by David Mathis
Ink is the great cure for all human ills.
So wrote a young C.S. Lewis to a childhood friend.
Lewis was only seventeen years old when he penned such a claim, but he has proved wise beyond his years.
Here’s the full statement from his letter of May 30, 1916:
Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills.
Whether we think of ourselves as writers or not — and we are all writers to some extent, even if it’s just email and social media — we should be willing to admit that “all human ills” may be an overstatement.
But the adolescent Lewis is onto something profound here about the discipline of writing.
Writing is a help for a great many ailments, both in ourselves and in others.
It is, perhaps, one of the quintessential ways of making sweet drinks from life’s sour fruit.
Writing is readymade for those with some great angst.
It’s appropriate for the anxious and the angry.
Writing is for the lonely and the depressed and the misunderstood. For the frustrated and the fearful.
For the poor in spirit and those who mourn.
For Private and for Public
But Lewis wouldn’t summon us to just be a writer, but two.
It’s a kind of literary christology: two writers in one person.
The first writer flows from Lewis’s counsel above about writing as the antidote for whatever it is that is ailing you.
When you’re fed up with life, start writing.
There is healing power in getting your passions onto paper.
This is a call for the private writer.
But Lewis also would suggest that you see yourself as a second writer: the public writer.
One writes for the self; the other writes for others.
One expresses himself in some secret journal — better that no one poke their nose into it.
But the other embodies another way in which the fed-up soul cures human ills, not just our own, but those of others.
Public writing is its own distinct species.
To the Private Writer
Lewis’s counsel for the private writer is plain enough.
Get it out there.
Break all the rules.
The blank page is your soul’s canvass; letters are your paint.
When you’re anxious, sad, lonely, or depressed, express yourself.
Write your way through life’s worst days, and best.
Get your hidden thoughts into the light on the page.
Spread out the embers of your anger, and let them begin to cool with the air of hope.
And if you have no hope of your own to bring to them, at least turn them Godward in a prayer or psalm of lament, and let the very act of writing them to God be the distant glow at the tunnel’s end.
To the Public Writer
But it’s quite another thing to give counsel to the public writer.
Some clear and sharp distinctions must be made.
For Lewis, what passes as good public writing is fundamentally different than much of what may be permissible and desirable as private writing.
Writing for others, at its best, is not an exploration of our own selves, or peeling away the layers of our onion.
Rather, it is catching some great glimpse of objective reality, outside ourselves, and laboring to enable our readers to enjoy this reality with us.
The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him. . . .
To see things as the poet sees them I must share his consciousness and not attend to it; I must look where he looks and not turn round to face him; I must make of him not a spectacle but a pair of spectacles. (The Personal Heresy, 11)
This is the heart of good public writing.
Not burrowing deep inside the writer’s own subjective psyche, and basking in ego-stroking self-disclosure, but straining to open the readers’ eyes to observe wonders in God’s created world — and doing the hard work to put on display some objective reality outside of us.
Love Makes It Readable and Clear
In public writing, don’t just write to give vent to your own soul, but apply the balm to others.
Let your personal pining get your car to the track, but run your laps on love and the desire to help your reader.
Don’t fixate on how you want to say it, but how to make it readable.
A great humility stands behind such writing — and makes us free from the need to draw attention to ourselves, and eager to point to God and creation and humanity and sin and Jesus and salvation and the dynamics of everyday life and faith, and do so with clarity.
This is what made Lewis such a good writer, and why we have so much to glean from him for the 21st century — whether it’s his mingling of long and short sentences, or his attention to cadence and rhythm and how his sentences sounded when read aloud, or his relentless use of illustration, or his own manifest interest in every subject on which he wrote and his ability to be so contagious about it.
The Word As Great Cure
Which bring us back around to Lewis’s claim about ink being “the great cure for all human ills.”
All human ills?
Lewis might agree that it’s an overstatement.
But he might respond by saying that it depends how flexible one is willing to be with the image of ink on a page.
It is, after all, a Word who is, in fact, the great cure for all human ills — the Word who didn’t stay in the Writer’s head, but is eternally spoken, and was subjected in history to the criticisms and pains of taking shape in our world.
God wrote this Word on the page of our story, and the spilling of his ink became the great well for curing every ill and righting every wrong.
If God himself, when fed up with sin, and ready to apply the great cure, did so with a Word, then perhaps you and I — whether we self-identify as writers or not — should give some serious thought as to what ills we also might cure with our words.