Today’s guest post is by Jim Denney.
C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote 14 novels, at least 22 nonfiction books, several essay collections, and enough letters to fill many volumes. And he wrote them all in longhand with a steel-nibbed pen that he dipped in a bottle of ink.
Lewis had a rhythm as he wrote. He’d write six or seven words, whispering the words aloud as he wrote. Then he’d dip the pen in the ink—mentally composing the next phrase as he did so—and he’d write and whisper six or seven more words. Though Lewis used a dip-pen, a relic of the nineteenth century, he was an amazingly productive writer. Whenever he sat down to write—which he did almost daily—he wrote confidently, intuitively, and with astonishing speed.
In August 1932, C. S. Lewis wrote an entire draft of his debut novel—roughly 60,000 words—in just two weeks. It happened during a visit with his boyhood friend, Arthur Greeves, in Belfast. Lewis hadn’t planned to write during his stay, but somehow, amid the afternoon walks and late-night talks with Arthur, Lewis became inspired—and he wrote a novel. That novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, was published in May 1933, nine months after he composed the first draft.
Throughout his career, Lewis wrote most of his novels in just two or three months. The key to his amazing speed is what I call “writing in overdrive,” the ability to write intuitively and without inhibition under the influence of unconscious inspiration. Here’s the good news: you can learn to write as Lewis did.
“I See Pictures”
At age six, Lewis began writing and illustrating his own fantasy stories about an imaginary country he called Animal-Land. He wrote almost daily throughout his childhood, his teen years, and into adulthood. His creative process remained essentially the same from childhood to the end of his life.
He described his approach in a 1952 lecture: “I see pictures … Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up.” Lewis never outlined or plotted his fiction. He let his mental pictures unfold the story to him. “It is the only way I know,” he said. “Images always come first.”
At age sixteen, an image came to him of a faun walking through a snow-blanketed forest carrying an umbrella and parcels. Decades later, he combined this image with his recurring dreams about a great lion—and he began writing the book we now know as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Throughout his life, Lewis saw pictures in his mind—then he’d write stories about those images. Lewis didn’t realize what a gift he had—the gift of a simple childlike approach to writing. His ability to see pictures and turn them into stories seemed perfectly natural to him.
My own creative approach has been deeply impacted by C. S. Lewis. I didn’t start writing at an early age as he did, and I didn’t build a habit of writing daily until I was in my twenties. But the writing habits that came so naturally to Lewis are learnable skills. I know. I learned them.
Lewis could enter a state of creative “flow” at will. He wrote swiftly, almost effortlessly. And so can you. We can enter a state of spontaneous inspiration anytime we choose—if we adequately prepare ourselves for our writing session.
Here are 5 steps to get you writing in overdrive:
Step 1: Set a Challenging Goal
Choose a boldly ambitious goal of a specific number of words or pages, or the completion of a chapter or story. A word count or page quota will motivate you to remain focused until you reach your goal. Set a quota so audacious that you must push yourself to achieve it—but not so unattainable that you set yourself up for failure.
Only when we take on a bold, risky challenge can we experience the exhilaration of overdrive. Many professional writers set daily minimums of around 2,000 words (2,000 words a day yields 60,000 words in one month). If 2,000 words is too much, try 1,000 or 500 words a day.
How does it feel to reach your goal? Lewis once described it as a feeling of “joy” that “jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights.”
I know that feeling. If you’ve never felt it before, get ready—you will.
Step 2: Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly
Derek Brewer, one of Lewis’s students at Oxford, knew Lewis’s writing habits well. He recalled that Lewis “wrote because he could hardly stop himself. . . . He threw a lot away.” That’s a key glimpse into Lewis’s creative process. He gave himself permission to write badly—and when he wrote something not worth keeping, he tossed it away without regret.
Like Lewis, you and I write badly at times. That’s okay. Lewis knew that bad writing is better than no writing at all—and that by learning the lessons of his mistakes, he’d write better the next time.
Humorist James Thurber once observed, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” Or, as Lewis once told Arthur Greeves, “Write something, anything, but at any rate WRITE. ”
Write eagerly, boldly, without inhibition. Let images and emotions pour from your pen or your keyboard, completely unedited and without looking back. Later, you can clean up your prose—but, for now, have fun and make a beautiful mess.
Step 3: Relax
A state of relaxation enables you to write freely, without inhibition, so that you can experience pure, unrestrained imagination and inspiration. The harder we try to write, the harder writing becomes.
Lewis once observed, “Many things—such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly—are done worst when we try hardest to do them.” When we force ourselves to produce ideas and sentences, we often shut down inspiration. Great writing flows from a relaxed mind.
Arthur Greeves complained in a letter to Lewis about the slow pace of his own writing. He’d stare at the page for ten minutes, trying to form a single sentence. Lewis wrote back, urging Greeves to relax and take a walk, adding, “My imagination only works when I am exercising.”
Lewis’s writing routine included daily walks in the woods. By clearing his thoughts, exercising his body, and enjoying nature, he allowed his unconscious mind to summon new images and find intuitive solutions to writing problems. Then he’d return home and write it all down in a rush of inspiration.
Relax as you write. Soon you’ll be writing in overdrive.
Step 4: Work in Silence
In 1959 an American schoolgirl wrote Lewis, asking for writing advice. He told her to turn off the radio (no background music), write with the ear (listen to the sound of the sentences), and never write with a typewriter (the clatter interferes with the rhythm of language).
Walter Hooper, Lewis’s secretary in the last months of his life, recalled: “When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always ‘whispered the words aloud.’ Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”
Lewis’s advice to work in silence is well-taken. We should listen for unconscious inspiration. We must hear the rhythm of our sentences as we write. Noise muffles the voice of our unconscious mind and mutes the music of our words.
Step 5: Start Strong and Push to Completion
To write in overdrive, start confidently and let your words pull you to the finish line. Do you hesitate to begin? That’s normal. Many accomplished authors fear the blank page. Acknowledge your fears—but write anyway. One word leads to another. Soon you’re writing sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.
Practice writing quickly in first draft, never thinking or analyzing but simply drawing inspiration from the unconscious imagination. Do this day after day and you’ll soon tap into the miracle of writing in overdrive.
British politician George Watson studied under Lewis at Cambridge. He recalled visiting Lewis’s office in the early 1960s. He found Lewis at his desk, working on The Discarded Image, his final book.
Watson asked Lewis if he ever experienced writer’s block. Lewis looked at him with a puzzled expression, as if the question made no sense to him. After a long pause, Lewis said, “Sometimes, when I come back in the evening after dinner, I tell myself I am too tired and shouldn’t write anything. But I always do.”
The concept of “writer’s block” was unknown to Lewis. Writing, Watson said, “was Lewis’s life, in the sense that he was always writing when he was not doing anything else. He was endowed with whatever it is that is the opposite of a [writer’s] block.”
The opposite of a writer’s block is writing in overdrive. Learn from Lewis. Shed your inhibitions. Write with the unrestrained confidence of a child. Soon you’ll be writing quickly and brilliantly—and your captivating stories, like Lewis’s, will bring joy to countless readers
Jim Denney has written more than 150 books, including Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis. Connect with Jim at WritingInOverdrive.com and at Patreon.com/jimdenney.