As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.
By January, 1983, I was feeling the need for informed and candid reactions to my hymns. I had earlier written to Timothy Dudley-Smith (1926- ) in my capacity as director of Lillenas Publishing Company. He was already a well-known and widely-respected hymnwriter. So I worked up my courage and wrote him in a personal capacity. I told him about myself and my hymn writing and sent along nine of my hymn texts. I enclosed a check for $5.00 to cover postage for an airmail reply, since he was living in Norwich, England, and I in Kansas City.
In less than two weeks, I received a lengthy reply. He returned my check, explaining that “really I have so little to say that will help you that I should feel a fraud to keep it; and I have had so much help and encouragement from others that it is a privilege to be writing to you now about your own work.” He went on to explain his own unworthiness as a critic, ending with “…and I have many other lacks which make me hesitate to write. But since you ask me…”. My first lesson from Timothy Dudley-Smith was a lesson in deep humility.
He went on to give detailed responses to my specific hymns and as well as comments about hymn writing in general. He talked about the importance of opening lines. He candidly asked me, “Do you revise enough?”, then gave a number of examples of my typing errors, clumsy expressions, colloquialisms (he disliked contractions in hymns), loose expressions, scansion, and the lack of adequate punctuation. He gave his own take on “false rhyme”. The final third of the letter was entirely a lesson in revision.
I responded, sending him revisions of the same hymns plus one additional one. Again, he answered within days. He included an entire page of detailed responses to the additional hymn, Raised from Death to Love and Living. His praises and criticisms helped me polish the hymn, and it is still in hymnal use.
Our correspondence continued similarly through several more letters that year, and we occasionally touched base in the coming years.
My revision process is still not as painstaking as his, but I consistently employ one technique I learned from him. After arriving at the best finished draft I can produce, I let the hymn sit for several days, then come back to it again. Getting the hymn out of my mind for a few days, I can then see it with fresh eyes, and revisions and needed improvements are apparent that I would otherwise have missed.
Whatever my hymn writing is today, in 1983 it was primitive by any measure. I marvel that such a capable writer took my scratchings so seriously; that such a busy man, with so many demands on his time, took so much time with me. I still aspire to the balance of kindness and candor that he showed throughout his critiques.
Timothy Dudley-Smith was a vital part of my development as a hymn writer. He gave me one of the greatest gifts one can give a writer: a truer perspective. He helped me see my work more critically and showed me a practical road toward improvement.