Christian Writing

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I originally wrote this at a time when I was heavily involved in fiction writing. Now, as an agent, I am more involved in editing/preparing fiction writing to be sent out to editors. However, I think the discussion is a good one to have within the Christian writing community.

Setting: The 2008 Festival of Faith and Writing. I attended the FFW conference in order to discover answers. With my thesis defense the following weekend and most of my writing within said thesis exploring elements of the Christian faith, I needed to know exactly what it meant to be a Christian writer.

I attempted this discussion within “The Academy”, as I called it then, to little avail. I doubt that I was asking the wrong questions only that other writing believers didn’t have the answers, either.

The keynote speaker at FFW, Mary Gordon, provided her own insights into my queries, “If your primary purpose in life is to be moral, then your primary goal should be to do good works, not to write.” But, isn’t it possible to write moral lessons within one’s stories? Even Henry James would instruct that literature needs to have a “conscious moral purpose”.

Uwem Akpan, the chapel speaker, started his devotional with, “Let us begin as we always do—in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I was lucky to start Sundays that way, let alone my writing. I wanted to be a Christian writer, but did I initiate my writing in prayer?

Mary Karr seconded this sentiment by discussing her prayerful approach to writing poetry. I was beginning to question myself as a Christian, not as a writer!

I left the Festival even more unsure of how to enter a writing career as a Christian. Instead, I began focusing on how I had been trained to write within “The Academy”. And, after gaining some perspective, I started to write.

And I started to publish. In secular journals.

Plot: Dun-dun-dun…

So, I have an MA and an MLIS, my stories are getting published, I’ve begun working for a literary magazine, and I’m teaching as an adjunct faculty at a Christian college. I am living the life.

And then, one of those moments happened where I thought to myself, This will make an excellent blog post later!

One of my students asked me, “So, what do you have to do to be a Christian writer?”

After staring blankly in response and flashing back to a moment in graduate school where I had asked one of my professors a similar question, I stared. I am pretty sure that I responded somewhat intellectually and then quickly went back to the lecture, steering as far away from her question, or the answer to her question, as possible.

Character: So, What is My Answer?

And, am I willing to live with the consequences of my answer?

For example, if I say that being a Christian writer is about only writing Christian or even faith-based stories, am I willing to stop writing the stories at which I excel? My mother would appreciate this; I like to think that the journals to which I am submitting would not.

As I wrote in my own blog post later that day, “And, here is the answer I have (to shamelessly plagiarize Augustine): Love God.”

The answer has absolutely nothing to do with writing or publishing (the people at the Festival knew this). As a Christian, everything I do is spiritual, including my writing.

Everything. I. Do. Is. Spiritual.

Language: These are a Few of my Favorite Things!

As a short story writer, I appreciate the art of crafting each individual word. For me, it’s not about the plot—it’s about making every word count. The language is the story!

Instead of focusing on how many times I use “Jesus” or “God” (and, trust me, some secular novels could probably compete with Christian novels in this aspect!) or even incorporating a redemptive theme, I focus on the playfulness of my words.

I’ve mentioned reading stories aloud. I want someone to be able to read my stories and feel something. I want to move someone with my words. Do I want them to accept Christ after reading my story?

Not necessarily (audible gasp inserted here).

Yes, I care about my readers, but my ultimate goal is to write. In my daily life, with the people I regularly interact—at work, at church, at the grocery store—I strive to emulate the love of Christ however that may look.

Within my writing, I strive to be a darn good writer.

And, occasionally, when I am feeling the need to impress Henry, the purpose of my story is intentionally moral.

What does it mean for you to be a Christian writer?

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Is Reading Fiction . . . Safe?

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Stories have always stimulated our minds. Thousands of years before computers were dreamed of, people told stories and passed them down from generation to generation.

Our earliest record of fiction comes from the morality plays of the eleventh century. Typically, these allegorical dramas followed a story line where the antagonist tempts the protagonist to sin. And, much like our inspirational fiction of today, the protagonist finds peace, salvation, or hope, through the grace of God.

The belief in metamorphose is old. Today’s writers call this the character arc of the protagonist. The writer asks the reader to think and feel. With the suspension of disbelief, our minds reach out. As readers of well-written fiction, we think it could happen. Psychologically, the story becomes part of us. We realize we too can change.

With the origin of fiction, people thought literature could change and improve our actions. Today we turn the assertion into a question. If reading can change us, is reading fiction . . . safe?

As we learned last week, our brain doesn’t make a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Just as in dreams and memories, the same neurological regions are stimulated. (Have you ever had a child tell you about something horrible that happened last week and start crying as if it had just happened?)

In his book, Such Stuff as Dreams, Keith Oatley proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

And just as my grandsons’ piloting skills improve when they spend time in a flight simulator, so people’s skills of understanding themselves and others should improve when they spend time reading fiction.

Fiction gives readers an experience found only on the page. As we read, we can enter fully into the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters which simulates the feelings of other people.

Dr. Oatley notes, “I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So what exactly is fiction? Contrary to popular opinion, the word doesn’t mean untrue. The Latin word, fingere means to make. The Greek word, poesis also means to make. Both fiction and poetry come from the imagination, on the part of both the author and the reader.

Novelist Henry James said fiction is a direct impression of life. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t agree with that statement. A novel, he said, is a work of art.

Oatley researched the effects of fiction on readers. He tested for empathy and understanding of others’ minds.

Participants looked at photographs of people, showing only the eyes. For each image, they chose the most appropriate of four words, “joking, flustered, desire, or convinced,” to describe what they thought the person was feeling at the time the photo was taken.

Regardless of personality type, people who preferred fiction had greater empathy than those who read mainly non-fiction. The more fiction people read, the better they were at having empathy for others.

Which leads us to our third question: Will reading fiction turn men into . . . sissys? Thoughts?

Until next time, . . . Sharon A. Lavy