Telling the Nasty Stuff

Browning 9mm PistolA friend who has been serving as a reviewer of new books for a major Christian magazine recently told me that she was thinking of giving up reviewing because the books get worse every year: sappier and less realistic and just plain boring. Her comment got me thinking about my Christian students’ struggles as writers and what struggling alongside them has taught me.

The stuff of most creative writing is story—the account of something that happened. That’s because, without something happening, there’s little to tell. Nonfiction works of all sorts and even the most lyrical of poems proceed via story, if only implied. Fiction, of course, is all about story.

Even the simplest of sentences tells a story: the subject has to do something. Often a lot of somethings, as there’s rarely only one verb—one instance of something happening, that is—in a given sentence. And in the more interesting sentences, subjects don’t just do something but interact with others—direct and indirect objects, subjects of dependent clauses and infinitive phrases—doing their own things.

The most successful stories, by their nature, involve rich, round characters. To create such characters, I tell my students, they must “tell the good about the bad and the bad about the good.” In novel workshop, though, my students invariably start out with flat characters whose believability is further hampered by their being in some way outside of society: outcasts incapable of interacting.

“No,” I tell them. “You have to make your characters interact, talk to one another, be in conflict. If you don’t, then nothing’ll happen. And if nothing happens, you won’t have a story.”

Still they resist, hold back, thinking that by leaving out crucial details—characters’ names or some conversation in which a key event occurs—they’re creating suspense that will make their readers want to read on and find out.

“But we won’t want to read on,” I tell them. “Suspense is created through building, not omitting. Yes, there are things you should omit. Chekhov said leave out anything that doesn’t drive story, that if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece at the beginning of your story, it has to be fired. But that’s just it. In the story of that gun being fired, the gun needs to have been on the mantelpiece—or under the sofa, loaded, where the toddlers are playing—in the first place.” All the stuff of the drama needs to be there, on the page, for the story to succeed.

With these tenets of storytelling in mind, I would like to consider the central story of much contemporary writing about faith: I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s a story believers feel called to tell and need to tell—the very stuff of evangelism—but they often want to leave the first part out.

The story of the lostness, the sin-life that necessitated the salvation, is Every-Believer’s gun on the mantelpiece, but it poses some problems for the teller. Stories of sin often take us to material that might offend our believing audience, for one. Worse, to tell one’s sin-story convincingly—that is, concretely—is to become the sinner to one’s audience, particularly if the sin-story one tells is of sin engaged in after one became a Christian. Of course, none of us stops being a sinner after being saved, but we don’t want anyone to know about that.

This is perhaps why, though I’ve attended all sorts of churches in which the prayers of the faithful are publically identified and offered up, I have never once encountered among the litany of prayers for the sick and grieving, for job losses, for the birth of a child or the selling of a house any of the prayers I typically find myself praying. Prayers about my failures as a wife and a mother and as a friend and a colleague and a neighbor. Prayers of a desire to be led out of some specific temptation. Prayers expressing an explicit resistance to letting God’s will be done.

There are practical reasons for keeping one’s present and past sins secret, but there’s more to it than that, I think. As believers, we want to pretend that sin stops, that there’s a “before” to our Christian story that’s understood and doesn’t need to be explained—and shouldn’t be, if it involves any unsavory details or questionable language or doubt-riddled claims—and an “after” that is dazzlingly sin-free, more pure and clean than any on earth could bleach it.

The problem is, without telling the before—well and concretely—we can’t really convince anyone of the after. Or interest them in it.

Which leaves me with some questions for my fellow Christian writers out there to consider. What can and should Christian creative writers do about the nasty aspects of their faith stories? Avoid them? Tell them? Tell them vaguely? And what are the repercussions of each choice?

13 Replies to “Telling the Nasty Stuff”

  1. A really helpful post, Patty. As a Christian fiction writer, I’m often aware of the dilemma in writing for a secular audience of being authentic and engaging such an audience without compromising my faith. This post provides some clarification. Thank-you.

  2. Thank you, thank you. Writing about the “nasty stuff” has kept me tied up and not clear if I should even be “out there” sharing my testimony. My memoir/free verse/lyrical pieces are full of that “stuff”. Psychotic breaks and debilitating depression, promiscuity, two marriages filled with physical, emotional abuse, pastor’s abuse of me. Then there is the recovered memories of Dad’s sexual abuse and clarity about the damage of Mom’s physical abuse… at age 60. Husband’s porn, addiction, suicide .. my attempts, first husband’s success. Daughter’s heroin addiction and her life on the streets … prostitution. Other daughter’s obesity. Stuff of fiction? Not!!

    I have never left a comment such as this. Now I go onward because of your heart to write this piece and that I read it in October 2014. You have given me courage to not fear being public about the sin and the “glory to glory” process of redemption.. Now I move with hope today. I truly can have some writing and speaking and ministry purpose at 72. ,I can! My name means song and warrior .. I can sing my songs in poetic prose as a warrior for my Messiah Yeshua!

    1. Yes! Because it is in the telling of the messiness of this life that we glorify God’s loving heart of redemption and deliverance.

      Hallelujah, what a Savior!

  3. As a general rule, I don’t like Christian fiction, for exactly this reason. The characters tend to be two-dimensional…and God, Himself, tends to become a character created by the author, who behaves as the author expects Him to behave…which means two-dimensionally.

    Reading this post makes me think I might like reading your stories.

    As a blogger, I struggle with some of these same issues. I want to be authentic. I also want to be godly. I want to tell enough of my struggles for people to be able to identify with my story. However, I don’t necessarily want to air all my dirty laundry. More importantly, I don’t see it as my place to air all of someone else’s dirty laundry…which means holding back in what I tell, because my story overlaps other people’s stories.

    It’s not an easy balance to find.

    Good post! Thanks for broaching such an important topic!

    1. Thanks. Just finished drafting a novel about a spiritual struggler, so you have that to look forward to. I just love the Bible–so unlike the rest of the Christian writing out there.

  4. The repercussions of telling such a story are that the current CBA mentality won’t accept it. It won’t. I found that out myself when I wrote such a book. The few editors/agents who did see it had wonderful things to say about the writing, but they wouldn’t consider it.

    So I indie published it. And I’ve heard over and over and over from readers that my book–a book that dealt with the “before” in a very lost woman’s life and the “after” in the life of a saved but far from perfect man–my story is exactly the kind of Christian fiction they’ve been searching for.

    CBA is playing it safe right now, but you’re right. We need fiction that deals with real life too. And I’m so thankful that in the last few years other doors have opened for these true-to-life, beautiful and messy, hope-giving novels to find readers who need and want them.

    We do have to be careful how much we show in these stories. My rule of thumb is that I have to show it in a way that doesn’t glorify the sin or sensationalize it. And I don’t need to give all the details or every blow-by-blow. It’s a fine line, for sure, and not every reader will think we’ve done it right. That’s okay. There’s that other “safer” fiction for them. But there are some of us, like your reviewer friend, who really want fiction that wrestles with where our society has gone.

    1. Yes. Also, it’s good to stay aware that there’s a market for the safe stuff–my colleague’s complaint notwithstanding. If there wasn’t a market for the kind of stuff the CBA publishes, they wouldn’t be publishing it.

  5. This is one reason I wrote an “open market” novel and chose the offer of a “secular” publishing house. I had this type of story to tell, and I had to tell it truthfully. I knew I’d hit the nail right on the head with Refuge when a reviewer said this: “The author conveys the depth of sexual temptation, lust, consummation, and marital satisfaction in a wildly vivid way, yet manages to maintain decency. In fact, I am going to encourage my thirteen year old daughter to read the story. For once, in a culture that, despite my best efforts, inundates her with negative images of sex and marriage, I’d like my advanced reader to become wrapped up in a romance that lauds what marriage is intended to be, even when the lovers didn’t do everything right before making their vows.”

  6. I’m in the same boat as Sally. My first book is about an abortionist and a nurse in his clinic. More importantly, it’s about a God who redeems what seems unredeemable in them and in their lives.
    And because the story is truly the Lord’s, and not mine (I would never have chosen to write about an abortionist), I trust where He’s leading. If I have to publish indie then that’s fine, but I’m starting the query process and curious to see how the responses go. 🙂

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: