What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

What is the best way to approach a writing task, whether as a professional writer or a student? Do you procrastinate until the last minute and then start writing on page one and hope for the best? Or is there a better approach? My friend and APU colleague, Tom Allbaugh, confronts that problem in a very helpful guest post this week. Dr. Allbaugh is an accomplished writer who is celebrating the release of the second edition of his excellent writing textbook, Pretexts for Writing. I think you will enjoy what he has to say.  

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

By Tom Allbaugh

In the first chapter of Pretexts for Writing, I tell a story about when I was a student in a freshman writing class. I tell of how I waited, like most students I see today, until one or two nights before the deadline to get started on my research paper. Even though this was 1974 and I had to write on an old typewriter, I pretty much started by sitting down to write what I hoped would be the final draft.

Teachers call this “top-down writing.” We see it all the time in the movies. The writer starts typing without planning, hoping that inspiration will show up. In the movies, of course, the writer becomes rich and famous. In real life—in my life, for that first college assignment—I struggled to complete six pages. I didn’t even think about my main point until well into that “final” draft.

Many of my students have told me that they like that I tell this story. They say that it helps them connect with my ideas. I’m glad that my plan to demonstrate an idea also serves the second function of connecting with my audience.

Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me?

Today, I do often wish that someone had taught me that writing needs to be planned. A plan can be simple and personal, but it will usually involve us in generating ideas, thinking about genre, and making audience considerations.

The writers I know or have read about in interviews sometimes discuss their composing process, and their approaches can be idiosyncratic. We know, for example, that C.S. Lewis took long walks. Beethoven did this also, planning his works as he went. Looking at his fragmented writing in his notebooks, with his scratched out notes and revised ideas, anyone can see the years of work it took him to sketch out his symphonies. Some have suggested that it took this composer a lot of digging to connect with his unconscious. Getting the unconscious into the writing act is perhaps what prompted Ernest Hemingway to stand at his typewriter at chest level and Mark Twain and Truman Capote to both write lying down.

Especially among creative thinkers, planning usually has this “mental” element to it, but it will also allow writers into the more conscious work of considering the kind of writing being attempted and who their audience is.

When I started out in college, I wouldn’t have thought like this. At eighteen, I worked from the belief that writing an argument or a research paper or a novel required only inspiration and self-expression. This is also probably why the research paper task always seemed so daunting to me. None of my teachers ever told me that I should probably plan what to write about. As early as the fifth grade, I was told about revision and that I should write an outline. But outlining is an organizing strategy and, suspiciously, does not always allow for other kinds of planning.

What I Know Now

Today, even in those rare instances when I get inspiration, I still know enough to allow myself time to generate more thoughts before I start. The planning can vary—brainstorming, free-writing, or conversation will work—depending on what I am writing. There’s much room for variation. Probably the only exception to this rule is when I write a journal entry.

But this is what I wish I’d been taught from the very start. So I have organized Pretexts for Writing to begin with planning, with what writing and speech teachers since Aristotle have called “invention.” This opening, I hope, will encourage thinking about different aspects of planning.

Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that his work involved about 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. I may be off on his numbers just a little, but his point is clear. Inspiration is over-rated. But just getting to work and making some plans, I can usually encourage and generate some inspiration.


The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I am happy to welcome guest blogger Michael Bruner, a popular and gifted Honors professor at Azusa Pacific University.

 Michael was born and raised in the Philippines to missionary parents. He moved with his family to the US when he was ten and received his B.A. in English from University of Washington in 1988. He received his M.Div. from Princeton Seminary in 1994 and was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister shortly thereafter. He now teaches in the Dept. of Practical Theology at APU and lives in Pasadena with his wife and two children.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

By Michael Bruner

I was thinking of Heaven as I was reading the Lake Isle of Innisfree a couple of days ago, and I thought about how terrible it would be if Heaven were just a place we came up with in our minds, a Lake Isle of our own making, in order to counter the reality that we are in fact alone in this life. I then extended this idea further and considered how truly awful it would be if, as we are told in that nursery rhyme, this life itself is “but a dream.”

It then occurred to me that that’s what hell is, and the severest forms of mental illness (which are, in some sense, merely mirror images of each other): being alone in one’s own existence with nothing but voices and phantoms of one’s own making, an echo chamber of chaos where one is profoundly misunderstood even by oneself — and ultimately unknown to oneself. This is also the height of narcissism, which, I am convinced, is the DNA of all mental illness.

And so, if Heaven is real and, by extension, this life is not a dream, then Heaven must be an even deeper reality than this life, where we understand more and are, in turn, more fully known; we’ll see ourselves as parts of a larger whole, as separate (but not separated) parts of who we all are and who God is. And yet we will, in some sense, remain a mystery.

Which would make eternity, in our as-yet presently unredeemed state of individualism, hell. The boundaries between us must dissolve before the boundary of time can disappear. In heaven, we won’t be the same self-conscious, individuated people we are now. We will know ourselves for being known in communion with others. We will still be ourselves, no doubt, replete with bodies, but they will be Continue reading

Is Literature Still Necessary? (Part 2) “Literary Labor”

Note: This is the second in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

To view the first post in this series, scroll down or click here.

Literary Labor

by Bethany Wagner, APU Honors student

After a long, exhausting day in the classroom or at the office, a book offers what no movie or TV show or video game can: the chance to kick back on the couch with a steaming mug of tea…and get to work.

Work? Who would want that at the end of the day when The Bachelor is on? Yes, reading is work, oftentimes hard work. But it is not the tiresome work of scrubbing food off plates or hauling stacks of dirty clothes to the Laundromat.

It is the work of figuring out what Dickens meant by that mysterious allegory, and deciphering exactly what apozemical means, and trying to solve who killed so-and-so before Sherlock Holmes does. Most of all, it is the work of finding how your story—where you come from, who you are, what you believe—fits into the story you hold in your hands.

Would I have been able to refuse the White Witch’s Turkish delight? Would I have been unselfish enough to make the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton? Do I agree with this character’s philosophy? Do I agree with that author’s depiction of religion? Some questions are harder to answer than others, one book more difficult to place yourself in than the next, but all pull the reader into the story, and all call the gears of the mind to work—not to monotonous drudgery, but to a joyous, satisfying work that engages the imagination.

Compare the feeling of finishing a movie or video game to that of finishing a piece of fine literature. At the end of the average movie, I might think something along the lines of, Well that was cool…I guess it’s time for bed. A particularly good, thought-provoking movie perhaps leaves me with stronger feelings of contentment or conviction. Finishing a video game might leave me feeling a bit more accomplished, although there is always the nagging thought in the back of my head that maybe…just maybe…all those hours in front of the screen pressing buttons might have been better spent elsewhere.

But after turning the last pages of A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Divorce, Paradise Lost—even books like Harry Potter, a little bit less of a “task” to read—I have no regrets. I did it. I read the words, entered the world, took my part in the story, added my voice, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even when I came across words like apozemical).

As I write this I am sitting on the floor in between bookshelves in one of those buildings that are testaments to the wonders of literature—a library. Books of all sizes and colors and topics, each with its own story, surround me, and though I will sadly never read them all, I feel a sort of kinship to each one. I know that if I were to pick up any one of them, crack open its cover, and begin reading, that book would allow me to enter its world as a partner in its authorship.

A movie is a two-and-a-half-hour performance where I can tune out the world and relax. A video game lets me in a little bit deeper by allowing me to press a few buttons that result in the death of an Orc or a sword fight here and there. But it is the book…and only the book…that fully engages the mind, calling me to enter into its story, and at the same time allowing me to work at telling my own.

Is Literature Still Necessary?

Note: This is the first in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

This post will be followed next week by three responses from students at my university—two Honors students and one top English major. We welcome you to join in the discussion of an issue of great interest to many of us in this era of change.  


Can the Needs that Novels Once Met Be Fulfilled in Other Ways? 

By Joseph Bentz 

The purpose of literature is often said to be some sort of “connecting”—with characters, with the mind of the author, with other cultures or time periods, with the world outside the reader.

David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest and other novels, said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull…imaginative access to other selves” (qtd. in Smith 255). Novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, wrote that “Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude…in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness” (88). In the film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “We read to know we are not alone.” Even though some scholars question whether Lewis ever actually uttered those words, the quote is endlessly repeated anyway because readers resonate with the idea that literature connects them to other selves, other worlds, other minds.

Different Ways to “Connect”

But are novels really the best way to “connect” to the world outside oneself, or will many people increasingly find it easier to meet that need in other forms, such as social media, video games, YouTube videos, and other ways? Does literature offer something those other forms don’t? “Connecting” may be a fundamental purpose of literature, but it is also the central purpose of other forms of expression, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In introducing a new Community Pages feature, for instance, Facebook software engineer Alex Li wrote, “Facebook has always been about helping people make connections. We started with helping people connect with their friends, and over time we expanded this model to mirror more of the connections you make in your life—including organizations and interests that may not be people.” Even their famous logo is about connecting, with its map of the world sprinkled with icons of people connected by dotted lines.

People use other technological media, such as online video games, to make a number of different kinds of connections: to connect with other players around the world, to connect with the created characters whose roles they take on, and to connect with the created worlds the game makers have brought to life.

What’s at Stake?

With hundreds of millions of people meeting this human need for “connection” through new technologies, where does that leave literature? Do we really still need it to “know we are not alone”? As a literature professor and author, I and my profession have much at stake in the answers to these questions. If the essence of the literary experience can be matched by the technology of sophisticated video games or social media, then what relevance to do literature courses have for university students?

Are Video Games as Good as Literature?

It’s easy for literature professors to dismiss the significance of popular-culture entertainment technologies such as video games. But as I have studied the work of video game scholars and commentators such as James Paul Gee (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy), Tom Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter), and Jane McGonigal (Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World], I have seen that the case for literature’s superiority in “connecting” with the world outside oneself is not as clear-cut as I once believed.

One reason for reading novels, for instance, is that a reader likes to plunge into a rich, sumptuously imagined world that an author has created. The reader finds pleasure in living vicariously for awhile as a character in that world. Can any video game do that better than a novel?

I recently read an article about the creation of the video game, “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” Look at what its creators went through to develop a rich, fully realized world for its players to inhabit: “More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being written. Nearly 1,000 actors have recorded dialogue for 4,000 characters in three languages. The narrative is so huge that writers created a 1,000-page ‘bible’ to keep the details straight….” (Fritz, Pham, A1).

How can any novelist, using only words, compete with that?

My question is not really whether literature will disappear. Clearly it won’t. It survived the creation of new media such as film and television, so some readers will always be there. My question is more precisely, will literature, for vast swaths of people, become increasingly irrelevant, or is there something about it that is irreplaceable? I and my fellow bloggers plan to consider various aspects of that question in the days and weeks ahead.


Works Cited
Franzen, Jonathan. “Why Bother?” How to Be Alone: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002: 55-97. Print.
 Fritz, Ben, and Alex Pham. “Will Star Wars game reshape the online universe?” Los Angeles Times 20 January 2012: A1. Print.
Li, Alex. “Connecting to Everything You Care About.” The Facebook Blog. 19 April 2010. https://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=382978412130.  Web. 6 June 2012.
 Smith, Zadie. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. 255-297. Print.




Bentz’s Rules for Social Media Quotes

If you have a good quote you want to post on social media, but you’re not sure who said it, you should follow these rules:

1. Attribute the quote to Abraham Lincoln if it has anything to do with politics or government. Ronald Reagan will also do nicely if you’re conservative.

2. Any spiritual quote should be credited to C.S. Lewis unless it has to do with poor people, in which case, trust me, Mother Teresa said it.

3. Quotes about writing may alternate randomly between Anne Lamott and Ernest Hemingway.

4. Any quote containing words like “thou” or “wouldst” may be safely attributed either to Shakespeare or the Bible, your choice.

5. If it doesn’t really matter who said it but you just like the quote because it is particularly clever, please use the name “Joseph Bentz.”

6. As for “context,” not your problem.

I hope this is helpful. As Lincoln himself put it, “If you’re not for the people, you can’t buy the people.”



Should Authors Value Fans Only—Or Do They Also Need Opponents?

In this era when authors are expected to spend much of their time seeking the approval of readers—by “building a platform,” doing blog tours, conducting interviews, and praying for 5-star Amazon reviews—it may be helpful to look at how writers of an earlier generation used opposition to their work to make themselves better writers.

My friend and colleague Diana Glyer wrote a remarkable book called The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent State UP, 2007). It analyzes the ways the group of writers known as the Inklings influenced one another. This group, which included Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others, met regularly for seventeen years to read and critique each other’s work. Much of the influence these friends had on one another was positive and friendly, as they supported each other as resonators and collaborators, and as they promoted each other’s books through reviews and by other means.

But my favorite chapter of The Company They Keep is chapter 4, entitled “Opponents: Issuing Challenge.” I urge you to read it for yourself to get the full treatment of some of the fascinating encounters among these authors, but here I want to highlight a few things I learned as a writer about the value of Opponents.

“Oh, God, no more Elves!”

Can you imagine the privilege of sitting in a room and listening to J.R.R. Tolkien read from a draft of The Lord of the Rings? How would you like to relax by the fire and hear C.S. Lewis read a work-in-progress called The Screwtape Letters? That’s what the Inklings got to do, but they weren’t always happy about it. Tolkien, for example, didn’t like The Screwtape Letters. He was embarrassed that the book Continue reading