Thursday, November 24, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing and Learning by our Mistakes

On August 31, 1958 Lewis writes to Joan Lancaster:

I am sure you had fun writing the stories. The main fault of the animal one is that you don’t mix the reality and the fantasy quite in the right way. One way is Beatrix Potter’s or Brer Rabbit’s [note: by Joel Chandler Harris]. By fantasy the animals are allowed to talk and behave in many ways like humans. But their relations to one another and to us remain the real ones. Rabbits are in danger from foxes and men.

The other way is mine: you go right out of this world into a different creation, where there are a different sort of animals…

…I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this? One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes…

I post this excerpt because I’m interested in writing, in Lewis’s approach to writing and imagination, and in Lewis’s coaching and critique. As I’ve written before, I love Lewis taking the time to share insights with correspondents – with reading their material and thoughtfully responding to it.

One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes… This is a hard saying in 2012 when feelings are valued above objectivity and when personal likes and dislikes rule the day as opposed to objective critique.

In a recent business meeting I was asked, “How did you feel about presenting this budget in its current form?” I restrained myself from a straightforward response, for how I “felt” about the budget was not the point, the point was whether the budget was a representation of reality.

I often encounter managers who will not tell their subordinates what they need to hear about their performance because “they will take it personally”. What often ends up happening is that the subordinate finds himself seeking other employment and the manager fails to grow as a manager because he uses feelings as a compass as opposed to facts. We miss the truth that we can work with facts while taking others’ feelings into consideration, people do matter, their feelings do matter – but the truth, or honest critique, must not bow to feelings which change as the wind.

While there are certainly other ways to grow in addition to seeing one’s mistakes, it is doubtful whether one can grow without seeing one’s mistakes. When playing a musical instrument and hitting a wrong note we (hopefully) recognize the error as it occurs, and hopefully we don’t take it personally, and more hopefully we don’t ignore the misplayed note – why should it be any different in other spheres of life?

Sports analogies are helpful to me when I reflect on learning from mistakes. Baseball teams have pitching coaches, hitting coaches, conditioning coaches – and one of the roles of these coaches is to critique players’ performance; it is a foolish player who rejects out-of-hand a coach’s observations and advice.

Yet most of what we experience today is feeling-oriented and feeling-dominated critique, and in the end we all lose. We lose because we don’t deal in truth, because we aren’t challenged to communicate in constructive ways, because we won’t take a good look at ourselves. We also lose because often, when the truth finally comes out, it comes out in ways that are not fruitful and that are without consideration for others. Anger, which we see so much of today – is partly a result, I think, of our collective sorrowful lack of daily communication skills and our burial of truth in daily life.

I have seen churches where feelings and harmony were dominate at the expense of truth. I have seen students who think they are getting an education when what they are getting is the lowest common denominator so that feelings won’t be hurt, tuition will be paid, and instructors will not have to deal with conflict and investment in students.

As Lewis well knew, no writer can grow without critique; self-critique and the critique of others. The Inklings were many things, including a critique group – critique was part of the fabric of Lewis’s life – it was invigorating as well as painful. But what is true of writers is true of us all – how much growth do I forfeit by being overly sensitive to critique? How much growth do I forfeit by not examining my own life by the light of God’s Word and in the light of the Holy Spirit? And what, I wonder, would my friends and associates tell me about myself if I had ears to hear them?

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