Realism of Presentation, Realism of Content

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis puts a finger on one of the things I love so much about Tolkien, though Lewis is not specifically talking about his good friend Tolkien’s stories. In the chapter “On Realisms,” Lewis distinguishes between what he calls “realism of presentation” and “realism of content.” Realism of presentation refers to those little concrete details that give the world of a story the textures that make it feel like the world God made. Realism of presentation, writes Lewis, “Is the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail.”

Lewis lists several examples of realism of presentation, but my two favorite are the dragon in Beowulf “sniffing along the stone” and the fairy bakers in a French fairy tale rubbing the paste off their fingers. Neither of those examples are remotely “realistic” in the usual sense. Neither fairy bakers nor dragons exist in the real world. And yet those great little details—the dragon sniffing like a dog and the fairy bakers rubbing their fingers the way regular bakers do—make those fantastical worlds feel palpable and vivid.

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Bookishness and Tookishness

I often run across articles and interviews in which published writers are asked the one piece of advice they would give to young and aspiring writers. The most common advice seems to be to read voraciously. By reading the work of other writers, you absorb techniques, strategies, rhythms, vocabulary…You think you’re just enjoying yourself when in fact you’re getting an education. I suppose “read voraciously” is as good a tidbit of advice as any. It might be wasted advice, though, for the simple fact that writers tend to be voracious readers already. 

But while bookishness is a necessary condition for writerliness, it’s not a sufficient condition. That is to say, while you can’t be much of a writer without being a reader, you also won’t have much to write about if you don’t get up from your desk and pursue a life outside of books.

It is your job as a writer to give the reader something she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get for herself. If you are just recycling the things you’ve read in other books, no matter how skillfully, you probably aren’t giving your reader something she couldn’t get for herself.

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Recovery, Escape, Consolation: Tolkien On Fairy Stories

In preparation for Writing with Hobbits, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” in which he makes a case for his kind of fantasy. It gets pretty technical, but there are also some real gems in there. Dear reader, I have waded through the technicalities, and here I offer some of Tolkien’s gems.

Most of the essay is very specifically about fantasy storytelling, which, Tolkien points out, is as old and as natural as any other storytelling, which is as old and as natural as language (and people). Toward the end of the essay, however, he makes some observations whose relevance extend beyond fantasy.

Three benefits of fantasy stories, according to Tolkien, are Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. I’d like to think about how these benefits apply to stories more broadly.

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So You Want to Be a Published Author . . .

I met once with a friend of a friend who was writing a book and wanted to talk about getting it published. I make it a policy not to give publishing advice, mainly because I don’t have any reliable advice to give. But for some reason I met with this writer. Perhaps I had not yet established my not-talking-about-publishing policy. Perhaps this meeting was the very reason I established the policy.

This writer was getting close to the end of her manuscript, she said, and getting it published was the most important thing in the world.

The most important thing? I asked. In the world?

Yes, she said. She had poured her all into this book, and she would be crushed if it never got published.

I asked her what she thought publication was going to do for her.

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Cyborgs. Spies. Overly Correct Grammar.

A few weeks ago I got an excellent question from a Habit Weekly reader named Todd Thurston. His question came in response to my discussion of subordinating conjunctions during a three-week series on clauses. I had been talking about the fact that subordinating conjunctions (like when or because) are one way of joining one clause to another:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
  • I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder. 

Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
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Where Does Originality Come From?

Why do you want to be original? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it might do you some good to answer it.

We appreciate and admire originality when we see it in other writers. One reason to be original, then, is to be appreciated and admired. But that’s not an especially good or sustainable reason. You’ll never know whether you’ve been original enough…or, for that matter, whether you’ve been appreciated and admired enough.

A less self-centric, more reader-centric approach will be helpful here. Why do you as a reader appreciate original writing when you see it? I think it’s because you feel that the writer has given you something that you couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten for yourself.

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You probably don’t have a time-management problem.

Are you a procrastinator? I am. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I’m bad enough. I recently read an article from the BBC titled Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time. As author Christian Jarrett points out, we have traditionally thought of procrastination in terms of bad time management: if procrastinators were just better at prioritizing their time, if they better understood how much time tasks are going to take, if they paid better attention to how much time they’re wasting, they would stop procrastinating and get productive. 

But the truth is, any procrastinator worth his salt is fully aware of how much time he’s wasting. He may or may not fully understand how long a task is going to take but that’s not why he hasn’t started yet. And nobody’s priorities are so confused that he actually values cat videos over productivity.

The issue for the procrastinator is not time management, but mood management. The task in front of you makes you feel bad. It’s boring or hard. It stirs up fears of failure. It arouses self-pity.

John Prine Loved Meatloaf.

As you have probably heard, songwriter John Prine died last week, of COVID-19. He was a Nashville treasure–the kind of songwriters whom other songwriters revere. 

I was listening to John Prine’s Tiny Desk concert a few days ago, and he said something that revealed a lot about his approach to writing and to the world. Speaking of his frequent songwriting partner Pat McLaughlin, he said,

We usually write on Tuesdays in Nashville, because that’s the day they make meatloaf. And I love meatloaf. So it’s kind of our carrot on the end of the stick. We get together early in the morning, try to write a song before they start serving the meatloaf. Then, after lunch, we come back and record the song.

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Talk to Strangers

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when the time for social distancing is over, they’re going to do a lot more hugging. I don’t know how much hugging I’ll do, but I do plan to talk to a lot more strangers. As I have written elsewhere, talking to strangers opens up whole new vistas for a storyteller. Everybody has a story–many stories, actually.

For me, talking to strangers comes pretty naturally. What doesn’t come naturally is writing down what they say. Something remarkable happens, or I hear a remarkable story, and I think, “I’ll remember this for as long as I live.” But it’s not true. I’m amazed at what remarkable things I manage to forget when I don’t write them down.

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Don’t Waste Your Quarantine!

In this time of social distancing, I am exceedingly grateful for social media and videoconferencing and other online technologies that allow us to have some human contact without, you know, human contact. Nevertheless, I hope you’re using this time to root down, to connect more fully with the life you actually live in the flesh (and not just on the computer).

I have loved looking out my front window and seeing families and couples and individuals walking and biking and scootering up and down our quiet street. These people have been here all along, but they’ve always had more pressing things to do. Those kids, I imagine, were running from school to sports to chess lessons to violin lessons. Now they’re riding their bikes and scooters.

My wife and I went for a walk a few days ago with our neighbors (we in the left lane, they in the right lane). We’ve lived three houses apart for ten years, and it was the first time we had ever taken a walk together. We found a walking path none of us even knew about. It’s one street over! We saw bluebirds and an American redstart, just back from Mexico. I’ve been saying for a while now that I need to get more serious about my “local life,” since my paying work doesn’t require much in the way of locality. Things have gotten a little more local than I was imagining, but this limiting of scope has been doing good work in me. 

Over at The Habit Membership forums, I asked folks what they were doing to redeem the time during their quarantine, and I got some great answers. People are going outside more, writing letters by hand, journaling, home-improving (you should see our closets!), praying, going out on the porch to sing the Doxology with neighbors (who are on their own porches), reading “someday books,” doing crafts and puzzles with their kids. 

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