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?

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Don’t Let Anyone Shoot Down Your Moon

Moon
So you discover this morning from a reputable source that a grand nephew twice removed through divorce and adoption thinks your last book was second-rate and “whiny.” Worried, you decide to try therapy to make sure you’re not harboring ingratitude or a pathetic victim mentality. Or, as a cheaper option, you consider hiring an editor for your next manuscript to eradicate any possible language that might be interpreted as “victim-y.”

After this decision, which you feel good about, you get an email from a woman who says your last book is the best book she’s ever read and she wants everyone in the world to read it and would you send some more books with your autograph and maybe even a family photo? You breathe deeply, read the email over several times, and block off time to do this.

Later that day you hear that someone thinks the scarf you wore at last night’s reading was too retro and someone else thought you looked fat in that purple dress. Stricken, you drop the scarf in the trash, a bit sad because you did like it, after all, and at dinner an hour later, you eat only salad because you know it’s not just the dress.

While picking at your salad and checking your email, you discover that some friends are angry with you for not including them in your latest writing project and others who asked to be in your manuscript are bitterly complaining about their inclusion.

Saddened, you head to your seminar that night, after carefully choosing slimming clothes and a plain scarf. You speak with all the passion you have left after such a day and some people cheer and cry, and afterward a woman tells you you’re better than watching a movie, while an elderly man in the back row falls asleep in the middle of the most dramatic part.

And after many such days, you lie awake on your pillow finally knowing what the unforgivable sin is—or, rather, the unlivable sin, and you vow you will no longer do it, you will no longer commit the terrible sin of belief. You will no longer believe all the rumors of madness, the rumbles of inadequacy and girth, nor reports of laud and praise. You know they are all true in some way, and they are all false in some way as well, but mostly, you know they will kill you with redirection and indecision.

In such times, you dose yourself with Ann Lamott:

“Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That’s why I’m alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. As I’ve said a hundred times, if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

And this:

“My pastor said last Sunday that if you don’t change directions, you are going to end up where you are headed. Is that okay with you, to end up still desperately trying to achieve more, and to get the world to validate your parking ticket, and to get your possibly dead parents to see how amazing you always were?”

And you suddenly know it’s true: the world will not validate your parking ticket, so give it up and return to the life you’re supposed to be living. Your one “wild and precious life” given to you not to be hoarded but to be given away. And when you give it away, however kind you try to be and whatever form it takes, because the world is a crazy place, this will always be true: Someone is always waiting to shoot down your moon. Just know that some will be angry, some will bless you, some will betray you, some will be mean and small and some will be grateful and love you for life, till death do you part.

In all the betrayal, admiration, and lights, here is what you do:

You work at loving them all, and you keep on writing.

You will not be hushed, not by hurt or by hate; you keep on writing.

You will not keep trying to satisfy insatiable people; you keep on writing.

You will not listen to critics in the shadows, afraid of their own lives; you keep on writing.

You will not let praise erode your stability; you keep on writing (and rewriting).

Don’t let anyone shoot down your moon. Tell the truth. Please God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. And for the sake of us all,

Keep writing.

Writing for Strangers

For my first book release, I did what many authors do. I gave copies of my book to everyone I knew, followed up with them with the intensity of an air traffic controller, and then begged to be evaluated. It was only when I had garnered about twenty five reviews that I was comfortable enough to share my work with strangers.

PettyCashFor my second book, I have been much bolder. I only showed Petty Cash to a select few people (about five) and then launched it on Amazon. Each day, I pull up the page with one eye closed, bracing myself to get hammered. But you know what? It really hasn’t been that bad. In fact, total strangers have written the best reviews of all. Who knew?

It’s awkward to provide feedback to our loved ones at times. People often avoid conflict with those close to them, and they may whitewash their feedback in an attempt to encourage us. Although this is done out of love, we must take the feedback from those who love us with a grain of salt. The people closest to us will also see the content a bit differently than the writing of someone about whom they know nothing.Those close to us will have a built in filter as they regard each character, setting, and turn of phrase.

On the other hand, strangers have no such filters. Since there is no fear of impacting the relationship, the comments and reviews of strangers are incredibly forthright. Some of the feedback from strangers has been so outstanding and helpful, that I have modifed the story slightly to reflect their feedback, which is easy to do with an e-book. Some of the people who write reviews are so eloquent that it seems like they should be reviewing books on a professional basis – and maybe they do.

From what I understand, it is considered bad taste for authors to engage with strangers who have written reviews on their work. That makes sense, but sometimes it’s hard to keep silent and not thank them for putting in the time and effort of creating a review. The exercise has really driven home the concept of relying on the kindness of strangers. Honesty is actually a type of kindness, even if it stings from time to time.

For a myriad of reasons, friends and family may not be able to convey the true value of our writing. It just might be the people you have never met, perhaps in other countires or on the other side of the world, who may end up giving you more validation and insight about your work than you ever imagined.

Who do you trust to provide feedback on your writing?

Have you ever received helpful comments and reviews from total strangers?