Underneath his project was the old-fashioned and yet novel assumption that profound creativity is always a sign of profound mental health.From this article on Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky
The first issue of my newsletter went out this morning, including a short essay I called “Writing in War-Time.” You can read it below, and, if you so desire, you can subscribe to the real deal here.
In 1939, almost two months after England declared war on Germany, C. S. Lewis gave a lecture about the importance of studying the humanities during a World War. Why waste time with such “placid occupations” as philosophy and literature, he asked, when men are dying in battle and the threat of invasion hangs over the nation?
We’re not in the middle of a World War, thankfully. But many of the same conditions that Lewis was concerned with exist today. A lot of people around the world are in very real danger, if not from the mysterious plague known as COVID-19, then from riots and civil unrest. It’s hard to read the headlines without dread. In such an environment, we may ask the same question Lewis poses: why spend time doing anything but the most essential activities?
Of course, what activities qualify as “essential” changes depending on who you ask (shopping? protest? worship?), but the question remains the same. In extreme circumstances, how do we justify wasting time on non-essentials? In Lewis’s lecture, “non-essentials” include studying the humanities. For me, they include writing children’s fiction and mulling over poetry while staring at the wall.
In his typical fashion, Lewis reframes the whole conversation. It’s wrong to ask whether studying (or writing) is the right thing to do in the middle of a war, he says, because the question assumes that war presents an unusual danger that must be met with an unusual response. The reality is that we are always in danger of our lives. None of us can be sure that he will be alive tomorrow. A better question, then, is whether studying or writing is ever the right thing to do. Why spend time reading Aristotle when you could be protesting? Why spend time writing poems when you could be saving souls? Why not do things that matter?
Lewis answers the question from many angles, but part of his answer is this: we waste time on “non-essentials” because we can’t help it. It’s human nature to play cards on the eve of battle. When city workers tore down a Confederate memorial in Birmingham in the middle of the night last week, they stopped for a pizza break. Even SWAT teams crack jokes on duty.
In the direst circumstances, people stubbornly remain people. They keep on humming, snickering, debating, reading, reciting, and contemplating. This means that they need good songs to hum, good jokes to laugh at, good ideas to debate, good books to read, good poetry to recite, and good art to contemplate. As Lewis says, “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the [battle] line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. if you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
Writing in the midst of pandemics and protests is, from the vantage point of eternity, not that different from writing at any other time. The only difference is that it’s much easier to get distracted. But the importance of the work remains unchanged. The world will have stories, and those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to write them must give the world good ones.
The world is calling us to action. But what should the artist do? Should artists set aside our pens and paintbrushes and pick up swords? The answer is far simpler and far more difficult. In times like these, the artist ought to stick to his work. Are you a chef? Make delicious food. Are you a musician? Play beautiful music. Are you a filmmaker? Capture moments in time. This present moment needs good works of art no more or less than any other, which means that it needs them vitally.
[W]hen we observe, as we must allow, that art is no better at one age than at another, but only different; that it is subject to modification, but certainly not to development; may we not safely accept this stationary quality as a proof that there does exist, out of sight, unattained and unattainable, a positive norm of poetic beauty? We cannot define it, but in each generation all excellence must be the result of a relation to it. It is the moon, heavily wrapt up in clouds, and impossible exactly to locate, yet revealed by the light it throws on distant portions of the sky.Edmund Gosse, “On Fluctuations of Taste”
I don’t know much about Ansel Adams. I’d only recognize a few of his pictures without help. But since he was one of the best black-and-white photographers of the 20th century, I need to know something about him. Last July, I got the book Examples: The Making of Forty Photographs to learn.
The first thing that struck me was that Adams never uses the phrase “take a picture.” He always, without fail, says, “make a picture.” For him, pictures do not exist, waiting to be snatched. They must be made. He describes all the ways he framed, exposed, and washed his photos to get the desired effect.
Speaking of the desired effect, Adams writes a lot about the importance of visualizing your image ahead of time. It’s not enough, apparently, to just snap a photo and decide what you think about it later. You must pre-conceive the image so that you know what you’re going for. This is what Adams calls the “internal event,” which he explains in this short clip.
The whole key lies very specifically in seeing it in the mind’s eye, which we call visualization. The picture has to be there clearly and decisively, and if you have enough craft and, you know, working and practicing, you can then make the photograph you desire.
I think this same technique can be applied to arts other than photography. Often, when I begin a poem or an essay or a story, I meander around on the page, trying to get my thoughts in order. I would say this is the equivalent of taking a walk, looking for subjects to make photographs of. Eventually, my imagination catches on something and I have an impression (not quite a visualization) of what the final written product could be like.
I’m sure everyone has experienced some version of this. How often have you been talking with your friends when one of you says something and you think, “That would make a good movie?” In a way, you have preconceived the whole story in your head, based purely on one offhand comment. Of course, the final product is rarely like what exists in your imagination, but that’s where the craft comes in. All the artist’s work and practice is for making the most of those moments of visualization.
The principle of growth means we have to move on, but it also means that we cannot move on until we understand our heritage. To try to generate good church music out of the meager vocabulary of American popular music is like trying to generate good theology out of the ideas heard on Christian radio and television. Christian theologians need to acquire familiarity with the whole of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to move forward into new man-made theologies. Christian musicians must know all the music of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to produce good contemporary Christian music.James Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 37
If you took a gander at my media diary, you’d notice that I spend a lot of time reading theology. Why be theologically literate, you might ask, if you write fiction? What’s the point? The point is exactly what JBJ explains above: in order to produce good Christian stories, the writer must be in constant contact with the primary special symbols, which means reading, examining, and knowing the Bible.