Don Quixote Excerpt on Creative Writing

Miguel Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote, was considered “the final and greatest utterance of the human mind” by Doestoevsky, and was voted the best book ever written in a survey of top authors. Cervantes begins his prologue by speaking to the “Idle Reader”; the work presents a sustained reflection on the impact that the new reading culture had on 17th century Spanish society. Near the end of volume one, a learned clergyman reflects on the good, bad, and ugly of fictional writing, in words from which today’s creative writers can learn.

Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter XLVII

The canon and his servants were surprised anew when they heard Don Quixote's strange story, and when it was finished he said, "To tell the truth, senor curate, I for my part consider what they call books of chivalry to be mischievous to the State; and though, led by idle and false taste, I have read the beginnings of almost all that have been printed, I never could manage to read any one of them from beginning to end; for it seems to me they are all more or less the same thing; and one has nothing more in it than another; this no more than that.

“And in my opinion this sort of writing and composition is of the same species as the fables they call the Milesian, nonsensical tales that aim solely at giving amusement and not instruction, exactly the opposite of the apologue fables which amuse and instruct at the same time. And though it may be the chief object of such books to amuse, I do not know how they can succeed, when they are so full of such monstrous nonsense. For the enjoyment the mind feels must come from the beauty and harmony which it perceives or contemplates in the things that the eye or the imagination brings before it; and nothing that has any ugliness or disproportion about it can give any pleasure.

“What beauty, then, or what proportion of the parts to the whole, or of the whole to the parts, can there be in a book or fable where a lad of sixteen cuts down a giant as tall as a tower and makes two halves of him as if he was an almond cake? And when they want to give us a picture of a battle, after having told us that there are a million of combatants on the side of the enemy, let the hero of the book be opposed to them, and we have perforce to believe, whether we like it or not, that the said knight wins the victory by the single might of his strong arm. And then, what shall we say of the facility with which a born queen or empress will give herself over into the arms of some unknown wandering knight? What mind, that is not wholly barbarous and uncultured, can find pleasure in reading of how a great tower full of knights sails away across the sea like a ship with a fair wind, and will be to-night in Lombardy and to-morrow morning in the land of Prester John of the Indies, or some other that Ptolemy never described nor Marco Polo saw?

“And if, in answer to this, I am told that the authors of books of the kind write them as fiction, and therefore are not bound to regard niceties of truth, I would reply that fiction is all the better the more it looks like truth, and gives the more pleasure the more probability and possibility there is about it. Plots in fiction should be wedded to the understanding of the reader, and be constructed in such a way that, reconciling impossibilities, smoothing over difficulties, keeping the mind on the alert, they may surprise, interest, divert, and entertain, so that wonder and delight joined may keep pace one with the other; all which he will fail to effect who shuns verisimilitude and truth to nature, wherein lies the perfection of writing.

“I have never yet seen any book of chivalry that puts together a connected plot complete in all its numbers, so that the middle agrees with the beginning, and the end with the beginning and middle; on the contrary, they construct them with such a multitude of members that it seems as though they meant to produce a chimera or monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. And besides all this they are harsh in their style, incredible in their achievements, licentious in their amours, uncouth in their courtly speeches, prolix in their battles, silly in their arguments, absurd in their travels, and, in short, wanting in everything like intelligent art; for which reason they deserve to be banished from the Christian commonwealth as a worthless breed."

The curate listened to him attentively and felt that he was a man of sound understanding, and that there was good reason in what he said; so he told him that, being of the same opinion himself, and bearing a grudge to books of chivalry, he had burned all Don Quixote's, which were many; and gave him an account of the scrutiny he had made of them, and of those he had condemned to the flames and those he had spared.

The canon was not a little amused, adding that though he had said so much in condemnation of these books, still he found one good thing in them, and that was the opportunity they afforded to a gifted intellect for displaying itself; for they presented a wide and spacious field over which the pen might range freely, describing shipwrecks, tempests, combats, battles, portraying a valiant captain with all the qualifications requisite to make one, showing him sagacious in foreseeing the wiles of the enemy, eloquent in speech to encourage or restrain his soldiers, ripe in counsel, rapid in resolve, as bold in biding his time as in pressing the attack; now picturing some sad tragic incident, now some joyful and unexpected event; here a beauteous lady, virtuous, wise, and modest; there a Christian knight, brave and gentle; here a lawless, barbarous braggart; there a courteous prince, gallant and gracious; setting forth the devotion and loyalty of vassals, the greatness and generosity of nobles.

"Or again," said he, "the author may show himself to be an astronomer, or a skilled cosmographer, or musician, or one versed in affairs of state, and sometimes he will have a chance of coming forward as a magician if he likes. He can set forth the craftiness of Ulysses, the piety of Aeneas, the valour of Achilles, the misfortunes of Hector, the treachery of Sinon, the friendship of Euryalus, the generosity of Alexander, the boldness of Caesar, the clemency and truth of Trajan, the fidelity of Zopyrus, the wisdom of Cato, and in short all the faculties that serve to make an illustrious man perfect, now uniting them in one individual, again distributing them among many; and if this be done with charm of style and ingenious invention, aiming at the truth as much as possible, he will assuredly weave a web of bright and varied threads that, when finished, will display such perfection and beauty that it will attain the worthiest object any writing can seek, which, as I said before, is to give instruction and pleasure combined; for the unrestricted range of these books enables the author to show his powers, epic, lyric, tragic, or comic, and all the moods the sweet and winning arts of poesy and oratory are capable of; for the epic may be written in prose just as well as in verse."

Shannon Valenzuela

Shannon Valenzuela shares something in common with two of the heroes of the current liberal arts renewal. Like Tolkien and Lewis, she is both a respected professor of literature, a creative fiction writer, and one who cares deeply about the formation of the imagination. Shannon is an affiliate assistant professor of humanities and literature at the University of Dallas, and teaches in the Master’s of Classical Education program. She is a medievalist by training and well-versed in the classical epics, lyric poetry, and drama. She is also a science fiction writer whose stories include freedom-fighting assassins and bureaucratic memory-wipers. She is not only a novelist but also an award-winning screenwriter. She is the writer, director, and producer of “The Quest”, a documentary-style miniseries that draws on stories from Scripture, history, and literature to explore the Christian life as a narrative of joyful courage in the gathering darkness of this world.

Shannon has been a writer since she was young. She chose an academic track in graduate school rather than a Master of Fine Arts degree because she found that learning to read and teach stories critically helped her own creative writing. Conversely, her creative writing gives her insights into great writers and their works – how they structure, compose, etc. For example, her work as a screenplay writer allowed her to appreciate the battlefield scenes in The Iliad in a new way. “Homer has an eye like the best of today’s directors of war movies. He realizes you can’t effectively imagine a battle on its grand scale. To feel its tragedy, you need to get into the mud of the field, and to get a glimpse, however brief, of the personal story of someone whose life is suddenly cut down by the spear. The gods may see men as pawns on a chessboard, but Homer profoundly presents the human perspective.”

Shannon finds screenwriting challenging compared to novel writing. “The novel is expansive. You are the master of your world. You can take the time to tell the story as you would like. You only have to consider yourself and your reader. The screenwriter, like the lyric poet, is limited by its form. You have to be very economical. You are one part of a process. You are making a blueprint, like an architect, knowing that the final form of your work will be determined by many other hands. I find that artistic collaboration exciting as well.” The toughest challenge for her lies in the difficulty of showing what is going on inside the characters. “Interiority cannot be presented with the ease of a novel. We always want to see the interior development of a character, and the thought and emotion that lies behind decisions they make.”

Her writing also affects her teaching, because she always wants her students to learn to enjoy the works they are studying. “We can forget that in our desire to glean wisdom from these authors. They do express wisdom, but it operates through delight.” She strongly believes that people relate to one another through stories, and so delight in listening to stories is crucial for our human development. “We come to know our grandparents by listening to their stories; we come to know God by hearing His story of salvation. We come close to Christ by imbibing his parables.”

Being affected by stories also opens the way to critical thought about them. Shannon encourages her students to develop essay topics by asking themselves, “What surprised me, what delighted, shocked, or excited me? What do I want to spend time thinking through and sharing?”

Experiencing delight in reading rich works can be hard, especially for the young of today immersed from early on in visual entertainment. Receiving an author’s words demands an active imagination, but the visual medium provides a substitute, so that the imagination is never developed. “If you are not able to use your imagination, your ways of engagement with the world are diminished. In a very practical way, your ability to make prudent decisions is hampered if you are unable to imagine forward, to consider the different ways things might work out.”

Training the imagination becomes one of the most important tasks of education. “We owe it to ourselves as human beings, especially with technological developments.” She believes that classical liberal arts education fosters imaginative growth in many ways, such as through poetry memorization, exercises in narration, and training in the fine arts. Reading aloud to children from a young age is a natural way to activate and form their imaginations.

As a teacher, she works to get her students to slow down, to pay more attention, to notice more, to be more precise in description, and to use accurate vocabulary to communicate it so that others can picture things as they have. When she taught middle school science, she would have each student sketch a seashell. When they turned them in to her, she would send them back to notice and include more details that they had missed. She would take her screenwriting students outside to a particular location, and have each one describe it according to the mood of the genre of their project - fantasy, horror, thriller. Later they read their descriptions aloud, noticing the differences in vocabulary and style used to express the same location from different imaginative standpoints.

Shannon believes that we are involved in a fight for the imagination. “We are what we consume. As we need to be mindful of what we eat because of its effect on our bodies, we need to be mindful of what images we consume. The imagination is powerful. We all have experiences of images that linger within us and color our experience of the world. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis explores the consequences of an education which neglects the imagination. As he puts it, ‘Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.’” Shannon does all she can to make sure her students are strong on dragons.

Grammar Revolution

In preparing for our recent issue devoted to grammar, I watched an hour-long documentary recommended by a colleague, Grammar Revolution, a well-done “indie” that investigated the debates among academics that contributed to the demise of formal grammar teaching. I was surprised to see segments with Lisa VanDamme, founder of VanDamme Academy (VDA) in Aliso Viejo, California, and the mother of a recent student of mine. This led to the discovery that the documentary was conceived, produced, filmed and directed by two teachers from VDA, David and Elizabeth O'Brien. I was intrigued – two elementary teachers put this together? I smelled a good story, and was not disappointed.

David and Elizabeth are adventurous spirits. “Fun” ideas not only attract them, but lead them to action. What they find fun is exceptional. They graduated from The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with degrees in Philosophy and Education respectively. After a summer’s work at Glacier National Park in Montana, they decided to tour the country. They had discovered some lectures on the philosophy of education by Lisa that impressed them, so they reached out to see if they could visit her school. They stayed several days, before continuing on their way. When they were in Florida, they got a call from Lisa asking if they would like to teach for her. “That sounds fun,” so they did.

During college, Elizabeth had discovered that grammar is fun; at VanDamme Academy, she found that teaching grammar to students is also fun. Elizabeth’s answer to why she is so passionate about grammar is, “I love grammar because I used to hate grammar.” Elizabeth had little exposure to grammar during her K-12 years. It mainly came up in high school, when composition teachers would speak of things like “verbals” and “adjectival clauses” as though students should know, but she didn’t even know what verbs and adjectives were. Her ignorance made her feel embarrassed and frustrated when she tried to explain grammar concepts to ESL (English as a Second Language) students. So she took a grammar course from an excellent professor who showed her that grammar makes sense, and that sentence analysis, aided by diagrams, becomes a fun puzzle exercise.

In 2008 she began sharing with other teachers her joyful, logical, puzzle-ing approach to grammar. Over the years she has served hundreds of teachers through her Grammar Revolution site. Most teachers of grammar expect students to memorize by rote and to learn pattern recognition for the sake of completing worksheets and passing quizzes. Elizabeth believes that diagrams lead to real learning and effective teaching. Diagrams help students visualize the logical connections among the elements of a sentence. Diagramming makes grammar meaningful for students, and makes them more active. They learn to attack a sentence as a whole, deconstruct it, recognize that nouns do noun jobs, and then that other groups of words can also do noun-jobs. David likened normal grammar worksheets to “those blank maps of the US where you learned to fill in the names of states. That doesn’t last. But if you were challenged to describe the shape of each state, you might remember it better.” Elizabeth pointed out that teaching grammar in connection with diagrams forces teachers to proceed in a logical, hierarchical order.

David’s journey into grammar began with teaching at VDA. “Learning grammar while teaching at Lisa’s school was eye-opening, a revelation! While I was studying for my philosophy degree, I fancied myself a word-smith. Looking back, I realize I was just cramming words in that sounded good, but the papers were really unclear.” David’s teaching of grammar became practically fruitful for him when he entered law school. He aced the Legal Research and Writing diagnostic quiz! A couple of internships during law school convinced David - “prematurely probably” - that it wasn’t going to be the right kind of fun for him; on the other hand, teaching philosophy and law at a classical high school – “Now that is fun!”

David had long been interested in another kind of fun – making a movie. Elizabeth suggested that grammar could provide an exciting movie topic. David agreed, and he was especially interested in further exploring ideological conflicts within education and within grammar. He had followed a series of essays referred to as the “grammar wars” in issues of the Atlantic monthly. The battle was characterized as one of descriptivists vs prescriptivists, that is, the new way of using grammar to merely describe how people speak and write vs. the old way of using grammar to train people to speak and write well.

“We were ignorant and wanted to learn,” said David. They were not only ignorant of the controversy, but also about making a documentary. But, having raised $25,000 through KickStarter – most of it from teachers who had benefited from Elizabeth’s work – David purchased some middle of the line equipment and paid for some hours of over-coffee conversations with people who knew how to film. Filming wasn’t too hard, but he learned later that post-production work was beyond him. “We should have been more ambitious in our Kickstarter campaign!”

They were surprised by how easy it was to get interviews with big names in the controversy.  They started with John McWhorter, cultural commentator and professor of linguistics at Columbia University. “Once he agreed, it opened the doors to others.” But David and Elizabeth were humbled and surprised by the interviews. “When we started, we were motivated by the desire to defend prescriptive against descriptive grammar. But the conversations showed us how intelligent, reasonable, and above us all the thinkers were.” It also revealed that the major thinkers didn’t disagree as much as they had thought. “Everyone interviewed agreed that standard English should be taught, except the education professor, who saw teaching standard grammar as imposing a power structure. The others recognized that standard English is the language you need to succeed.”

David and Elizabeth learned a lot about grammar and language. “Grammar debates are not like mathematics, where there is a clear difference between correct and incorrect answers. Standard English is a preferred dialect, but its usage is not always simply right. For example, in other languages, double negatives are standard.” They point out that what is standard in English has changed over time. Change is so natural to language that it has patterns. Garner’s Modern American Usage details five stages of language change, from when some usage is a mistake to when it becomes widely accepted.

“In spite of the agreement on the need to teach standard English, many linguists are oblivious as to the actual consequences of their denigration of Standard English.” David pointed me toward one segment of bonus footage available from the documentary. After hearing from Bryan Garner about the importance of grammar for maintaining the literary traditions of standard English, and Steven Pinker about the impossibility of actually slowing down the change taking place in usage, the camera turns to a student at the University of Minnesota in the linguistics department and the education department, who was uncomfortable with the idea of teaching standard grammar at all. “Of course, there is more than mere linguistic anti-prescriptivism behind the student's hostility toward Standard English and literacy, but it has had an impact on her.”

Elizabeth and David are happy that their efforts are helping those who want to teach grammar make it fun and fruitful for their students. “Even more than its practical effects, grammar shows you how beautiful and interesting language is.”

From the Director

Dear Reader,

In this issue of the Arts of Liberty Bulletin, we continue to reflect upon issues related to grammar, as well as get to know some amazing teachers. Traditionally, grammar referred directly to the art of crafting and analyzing sentences, but more generally to the art of learning to read great works well. In our last issue, we looked at the liberating effects of learning the art of grammar and the help that diagramming offers. This issue features an interview with a pair of teachers-turned-producers of a “revolutionary” documentary on grammar, and another with an AoL collaborator, who shares insights from her experience of  teaching literature as both a scholar and fiction author. We also draw upon Don Quixote for literary insights of his creator, Miguel Cervantes.

The past several months have begun a new journey for the Arts of Liberty Project. Over the decade and a half since its founding, the project has received tremendous assistance from the Center for Thomas More Studies and the University of Dallas. In November, we decided to take the difficult but important step of founding our own independent institute. We believe this will enable us to better fulfill our mission of providing leadership and instruction to the growing number of teachers and scholars involved in the educational reform movement in our country and around the world. We will provide more information in the coming months.

In other news, AoL Senior Fellow Erik Ellis completed his first semester as an assistant professor of education in the new Master’s of Classical Education program at Hillsdale College, and was introduced to the community in an interview in their student newspaper. Erik spent the past three years at Universidad de los Andes (Chile), where he helped launch a Great Books program, and is looking forward to helping promote liberal education efforts in South America. Jeff Lehman, Erik, and I participated in the Center for Thomas Studies annual conference. I gained a much greater understanding of the role of Providence in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy through our discussions; my paper, “Drawing Near to God: Lady Philosophy as Physician in the Consolation” will appear in an upcoming edition of Moreana.

Let us continue to labor to form ourselves in the Arts of Liberty, and extend the blessings of liberty to the next generation.