Or something worse.

So what do you think?

What’s up with people who read so much non-fiction?

Why are the serial killer/murderer bio sections so full in our book stores?

When does gaining a healthy perspective bleed into an enjoyment of despair in the onlooker?

Author Quotes – Samuel Beckett & The Value of Depression


Excerpt from “Daily Rituals” by Mason Curry.

The siege began with an epiphany. On a late-night walk near Dublin harbor, Beckett found himself standing on the end of a pier in the midst of a winter storm.

Amidst the howling wind and the churning water, he suddenly realized that the ‘dark he had struggled to keep under’ in his life–and in his writing, which had until then failed to find an audience or meet his own aspirations–should, in fact, be the source of his creative inspirations. ‘I shall always be depressed,’ Beckett concluded, ‘but what comforts me is the realization that I can now accept this dark side as the commanding side of my personality. In accepting it, I will make it work for me.'”

In an age of anti-depressants we’re taught that to feel a certain emotion is to feel wrongly and need reparation, regardless of its legitimacy. I’m reminded of so many stories of WWII veterans who returned from war only to find that they had no way to voice the immensity of the horrors they experienced first hand. What is even worse is that no one back home actually wanted to know anything about it after it was over. Throughout my life, I’ve heard a constant stream of people reinforce the idea that a bleak outlook in this world is something to be overcome and left behind. Many of my own friends have voiced opinions that art that reflects anything overtly evil thereby implies that the artist is himself damaged or not to be trusted.

As you will probably find very quickly, I happen to believe that we should face the demons of this world honestly and boldly. I think appreciating the gravity and inevitability of death and the tragedies of humanity actually give us sobriety to step into life and chose to live.

If we cannot look boldly into the face of the oppressor, how can we claim to understand the gravity of our hope?

An Accidental Book Review


Most artists would agree that part of the struggle involved in consistent creativity is to stay away from standardization.

I thought that I believed that, but I realize now that I don’t.

A few days ago my good friend Arian used her social media resources to recommended a book she had just started, and at first sight I jumped on the library website and reserved a copy. I haven’t been able to put it down for days now. My wife and I both have bookmarks in its pages, and we keep passing one another, back and forth

The book is called Daily Rituals, by Mason Curry. It is based on his previous blog, Daily Routines. Mason has spent the past few years accruing the details of the personal daily rhythms and routines of hundreds of painters, writers, composer, statesmen, and scientists. Needless to say, the book and the blog are an endless source of interesting information about the strategies and quirks of the men and women who have influenced a multitude of cultures in the past 400 years. We’re talking Benjamin Franklin, Simone de Beauvoir, Mahler, Matisse, and Mr. Rogers.

Reading this book has been more than simply diverting for me. Of course it appealed immediately to me because of my slight obsession with biographical details on creative geniuses, but there is a looming crisis in my own life for which I secretly hoped this book would provide solution.

I’m not good at being creative, and my efforts to be diligent usually throw off everything else.

For the majority of my life I have procrastinated from creativity as I have any other pursuit. I’ve always marveled at my prolific friend Chris who is occasionally so smitten by a design in his brain that he cancels everything else because he has to pursue the project to its fulfillment. He can’t commit himself to any other goal until he had gotten some version of that creative spark out.

It’s just that good.

It’s just that savory.

Referring to my tendency to idolize this trait, he recently said to me that  “everyone is different in how they create.” It was a simply, sagely statement plainly expressed, so I ignored it completely.

As I opened Daily Rituals, I was searching for answers. My family life is confused and I’m constantly feeling inadequacy as an artist and as a father and husband. I needed to find someone’s little secret that could suddenly throw open the heavy curtains before the shadowy recesses of my mind. In a way, I found something like that.

The book is especially wide ranged in covering all types in all time periods. The average individual probably produces 2 hours of good work a day. Tea, alcohol, coffee, and tobacco become buzzwords in its pages. Some work best after dark, others swear by starting fresh just before dawn. Winston Churchill promises that he has figured out a rhythm that allow him a day and a half every 24 hours. Some live completely secluded, working the same schedule seven days a week with barely a single outside contact; others work madly for a few weeks here and are off for a month there. Some write when their children nap, some spend hours and hours every day simply walking the countryside or over drinks with friends. Some raise hundreds of exotic snails and sneak them into France under their breasts. Yes, you read that sentence correctly, and it is in there. The only constant theme is that every artist has some unique surprise up his sleeve and everyone swears by his own methods as far as personal effectiveness is concerned.

I was reading about Saul Bellow’s joyful and lighthearted habits in his flower garden as told retrospectively by his wife, when suddenly I realized that there is a theme in this book. An accidental theme, and one of staggering beauty. Despite their many downfalls, their abuses and neglects, every creative was defined by a willingness to search their own soul, to plunge into the still, dark depths of themselves and share some form of it with the world, in hopes that the humanity in it might be a sounding board for an0ther’s soul. To do so, every single one had to spend years, some claimed decades, to build a completely personal rhythm that gave them space to plumb those depths. Many of their own stories became tragedies of dependence, broken relationships, and bizarre, spiraling brokenness.

Yet every single one cries “Recognize the truth and don’t shy from proclaiming it!” and the force of its multitude speaks freedom over me.

For months, years now, I’ve been slowly recognizing that I have not been prepared for the level of commitment being creative takes. I’ve tried to put off the creative spark, then to force inspiration in a timeframe, and all along I’ve really just been confused myself. I’ve watched many friends, some artists, build productive structures in their daily lives and imagined that if I could only have the will to replicate some of those structures, I could pursue this craft more sincerely. But I’ve had it all backwards. As when one pursues any other goal, setting up a rhythm that is completely taylored to the objective is a necessity.

Creativity is about self-exposure and eventually perhaps, a sense of intimacy. Exposure, firstly, of one’s self to one’s self. Then, perhaps, to a wider audience. We choose to be ourselves, and our creativity is a record of that. We create because we desire to know, and we desire to have something in common. We feel our humanity. We build empathy. We realize that something that was at first glance altogether foreign is actually like us. The community that comes from creation comes out of each of our uniqueness, and the hard, bitter task of pursuing those uniquenesses.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”

– Toni Morrision

The Hands Books Must Endure


Library books.

Library books come and library books go.

First to the New Releases shelving out front for six months or so, then on to the regular section for a few years or decades. Eventually, once a book has stopped circulating for a good while, it’s pulled to make way for more old New Releases. Depending on its luck in retaining its original shape, it might migrate to another library’s shelf or it might get donated.

Through all this, any desirable title is also constantly passing between many, many hands. Clammy, chubby hands, sun-tanning hands, and rigid, knobbly old hands with forbidding, precise nails. Chocolatey junior hands and fidgety hands with dangling bangles and too many rings.

Some of these hands, many of them, belong to various library staff. Librarians, circulation specialists, and shelving staff. Often the books overhear bits of their conversations, much like this one.

“Our school has like zero budget for theatre. We don’t even have a real stage!” said someone with soft, cucumber-lotioned hands.

“Where I went to high school, back in Indiana, they had great arts programs. The principle’s wife was into the theatre big time, so that stuff got top priority. I was only ever in one play. A version of The Producers they put on, we put on, my junior year. It was okay, I guess.” someone with thin, freshly painted nails and a Fibonacci spiral tattoo at the base of their right thumb was placing three books at once on a cart as they spoke. “I never liked the old one. The film version I mean, the original.”

“Well, you know what movie I thought was sooo boring?” asked cucumber hands, holding up a DVD example of where things were headed. “Schindler’s List! Nothing happens in the entire movie!” Cucumber hands tossed the DVD down and stacked 5 more behind it.

“Yeah, it’s so depressing and all you see throughout the entire movie is these crowds of starving, dying people. Even the ending, when Liam Neeson has been a jerk the whole movie but somehow saved this little portion out of all these people, and they’re showing the families that came from those people. Still depressing. The people still look morbid. It could have been written so much better.” This was stated as fact by the Fibonacci spiral.

“Did I ever tell you guys about Ester?” cucumber hands blurted out, dropping a book onto a cart at the realization of had a great and necessary story to share.

“So in the eighth grade my class went to the holocaust museum in DC. You know?”

“Yeah, I went once” said someone wearing a thick tungsten thumb ring.

“So I got this girl Ester, and that’s my name, and she’s the only one that survived in my entire class!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” said the Fibonacci spiral slowly.

The tungsten and Fibonacci spiral laughed together as cucumber hands hurried on.

“So when you go there they give everyone a little profile, like of someone who was actually in Auschwitz or wherever. And it tells you the name and age and about their life and stuff. Then at the end you find out if they survived the war. Well, I got a girl named Ester who was 13, and I was 13 then. So it was really weird that I got someone with my name and who was my age, right? Then we go through the whole museum and see all this crazy stuff. Just unbelievable, like horrible stuff. Everyone kept saying they wouldn’t eat lunch afterward, but I don’t think anyone actually didn’t. We went to some food court. So we get to the end of the tour and my Ester is the only person in my entire class, like thirty-something kids, who survives! Everyone else’s person died in the camps, but Ester lived! And she had my name and was my age! Isn’t that crazy?” Cucumber hands finished with a book lifted up in each hand, begging for response.

“Well, I guess. I mean, I’m sure they reuse those profiles like every day, and almost everyone who was in a camp died. But yeah, that must have been a pretty wild coincidence, huh?” the tungsten reasoned.

“It was!” Cucumber hands rested in the validation.

“I would love to go to Europe! I would want to visit one of those camps.” said Fibonacci spiral thoughtfully.

“I want to go to every single one of them! I want to go to Auschwitz and Darchow or whatever and all the rest. I don’t even want to do the tours they have. I just want to go in and be silent and just be there.” Cucumber hands’ hurried speech ended in a moment of silence.

“I went to Buchenwald, when I spent a semester in France. I went to Germany for a few days with choir friends and we did the tour there.” said the tungsten. “After the tour, we were walking up these stairs and this man and this woman were coming down toward us, and I kinda had to brush up against them. I looked at the guy and it was Josh Brolin.”

“Really?!” Cucumber hands savored and thoroughly enjoyed this twist.

“Yeah. We just kinda looked at each other for a second and I didn’t want to say like ‘Hey, you’re Josh Brolin!’ because we were in Buchenwald. But it was him. The only time I’ve ever run into someone famous, and it was halfway across the world in a concentration camp.” The tungsten had been holding on to a single title throughout the telling of this tale and, as if awoken from a daze, set back to sorting.

“Have you read this?” Fibonacci spiral held up a well-exercised paperback.

“1984? Yeah, of course! I liked it but I really love Fahrenheit!” the tungsten replied.

“Ugh, I did not like Fahrenheit 451! And you know what book I hated? Lord Of The Flies!” Cucumber hands moved hastily at their work just pondering the name.

“Whether you like it or not doesn’t matter with literature. It’s not about enjoying it, it’s about what it means.” responded the tungsten sagely.

“I thought you were going to say The Lord Of The Rings, and I was going to be like ‘we can’t be friends anymore!'” said Fibonacci spiral.

“I haven’t read that. The movies were pretty good. Way too long though and really drawn out. Anyway, I hated Lord Of The Flies because someone told me that they eat a kid in it before I read it. So then I read it, and they don’t, and I was so annoyed. I think maybe they eat someone in the movie version.” cucumber hands continued.

“No, they talk about eating someone but then a wild pig runs by and they finally catch that instead.” corrected the tungsten.

“Were they gonna eat that fat kid with the glasses? Piggy, right?” asked cucumber hands.

“Yeah, I think that’s probably right.” said the tungsten.

“So yeah, see? I kept on thinking they were gonna finally eat this kid, and they never do! Then he dies anyways, which pretty much had to happen either way. Any anyway, I definitely liked Jack better than that main kid, the one who is always trying to be nice to piggy even though he’s an idiot. Jack is a survivor, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. That’s the point, I think. He would have killed to survive, and I respect that. Doing whatever it takes to survive. Survival is all that mattered.”

And with that thought, cucumber hands placed the last book on the last cart.