Writing is on my mind, not surprisingly, since I finally got my novel out there. So I’m going to reflect a little more on the art of writing. Writing fascinates me, since it is the one art form that I really have, yet the experience is much more that it has me.
Those closest to me know that I’ve been writing for a long time and I didn’t “just” finish the novel; it’s been done for a long while now. What I finally “just” did was muster the courage and swipe the motivation to publish it. I’m now waiting for responses and I’m terrified.
Whom have I offended?
Who thinks it’s awful?
Who now questions my faith?
And scariest of all:
What if no one responds?
So here are some thoughts, not to head off these responses or even insulate myself from them, but simply to mull on this art form a bit. These questions raise a single, focal question:
Who cares what people think?
That question must be answered with this question:
Why do you write?
Something Like Faith, which may be a brilliant work of art or a piece of skubula, took me around ten years to write and publish, give or take. Not ten years of continuous work, obviously, but a good decade from start to now. That’s insane, of course. So the first and most obvious answer is: not for the money. Why, then?
I write because I have a story I need to tell. I write because I have these characters I can see and hear and when I’m really disciplined I can watch them behind my eyes and then write down what they do and say. I’m excited to have people read about them because it’s like having friends meet other friends. I’m really fascinated with these people I’ve (ostensibly) created, these people whose story I’ve told and so I want other people to meet them them, too. I want my friends to get them.
I write to convey truth. I really believe this about writing, and yet I think it’s often misunderstood. Writing is so different than preaching. Preaching is not writing and writing fiction, in my opinion, should never be preaching. Writing fiction as a means of preaching violates the integrity of the art. If you want to preach, preach.
When I preach, I assume the people listening want to hear my best understanding of truth from the Bible. They may neither like, nor agree with, what I say, but they’ve shown up in a place where they will hear a sermon, so I take that as tacit willingness to hear preaching.* Every sermon I preach has a positive ending, in the sense that I always come around to hope and grace and God’s presence in our lives, even when the topic is suffering or grief.
In contrast, a “preachy” story tries to force didactic truth on someone in the form of a novel. It uses the novel as a vehicle to ram though a message, like a truck trying to smash through a gate. I think that disrespects the reader. A novel reader didn’t sit down and open to page one to get preached at. A reader has agreed to enter the story, and has agreed even to that only so long as the story engages them and holds their attention.
Of course, some people may enjoy preachy novels, just as some people may enjoy screamy preachers. As my father loved to say, there is no accounting for taste.
Writing fiction, to me, means inviting the reader into the lives of the characters in the book. Artistic integrity means, in part, that I’m showing that life as honestly and openly as I possibly can. I don’t tend to use expletives that often in sermons, though there are moments (as the Apostle Paul thought, too). But if a person uses foul language, or hate speech, or goes off in a rage, then that’s what they do, whether in real life or in a scene. Making a teenage boy shout, “Golly, willikers!” is just as dishonest to the art of fiction, just as lacking integrity, as inserting a gratuitous sex scene is to the art of film-making.
To drive this point home, writing a description of something does not equal approval of that thing. There’s a violent scene in my book. It happens because that’s who the people are–who they’ve chosen to be–meaning these are the choices they make and how their choices make them. From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.
When I’m writing a first draft, I see a scene and then I try to describe what I’ve seen. I try to let the scene play out behind my eyes and I don’t so much think, “Now what would this person say?” as I let myself hear them say it and try to get it right. Thus, when I say I’m introducing my friends to other friends, it feels to me like I’m introducing people such as you to people I’ve gotten to know and about whom I’ve written.
Describing this a different way, I’m trying to tell the truth about people. These are truths about people’s characteristics, about human nature, good and bad. A writer should tell the truth of the human condition. When I read, that’s what I’m hoping to gain: a deeper insight into who we are and why we are like this. I’m not trying to make my characters the models of how we should live, because again, I don’t make my characters in that sense. But sometimes they have shockingly good character when I thought they were something else entirely.
Sometimes the people in my book(s) surprise me. Sometimes they disappoint me. A few times they genuinely upset me. Here’s where art and madness may brush up against each other: I’m writing about what I’ve learned of people, but then I also learn about people from what I’m writing.
“But those are made up people, Mike. You made them up.”
I mean, I must have. They came from my brain. So that’s right. But is it necessarily true that we know all that we know? Have you never stumbled on something and realized, “Huh, I just figured that out, but I kind of knew it all along, didn’t I?”
“I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering – and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness.”
– John Green
Fiction writing is different from preaching; in a sermon, I’m telling you my best understanding of what’s true, even if what’s true mainly happens to be that I’m an ornery sinner. In writing, I’m telling a story and letting the story’s truth speak for itself.
Even so, every writer will tell his or her worldview through the story. Even so, every novel is autobiographical. John Green believes in that fragile strand of radical hope. I believe in redemption.
In my book, the main character, Paxton, has a difficult relationship with his father (that’s a spoiler, but only up to about page ten). Of course, we know that we’re supposed to forgive and reconcile and repair anything in our relationships–which is why none of us have any broken relationships, he said with tongue in cheek–but this truth comes out through seeing what happens between Paxton and his father and the consequences.
Sarcasm aside, life is messy and people are screwed up and merely wanting a relationship to be better doesn’t make it better. Sometimes we can see truth about ourselves more clearly when we recognize ourselves in others.
Sometimes we’re even more open to truth when reading a novel because we don’t have our guard up the same way we do when hearing a sermon. I come to church expecting to hear someone tell me the truth and I want to change and I still have my defenses up. I know the preacher’s after me! But I curl up with Chaim Potok or Nick Hornby or my beloved Madeleine L’engle, The Book Thief or The Night Circus or Looking for Alaska, and I’m immersed, I’m in their world, all my defenses are not just down but forgotten because I’m not even me for a while, I’m fully identifying as this or that character. So when the truth arrives–even when it splits me right between the eyes–I’m okay. And through that is the hope that fiction might change me–has changed me–and not just entertain me…though if I’m not entertained, if I’m not engaged, I’m not hanging around. I can’t remember ever walking out on a sermon because it was bad and I’ve suffered some awful ones (and given a few). But how many pages do you give a book you aren’t enjoying?
You can see where “who cares what people think” and “why do you write?” converge. Not everyone will like what I write and that’s fine. But saying I have a story I need to tell means I need to tell someone, and I need to find someone who enjoys this story. Because I am fascinated with these characters I’ve discovered, I desire others to experience them, and their world, as well. I hope, I literally pray, that I tell the truth in this story, in any story I write.
“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
― Tim O’Brien
I’ve given some pretty strong opinions on this art form. Other people think differently; other people write differently; other people even read differently and one of the joys of art is that there is so much room for differing opinions.
What do you think?
*Or their parents forced them to come.