Writer or Author?
» S.D. Smith
You simply must read this. This is from Jonathan Rogers, author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor and many other excellent books (pretty much all of which I have and love). Here is an excerpt from an interview he did with Treven Wax. This was my favorite part. -Sam
O’Connor once wrote,
“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”
She was making a theological statement. Everything deserves our attention because the world of human experience is shot through with meaning.
That’s the sacramental vision – the idea that ultimate meaning doesn’t just live off in some Platonic ideal that we strain toward “spiritually,” but that God reveals Himself to us, does His work on us, through the concrete facts of the material world. For that reason, the artist has an obligation to depict the world that she sees, the way that she sees it. It is not her job to clean anything up or tie up loose ends or offer simplified answers to complicated questions. It is her job only to portray what she has seen in the world God has made.
All Christians agree, of course, that God reveals himself through the world around us. In that broad sense, all Christians have a sacramental vision.
But O’Connor, as a Catholic, was much more comfortable with mystery than most Protestants tend to be. She wrote:
“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”
We Protestants aren’t looking to inhabit mysteries; we’re looking for explanations, solutions, household hints. Just stroll through a Christian bookstore. Seven Steps to This, Ten Steps to That, Your Best Life Now! It’s all very pragmatic and solution-oriented, thoroughly modern and slickly marketed. The modern/post-modern impulse is an impulse toward demystification, and American Protestantism is right in the middle of it.
O’Connor’s sacramental vision frees the Christian writer from the tyranny of “edification.” We assume that the Christian writer’s job is to edify the reader – which is true enough, I suppose – but we have such a narrow definition of edification.
What passes for edification is, to borrow a term from O’Connor, “Instant Uplift.” It doesn’t invite us into a mystery. It’s “safe for the whole family,” as the billboards for the Christian radio stations say. I don’t know that the Bible is safe for the whole family. It’s hard to imagine Christian bookstores stocking a book so wild and ragged and mysterious as the Bible if it weren’t the Bible.
(Again, this is from Jonathan Rogers here.)
Hello, I’m Sam Smith and I approve of this massage. <finishes getting a massage> Thank you, I feel much better.
I have somehow neglected to tell you guys about a project that was launched recently by Rabbit Room Press. It’s a book-length journal called The Molehill and it features many different writers, from Sally Lloyd-Jones, G.K. Chesterton, and Walt Wangerin Jr., to Rabbit Room regulars like (proprietor) Andrew Peterson, Lanier Ivester, Jason Gray, and many more. It also, to my grateful delight, features a story by me. What? Who let this guy in here? Too late now, it’s in print. My own contribution is an allegedly humorous, previously unpublished story set in my favorite fictional town: Fledge, WV. It’s called The Cleverest Idiot.
What’s it like? Imagine P.G. Wodehouse and Garrison Keillor got into a no-holds-barred street fight. Afterwards, their blood mingled on the sidewalk, then mixed with radioactive material sloshed from the test-tube of your favorite, local, mad scientist. This goo slowly formed into a writer, freakish and witty. Then this writerly monstrosity was struck upon the head by an anvil dropped from a tall building, and lost 97% of his talent. Bammo. You’ve got me writing Fledge stories.
I’m really delighted to be included. I’ve enjoyed every one of the other stories I have so-far read in The Molehill, vol 1. I have high hopes/expectations this will continue to be the case as I read on. I’ve had lots of stories published, but this is the first time one has appeared in a book. That’s pretty fun stuff. I love the layout and design of the book. There’s lots of subtle humor in there. Pete Peterson was a slave-driver of an editor, and that was really good for me. Trying to figure out how to walk that wire of having confidence in your own voice and instincts, while also listening to correction and a wise outside voice, was a good experience for me. I’m not new to working with an editor, but this was unique in several ways. Uniquely good, I think. I probably gave Pete some grey hairs. He (along with Jonathan Rogers) really helped shape up my story. It’s way better because of their input. I’m very thankful for that. Like Hutchmoot (the Rabbit Room’s conference), The Molehill is a credit to Pete’s vision and diligence, and he’s the one who deserves credit for how well it turned out.
Go here to read Pete’s editor’s letter, which he posted at The Rabbit Room. And here’s a link to buy the book.
Some of my regular readers aren’t “regular readers.” By that I mean they read my blog and others, but don’t read a lot of books. The Molehill, because it’s full of short stories and essays, poems, and artwork, might be an ideal kind of thing to get. Maybe.
I hope you enjoy it. I’m very grateful for the chance to contribute along with such amazing writers, illustrators, and artists. What a privilege. I also look forward to next year’s edition which, rumor has it, will feature another of my favorite writers.
Thanks for caring about my writing. I’m very grateful to everyone who takes an interest and invests valuable time to read my (sometimes-coherent) posts here, at The Rabbit Room, at Story Warren, and wherever else fine tobacco is sold. I hope you will soon have a book to read from my imagination to yours. I am working toward that and other things. Thanks for caring.
Alan Jacobs on how “…The ability of writers to feel offended or persecuted is pretty close to unlimited…”
One of my favorite stories about writers concerns John O’Hara, who long ago wrote the book for the musical Pal Joey, based on his own novel. When the play was making a big run on Broadway, two friends of O’Hara’s bumped into him on the streets of New York. “Oh John,” they cooed, “We just saw Pal Joey again, and we enjoyed it even more than the first time!” O’Hara snarled, “What the hell was wrong with it the first time?”
The entire article is about digital publishing and, like everything Jacobs writes (that I have read), it’s good.
And I’ve written about P.W.S. (Pathetic Writer Syndrome) before, here if you wish to see. Hug a writer, people. Believe me, we need it.
This is good, from Frank L. Visco, originally published in the June 1986 Writer’s Digest.
|My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:|
HT: John Barber
“I’ve a shelf at home devoted to books about writing. I’d say I might even have two shelves devoted to those books now. I’ve read most of them and some are better than others. But the best writing advice I’ve ever received didn’t come from a book. It actually occurred to me one morning when I was lying in bed, not wanting to get up and do my job. Maybe it came from heaven, I don’t know. But the advice was this: Love your reader.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t so easy, actually.” Read the rest of Don’s short post…
>>>> >>>> >>>>
I love this. The Christian Doctrine of Vocation (vocation = calling) is the answer to so many questions. As Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.” Your calling, if you are a child of God, is tied up in serving the world (perhaps especially other Christians). I wrote a little about this here, and it has been on my heart for a while. It’s tied to the decisions I’m making and the disciplines I’m trying to achieve in my life right now. Especially creatively.
I wonder if this idea informs why so many great children’s novels have originated with a person telling stories to delight their kids? (I hope so.)
Who do ya’ love? Who do you want to serve?
I’m not exactly a mystic, but if you feel a strong desire to serve people who need to be loved the way you feel called to serve, then that might be an indication of the calling of God on your life. And ask wise people around you, especially people like a spouse, parents, pastors, and trustworthy friends. They’ll probably be saying the same thing.
Holy cow this is so true.
“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”
HT: Andrew Mackay
Also, Churchill knew something about beating monsters.
I’m learning something about myself as a thinker of thoughts and a writer of words. I must resist what I feel as a need to qualify every potentially confusing thing I write. I’m growing more comfortable with the idea that I cannot provide all the caveats I need to protect myself from being misunderstood.
I’m learning to leave more room for possible misunderstanding where it can’t be helped without really altering (damaging) what I’m aiming for. The box-ticker in me dislikes this, but the poet says, “Get used to it, Bub.”
Think about how crystal clear Jesus regularly wasn’t.
Photograph by Gina G. Smith
Note: I wrote this last week. I also scheduled it last week to be published this day. Interesting.
When I do the dishes, I use way more water than my wife uses when she does them. This is because I am not as skilled as she is and I think by an avalanche of water I may drown away my dish washing inadequacies. Of course, my wife doesn’t complain about the water.
It occurs to me that the same is true in writing and communication in general. If we are unsure of ourselves, unskilled, we pile up the words. We believe we must say everything we think and so overcome any chance we might have missed something. But so often less is, as they say, more.
This has something to do with the idea of expression vs. communication. Artists sometimes get the high-minded, self-important notion we’re a special breed of human, superior and sophisticated. We might believe the most important thing is “expressing ourselves.”
But the artist under God understands she is a servant. She works, just like everyone else, to love and serve those who receive her work. She is like the farmer, the plumber, the pastor. She is concerned with communication (and communion), with connection, with service. It’s less important she “expresses herself” in all the ways that can be self-indulgent, and more important her work serves people. Not that it serves whatever they wish (as our market-driven, utilitarian society calls for), but like all true love, serves the person’s best. This is a vocation, not a cult. She is called, not enthroned.
Of course, the beautiful thing is that often our calling is at the cross-roads of what we feel burdened to express and the way the world needs to be loved and served.
In fact, an important question to ask oneself when considering any calling, including that of an artist, is “Does the world need this?” Another couple of ways to say this:
“Are people served by this to be more fully what they are called to be?”
“Does this work I feel called to contribute to human flourishing?”
If it does, then God is probably really calling you to the work.
(Other questions include “Am I good at it?” and, “Does anyone say I’m good at it besides my mom and people really motivated to please me?” and, “Can I do this while fulfilling the more clear callings in my life?” Such as, if I am a husband, am I fulfilling the clear command to provide for my family?)
The self-indulgent artist, writer, communicator is all about expression and so may not be concerned with brevity, feeling it might limit her expression. The kind of writer I want to be can say less and so say more.
I’m striving for an economy of words. It takes more time and more care to say more while saying less. Have you ever been in a conversation with some one who is just a never-ending, Gatling gun of words? This person will wear you out. They have so much to say that, ironically, in the end you can’t remember any words except, “How might I escape?”
I can be like that, at times. But I want to be otherwise. Others-wise. I want to say less. I want to serve with my words. I want to pass them out like a soccer mom passes out snacks at a game.
And feel not a bit superior.