Getting Better—As a Writer and As a Person

I am trying to teach the students in my novel workshop how to read as writers. The goal is to learn how novelists do their craft—how they integrate exposition into a scene, how they move in and out of the foundational tense into others, how they make us believe in a character, how they get us interested in a conversations, what they include, what they leave out.

DIN_CR~2“Pay attention to what’s working, some specific thing you like, and then try to articulate that as a more broadly applicable strategy toward some narrative end,” I keep telling them.

It’s slow going. My students can identify what they like, but they struggle to see whatever it is outside the context of that particular novel. Or, as the literary critics they’ve been trained to be in their other English courses, they notice symbols or metaphors or some unusual word and then write in their reading journals, “I want to use more symbols in my writing” or “I want to use more impressive diction,” and I am so seized up in apprehension of the heavy-handed artsyness of their next chapters that I dread reading them.

Every once in a while, though, one or the other of them has an electrifying insight, and everyone sees it and gets it and wants to do whatever it is, and my fears about being a terrible teacher are becalmed.

In class yesterday, we talked about one such insight that Sarah wrote in her reading journal: “STRATEGY: Don’t drag characters from point A to point B. Have changes take time. Have them want to do one thing but back out at the last second. Make them change their mind and turn back around to go right back to where they started.”

“Wow! What a good observation!” I said in class. “Why is a slow change, two steps forward and three steps backward, so much more effective in fiction than an instantaneous change, do you think?”

“Because it’s more believable,” one student offered.

“But why?”

“Because it’s how we change in real life,” someone else said.

That’s certainly how it’s been throughout my spiritual life. Reading scripture or having a conversation or listening in church, I’m confronted with some failing of mine and see, very clearly, how I might address it, and I’m resolved—no, genuinely eager—to take action and become a better person. Two steps forward. Then, months or sometimes weeks or only days later, I find myself failing in precisely the same way, having forgotten all my eager plans for improvement.

Or, I’m looking something up in my Bible—the same old, falling-apart one I read for the first time twenty years ago—and I come upon an emphatically underlined passage and a note from me to me scribbled in the margin in the excitement of some forgotten moment of revelation. I knew once exactly how to fix me, evidently, but then, just, never did.

As Paul complains, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15 NIV). It upsets him—and I share his anguish—so much that he repeats it again and again. “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18), he wails. “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).

Thank God for Jesus, and that’s Paul’s point here.

But there is another hope I want to consider today, and it is this: Change—however slow, however miniscule, however hesitant and hobbled by failure—does happen. Because of Jesus, we are, as Paul also promises, “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Strategy by strategy, attempt by attempt, failure by failure—so gradually that we ourselves may not even notice—we believers in the One God Sent are advancing, with ever-increasing glory, into the perfect people we all want to be.

11 Replies to “Getting Better—As a Writer and As a Person”

  1. beautiful realization! it’s funny because i know there’s things i need to do to be a better Christian and gospel worker and i keep telling myself if not today, when? so i feel you! it’s a hard life, the life of a Christian, bc the sinful desires are always working in us and if we want to walk with Christ, we can’t listen to it. but all for the greater good, thank God.

    as far as your teaching, i believe i might have commented a few months ago about it, but i commend you SO much. i couldn’t do it. it’s a frustrating job but i can only imagine it’s so rewarding when your students get what you’re trying to show them. you are appreciated, not only by people like myself who think teachers are God sent, but also by your students bc it will be those “aha” moments that they will remember for years on end.

    keep doing what youre doing and I pray that you overcome as well as myself!

    May God Bless You!!!

    1. Thanks, Tori, for the encouraging words. I love teaching, despite my ongoing struggle to be understood and trusted. It’s a lot like parenting, minus most of the worry.

  2. I love Paul’s letters!!! Thanks for this post. Sometimes we get stuck on the idea of being a new creation, as though it means we no longer sin. But that phrase from 2 Corinthians is awesome. I’ll have to repeat it a few times today … “ever increasing Glory!”

    1. Yes. My sister and brother-in-law, who were instrumental in my coming back to faith in my mid-thirties, tell me every once in a while, when I am lamenting my continuing sinfulness, that I’m not nearly as horrible as I used to be. 🙂

  3. Wow, I was just thinking about the scriptures you referenced. And the word strategy keeps crossing my path as well. I need to read this post a few more times, Patty. There’s a lot of meat here, and I want to digest it slowly — so I get all the nutrition possible.

    1. I love when that happens–that I keep encountering a passage of scripture over and over again. Reminds me that the Holy Spirit is up and about, reminding me of important messages from God and translating me grunts and groans into messages back.

  4. Patti, I always look forward to your posts! You’ve got the gift of teaching in class—as well as here. And this is an especially wise and apt instruction melding my own two favorite topics, writing and belief. Amazing how both points are true—that our forward movement is always interrupted by regression—-and yet, we are still, somehow, being transformed toward Christ-likeness. Our own flesh need not have the last word. SO thankful God finishes our story well, despite our bumbling of the plot!!

    1. Yes. Even the most faith-motivated biblical character displays the jagged trajectory of spiritual progress, I’m always encouraged to notice.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  5. Thank you, Professor Kirk, for sharing you wisdom. Wow!

    The saying, “One step forward, two steps back” is true with anyone trying to get “somewhere”. I realize that I have several “steps” to take. I’m guilty of trying to make my characters too perfect. However, the characters take on unrealistic attitudes. I’ll try and incorporate Sarah’s word strategy into my skill set. I’ll do my best to gradually proceed. Hopefully, then, my characters will become more believable.

    I appreciate how your advice, backed with scriptures, reminds us of our shared faith and shared journey. Thank you.

    Heather Villa

    1. Sounds like you know what you’re doing to me, Heather! If you need some inspiring models for believably faith-driven characters who are none too perfect, though, there’s not better place to look than the Bible. Peter (my favorite), Thomas, David, Joseph, Martha, you name it. Every one of them as imperfect as all get out. Nevertheless, they all arrive, spiritually speaking.

      1. Hello, again,

        Thank you for pointing me to the most wonderful book of all. It’s true that the Bible is full of colorful “real” characters. I now realize that it’s okay that the fictional protagonist in my manuscript should actually be less than perfect. And hopefully, my character will learn something (related to faith) along the way.

        Thank you, thank you!

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