First things first


At the age of nine or so, I wanted to be a writer. I was a wannabe writer. I was captivated by the story of Daisy Ashford, who at nine years old wrote a novel The Young Visiters [so spelt] which was later published to great acclaim. I loved the idea of one’s own book, with its cover inscribed with the title and one’s name, all those pages inside, the smell of paper and glue, the ingenious story, the engaging characters. And of course, I tried doing it. The attempts were mostly imitative of what I had just read: so it was Daisy Ashford to start with, then in teenage years, Evelyn Waugh and J. R. R. Tolkien. The results were not terribly inspired and sometimes downright embarrassing. And I did not go on from there to be a proper writer. I did not morph into the desired state. Wanting to be a writer did not make me a writer.

Blank book on a table

Learning the craft of writing (in so far as I have learnt it) came as a necessity. At school, and university, one could only study an arts subject by writing essays. For many years, doing this was an agony. One seemed to have no ideas, and it was so hard expressing the few ideas one did have in a coherent way. And it was all facts, not fiction. No use for the imagination, or so it seemed. Learning to express oneself came through such simplistic formulas as ‘say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said.’ In other words, force yourself to explain the thing in a sentence, and it will all start to unfold.

Training continued through work. I imagine many of us have had to write reports and other documents as part of our job. And of course, such things need to be both easily understood and persuasive. No good if colleagues aren’t sure what you’re on about, and no good if you don’t set out a strong case. These pedestrian, workaday exercises in writing are an excellent training ground. The key to it is this: the end aimed at, clarification, persuasion, is the thing that matters to you; the writing is the instrument. Not merely the instrument, since, as we’ve just said, how it is done matters. But you want something much more than to be the author: you want people to understand, to be persuaded. C. S. Lewis’s celebrated principle comes into play: when you strive for the higher goal, you often get something lesser, but desirable, thrown in; when you strive for the lesser, you get neither.

St Paul didn’t start on his apostolic career as a wannabe. He didn’t think ‘It would be great to be an evangelist; I’d love to write speeches that will be reprinted until the end of the age.’ He said that he was constrained to preach the gospel. Woe to him if he didn’t preach. There was something more important driving him, and incidentally he became a master evangelist. Some writers I know don’t want to be writers. It’s a painful process, and they’d rather do the garden or the ironing. What got them into the trade was the consciousness of having something really important to communicate, a vision that unrolled like a movie in their head that they couldn’t shake off, that they felt it would be wrong to shake off.

We are living at a time when the Truth is desperately needed.  There are multifarious ways in which the Truth may be conveyed. We need the burning desire to make the message of the Truth clear and persuasive. Whether our name is on the cover and how many copies we sell are secondary.

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