Holiday Reading: The Screwtape Letters and Blood Meridian

I’ve been busy reading both of these books during the holidays; Blood Meridian for much longer than The Screwtape Letters. The former is written by a man who may be better known for his story, The Road (McCarthy). The latter is a literary hero of mine (Lewis). And both are powerful wordsmiths. For example, some of his (Lewis’) sentences can be as long as a whole paragraph, if not as long as the page itself – complete with semicolons, hyphens, and multiple commas for good measure. And McCarthy can be just as lengthy, capturing the imagery of a sunset on an entire page and then casually jumping ahead three days in the next paragraph.

Basically, you have to be paying close attention when reading these guys. Otherwise, you’re bound to get lost somewhere.

If you know nothing of C.S. Lewis, it’s like this: asking for a small order of fries, but instead getting six pounds of ribs. At first, most people would be happy about the surprise, but would soon find themselves overwhelmed by what they’ve undertaken. And, if they’re feeling that way, they walk away before the meal is finished. That’s how I felt the first time I read something by Mr. Lewis – overwhelmed. But, I soldiered on and found Lewis’ works to be as engaging as they are difficult to understand, at times. Nowadays, I expect ribs; not fries. As for Mr. McCarthy, his style can be frustrating too, but I’d compare it to finishing a final exam. It may take you a couple hours, but if you stayed focused throughout, you’ll feel good about the result.

As for the reads themselves, Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is a dark tale about a demon, Screwtape, writing letters to his nephew – Wormwood, who is also a demon – about how to properly kill a man’s soul. Yikes, right? And McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a fictional tale set in the old west – filled with plenty of violence, gore, and paces itself in a less apologetic manner than any John Wayne movie you’ve ever seen. Indeed, my holiday reading hasn’t been for the light of heart.

But hey, that’s okay. I’m not trying to kill the holiday spirit by reading dark or evil tales – I’m just doing some much needed weightlifting; specifically for my brain. I remember having to read books in high school that I hated; for instance, The Scarlet Letter. God bless the soul who likes The Scarlet Letter. I understand it’s been regarded as a classic, but to me, it’s just boring. As an adult, I can’t bring myself to read it again. However, I can bring myself to appreciate its word choice, its context, and its large vocabulary. And as a writer, I can challenge myself to read something for that very reason: to enhance my overall knowledge of words and ultimately, become better versed in how to use them.

When I first started writing stories, I found myself emulating the author I was reading the most. If I was reading something by Hans Christian Andersen, I’d shadow his work in a similar fashion. The same thing happened when I was reading Tolkien, Frank Herbert, or Stephen King. Essentially, what I was taking in, I was pushing out. This was good, at first, but I stopped this pursuit once I felt I had a “handle” on what I needed. That was the wrong choice. Like, applying for college when you’re still in the eighth grade – you can’t expect to do calculus well without first taking pre-calculus. A lot of aspiring writers tend to miss this, myself included. They jump into the deep end with an idea yet have nothing to draw from other than popular cliches or a list of their favorite phrases, often recycled or paraphrased from that favorite story. “They were frozen with fear”; or “They’d never seen anything like it.” Not. Good. Writing. I’ve found it’s better to diversify one’s literary vault than to squeeze it tight. If you’re writing historical fiction, then read lots of historical fiction. Find the buzzwords. Find what works; find what doesn’t. Then you can move forward.

At which point, you get to enjoy the fun part: finding your own style and voice. Only this time, you have a plethora of new toys (words) at your disposal. You’ll face less odds of sounding foolish to your readers and more like someone who has done their homework. A better place to find one’s self in and a better way to become less reliant on just one story.

Comments

  1. Great post–couldn’t agree more on the read–read–read not just for writers but for anyone!!

  2. On C.S. Lewis – small order of Fries to 6 lbs. of Ribs. Nice analogy, C.S. would be proud.

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