Learning from the Masters, part 1

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Sigh. This one hurts. Just so you know, tonight it’s all hanging out.

“I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? . . . We would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” —Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors

If you were to meditate on that quote a few minutes, do you think your writing might be affected?

I think most of us here agree that a false assumption has been accepted in our industry, the CBA industry. What of the books that affect us “like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves?” What of the books you can’t believe exist, you can’t ever move on from, that require you leave a part of you behind there with it? What of that kind of authentic fiction? Can it really be so unsalable?

Last time, Siri made an excellent point that you have to be true to your characters. Great novels are independent of their authors intentions. Authentic fiction that changes people, by its very nature, is subject to the rules of reality, and not the writer’s imagination, opinions, or prejudices. This stuff can’t be “made up” or written according to a formula. Yes, as writers, we plot it out, develop our character with personality profiles, interview and research our subjects, and impose our favorite structure guru’s advice. But long before we reach the last page, we’ve let go and realized that what we originally thought we were writing, actually ended up writing us in many ways, and what we’d heard before as merely conventional wisdom—like that Cecil Day-Lewis quote, “We write not to be understood, but to understand”—is actually so profoundly and unquestionably true, that we’re compelled to fight tooth and nail to prevent our autonomous characters being squelched by ourselves or anyone else. Sure we “created” them, but what parent can take credit or blame for their kids?

And this gets to the heart of the argument, in my view. Novels are not simply about people or by certain people or sort of like people; Novels actually are people, with quirks and voices and particularities and subtle nuances and all the other things that make people so unique and wholly alive. This is why you don’t want to leave them when you come to the last page. Why you feel strangely holding it as though it was only a book, only ink on paper and not your very flesh, as though it hadn’t fused itself to your soul.

I believe you’re here reading for a reason. And because of that, I want to ask you a question. Do you believe God called you to write?

And when that well-meaning industry comes along—an editor, a publisher, an agent—and asks you to consider changing your story, what will cause you to consider that compromise? If it’s to avoid the possibility of offending, achieve a broader audience, larger sales, greater influence? There’s nothing wrong with that as long as your motivation is to write what God asked you to write. And just maybe he’s not asking you to write the same thing a hundred others have already written. Just maybe.

I’ll leave you for now with a quote from Tolstoy. I found this on Sue Monk Kidd’s website:

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in twenty years time by those who are now children and that they would laugh and cry over it, and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.”

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13 thoughts on “Learning from the Masters, part 1”

  1. “Do you believe God called you to write?”
    What? No multiple choice answers?
    Yes, I believe God called me to write. For decades I stored characters and scenes in my brain. Stories unfolded wherever I went. But it was always for later.
    Then the time arrived. In fact, God made Himself so clear, I actually argued with Him (but never out loud in front of anyone) about how I couldn’t fit serious writing time into my schedule. I made excuses for three years. Then God neatly and thoroughly cleared my schedule. I remember laughing and saying, “Okay. Okay. I get it. I’ll write!”
    I love the Tolstoy quote. “To make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” It brings to mind the Westminster Catechism, question 1: What is man’s primary purpose? And answer: Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. My motivations and goals have distilled down to one: I want the “well done.” I want to please the One who created me for His glory.
    For me, for now, that means writing. So here I am.

  2. Mick, this is one of your best– thank you. The Tolstoy quote was already in my file, and now the Kafka one is, too. The books that have made me laugh and cry and love life, the ones I wept to finish, and couldn’t start another any more than a widow can marry soon after the funeral– those are the ones that impel me to write. I really love your blog, Mick. Thanks again.

  3. “We need books that affect us like a disaster.”
    I don’t think I will forget that image for awhile. I walked in the chaotic aftermath of a F5 tornado once when I was a reporter for a county newspaper. Eight years later I can still “feel” what I saw. People have told me they can read my books in one sitting. That means I only have mere hours to say anything of real value. Will what I have written be remembered by anyone eight years after they have read it?
    I love this quote by writing guru William Zinsser: “For ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not his subject, but who he is.”
    I guess I’d like to be remembered eight years down the road as someone who was able to do that.
    Thanks, Mick, for ripping off the warm blanket of numbing comfort that mediocrity so regularly offers.
    Susan Meissner, the newbie

  4. Ah, now see, Mick? I do agree with you more than you think. =0) This is a beautiful and moving post. Thanks.
    sally

  5. “What of the books you can’t believe exist, you can’t ever move on from, that require you leave a part of you behind there with it? What of that kind of authentic fiction? Can it really be so unsalable?”
    I’ve read many CBA books that would fit the description above. Francine Rivers writes them, shakes me to the core, challenges my faith, teaches my heart, leaves me gasping at how “real” she writes. I read lots of “authentic” fiction published in the CBA. I would list more authors, but I don’t want to leave anyone out so I will stop with Francine.
    I don’t think authentic fiction is unsaleable in the CBA. I have offended readers with some of my topics: adultery, alcoholism, divorce, women’s suffrage, premarital sex, etc. But I have never had an editor try to muzzle me or change my book into something more PC. I’ve never been asked to compromise the story God has given me. I have worked with some wonderful editors, and all they have ever done is help me strengthen my stories.
    “And because of that, I want to ask you a question. Do you believe God called you to write?”
    Absolutely. I know the date He confirmed it and the Scripture He used. He hasn’t often called me to write easy stories. Most have to be ripped from my heart. I can’t imagine embarking on writing fiction from a Christian worldview (whether for the CBA or ABA) and not have that certainty that one has been called by God to write.
    Great blog, Mick.
    Robin

  6. I absolutely believe God can and does call people to write. But it disturbs me that so many Christians who itch to write don’t appear to seek any confirmation apart from their own desire before announcing they have been called by God to write Christian fiction.
    I’m always a little tempted to say, “Bless you sister, God has called me to eat chocolate cake.”
    I’ve been told by people I respect that my attitude is selfish, and I think that’s why so many writers who can’t point to a clear call from God still believe they’re meant to write. But why is it not okay to write primarily for self-expression and entertainment? Does God not give us choices in our leisure activities? Why is writing novels for one’s own pleasure viewed as more self-indulgent than merely reading them?
    Sure, I prayed that my first inspirational romance novel would soften hearts, and when hundreds of people wrote to tell me how my book had touched them I was thrilled and grateful to God. But if my writing is “inspirational”, that’s just because my worldview tends to leak onto the pages; it’s not from any conscious agenda on my part. Maybe it will happen someday, but for now the Lord has not called me to write–He simply allows me to.

  7. Brenda, speaking for myself, the reason I hope this is a calling and not just something I enjoy doing is that much of the time I don’t enjoy writing. It’s head-achey lost-in-the-woods work that turns me into an antisocial, disorganized dweeb who talks to faceless people online because that’s where the folks who share her passion are found. And it is a passion, because in spite of all that, there’s nothing else I want to do.
    Besides, I turn down social engagements and volunteer opportunities, let the laundry pile up, and cook whatever’s quick, to clear the time necessary for me to write. I really, really hope (and believe) it’s a calling–because if it wasn’t, I couldn’t bear the guilt.
    But here’s the thing: for years I kept up with all those things. And all the while I felt this terrible, sick remorse that I wasn’t doing this.

  8. here i am, late to the party again and it’s after midnight so i shall blather on like one who should have gone to bed hours ago.
    i’ve read so much crap for review, i can’t believe it. i don’t know how i get through the mindnumbing heap of *$%@ that passes for publishable material these days. it takes everything in me just to find something good about most of the books. rarely, i have something gracious to say, mostly, it is just one long mindnumbing experience of analretentive christians purging on a page and regurgitating what has been said and done before (only it was better the first time).
    but forgive me, you didn’t ask for THAT kind of honesty, now did you?
    um, hmm, let me see. i did read a book that i wanted to tell you about mick, and all your devoted fans: dave flemming’s the seeker’s way. i wept. i felt like i was not insane. i felt like a kindred with this author. i realized that all those crappy books (some by big named people) led to this one worthwhile–so worthwhile emergent/pomo/relevant whatever buzzword you want to call it, book.
    check it out.
    and yes, i feel God called me to write or i wouldn’t barf my letters on the page incessantly. much to the chagrin of the chip macgregors of the world. ;D
    i’m learning to relish obscurity.
    peace.
    suz

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