My Mistake

C.S. Lewis has said many a wise thing. May I suggest you add this to the list? I often struggle to communicate what I mean. The phrases ‘tongue-tied’ or ‘clammed up’ spring to mind… These feelings seem to grip me with all the more strength and determination whenever I have something particularly important that I want to say. Helpfully, Lewis has pinpointed at least part of my struggle… here, writing in response to a letter one of his fans sent him, he explains where I so often go wrong.

Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.

… In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

It’s so tempting to describe the feeling of enjoying something – to want to share what I’m experiencing. Be it a piece of music I’ve got on a loop because it’s just so good, a book I’m reading that I just can’t put down, or talking to a friend about how lovely and kind Jesus is, the result is often a heart-felt but useless (in a descriptive, communicative sense) comment like, ‘Oh, it’s just so good!’ Particularly when talking about God with folk, I find myself running out of words in this sense. I wonder if I learnt to follow Lewis’ advice, those ‘Oh, He’s just so good!’ would be the sorts of comments I might hear in response?

(Source: C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children; Image: C. S. Lewis at work, via Letters of Note)

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