Learning from the Masters, part III

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We’ve talked already about Stephen Lawhead and his concept of the writer’s High Quest: struggling to honestly portray Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. He says, “If our art tries to do anything else—such as preach or evangelize—it devalues itself and thus falls prey to the same fate awaiting other works whose creators have abandoned the Quest.”

I love fantasy, sci-fi, other worlds. I love talking about The Writer’s Quest. Many Christian novelists have tried to answer the unsolvable age-old dilemma: to reject or require a clear moral message in our writing. For me, fantasy novelists seem to have the most convincing grasp on the subject. Maybe it’s that fantasy tends to require greater separation, deeper solitude. Maybe it’s that to write fantasy, you have to be okay with ambiguity. Some will say “Aslan is Jesus.” Others will say “Aslan is not Jesus; it’s just a story.” Fantasy writers have to be okay with a little mystery. They know that pinning things down is impossible and counterproductive. What is the fun of knowing? Believing is where the magic lies.

Take Lawhead. For him, the answer to the riddle is to write like Tolkien did, leaving the moral message implicit, and painting God’s reflected glory in a subcreation of one’s own. Simply pose the questions and let God do the answering.

Tolkien explored the universal struggle with the evil nature in Gollum. We all used to be Smeagol before the ring corrupted us. We’re always talking to ourselves, arguing with the treacherous monster who cares for nothing else but self-possession, the pride of life. Is Gollum a tragic character or heroic?

Lawhead says his main purpose in writing has always been to tell an entertaining story. “But, as I have struggled,” he says, “I have seen the narrative take some very surprising twists: events and characters resonating with deeper meaning; nuances of relevance highlighted; Truth, Beauty, and Goodness startlingly revealed. And all in ways that I could not have contrived with all my might, even on a very good day.”

But transforming our meager sacrifices is God’s job, is it not? We seek to portray the world accurately and let God take it from there. And if we ever write anything even closely resembling the original vision, we will have done our part.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But transformation is never fun. As Eustace Scrubb knows. He found out in his quest to save Prince Rilian after Aslan sends him out in CS Lewis’, The Silver Chair. Eustace transforms into a dragon before he’s through with his journey. Struggle, striving, suffering. These characters exist because writers lived them. The pain of life is the raw material of our industry. “When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit rejoices for what it has found.” We are working through to the good, to express the spirit’s rejoicing. This is our purpose.

The Quest leads through some rocky, unsavory places. But be encouraged! Things are actually exactly the way they should be. “With the help of the thorn in my foot, I spring higher than anyone with sound feet,” says Kierkegaard. Who doesn’t know the truth of this in their own writing? I’ve been talking with a good friend about why we write, why we consider ourselves bound to this course. We will achieve higher craft precisely because of what we perceive we lack.

The writer, according to Shusaku Endo, must “look at things that are best left unseen.” As we live with the paradoxes and the struggles and the sensory deprivation, we develop our psychoses and try to live with the permanent state of discontent that plagues us. We accept the self-doubt about our identity and our usefulness, and we choose not to confront the questions about how much to be in or of the “real” world. And we hope that at the end of the day, the tiny portion of the greater work underway will give us that feeling of accomplishment that outweighs the nagging sense of failure just underneath the calm.

Basically, writers do this because they have to. Most writers say they don’t know their own minds about something until they’ve sat down and written about it. For many, the initial impulse is to figure out what they think about a particularly troubling idea.

The good steward invests talents where God directs. If it is time for you to sell your writing, learn to sell your writing. If it is time for you to write, learn to write. You must always be willing to accept that writing is a ministry that requires sacrifice. You are a missionary with a pen. You don’t necessarily write tracts or gospel presentations, but you are showing people Jesus. And He taught that the poor, the sick, and the hungry would always be with us, but our chance to witness Him would be fleeting.

This is from Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water: “The world tempts us to draw back, tempts us to believe we will not have to take this test. We are tempted to try to avoid not only our own suffering, but that of our fellow human beings, the suffering of the world, which is part of our own suffering. But if we draw back from it (and we are free to do so), Kafka reminds us that ‘it may be that this very holding back is the one evil you could have avoided.”

Bernard Malamud says, “I’m against [suffering], but when it occurs why waste the experience?”

This hard life is a universal experience. I guess what I’m saying to you is, like the gospel, your writing must provide a way of escape. Jesus provided a way of escape from our fallen nature. You provide it for your readers. Some people are disparaging of fantasy because it’s “escapist.” I’m still not sure how that’s a bad thing. All stories are escapist; ours should simply offer escape into Truth. Everyone requires that kind of escape. And we all have to be willing to give up some things in this world in order to find the other one. As a writer, you are going to convince readers to follow you in, to show them what they never before imagined.

As Kafka says, “There is a point from which there is no return. This point must be reached. … [Man] has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hindrance, in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive.” It’s a fundamental disappointment that everyone reaches. And the only way around is through. Go there and don’t be afraid. You will bring back what you found and focus their attention on the world to come. This is your quest, to be Jesus to others, to answer their search for escape into that deeper life they barely dared suspect was possible.

Who’s with me?

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7 thoughts on “Learning from the Masters, part III”

  1. I’m with you, or rather, I’m with God, as this is something that was planted in me two summers ago when I was drawn back to creative writing.
    It is exciting and reassuring to me to see others grappling with these issues. When I turned my face to this task two years ago, I felt I was the only one. Now I’m finding that there is this creative “remnant” of the creative faithful emerging with the same basic vision, a clear signal to me that this is a God thing.
    A number of the groups I’m hanging around with are dealing with this in one form or another, from the Christian Realists (x-real.org) to Deep Magic to The Sword Review. It is exciting to see the different angles that others are taking as they try to figure this all out.
    On another note, I appreciate these posts. They’ve given me much to think about. I feel that my current maturity level is that of a journeyman, so I’ve devoted myself to spending a portion of my time boning up on foundational nuts-and-bolts things. I take an hour each weekday at lunch to immerse myself in R&R; research and reading. I spend the first 30 mins eating lunch while reading a variety of how-to texts, from Orson Scott Cards books on characterization to Damon Knight on crafting short stories to books on novel writing. Then, I spend the second 30 mins on relaxation and reading other writers. I’ve recently been reading Robin Hobb, Jasper Fforde, Sean McMullen, Gene Wolfe. In addition, I have gotten more involved in my local church and in my prayer life. I have a sense that these things put together have me on a fast-track toward more focused creative writing. I’m interested to see if others are also engaged in a similar targeted process.

  2. Thanks for a great blog, and these words of wisdom:
    This is your quest, to be Jesus to others, to answer their search for escape into that deeper life they barely dared suspect was possible.
    My answer: Absolutely
    Suzan

  3. Sally leaps from her seat, waving her hand in the air. “I’m with you, Mick. I’m with you!”
    =0) Man-oh-man-oh-man, Mick. You are on a roll here. Great post.
    OK there is one teensy little thing . . . of course Gollum is tragic you silly thing.
    Oh, and one more thing that really doesn’t matter but it’s great to catch an editor . . . I think Eustace became a dragon in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, not Silver Chair. I’m pretty sure of it.
    Keep up the good work, Cap’n.
    sally

  4. remember, eustace as dragon was his most appealing form. sometimes the very scales we dread and claw at, are the very scales we need to entomb our wretched selves in. the liberating death. the dismembering chaos of rebirth. a catepillar doesn’t just become a butterfly, it becomes this muck of nothingness and transmogrifies (for you calvin and hobbes fans) into the lovely butterfly. but we dread the cacoon (I cn’at spell).
    you said we must lead them to the Truth? must we? i wonder. isn’t sometimes the Truth easiest to see amidst the blackness of untruth? i’ve a dear pastor friend who finally quit pastoring to write movies. hallelujah. what did he write? a horror flick.
    the road does not always lead so neatly to narnia my fellow sojourner. but that does not mean all who wander are lost.
    suz.

  5. Mick, I marvel at your ability to draw me deeper and deeper with your words. How clever of you, as you’re leading us on this journey to discovery, to scatter brilliant quotes like nuggets of gold, keeping us digging with you until–Whoa!–we find ourselves blinking in the dazzling spendor of the mother lode.
    I’m in. I’ve got my head-lamp, pick ax, and burning thirst for Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. Lead on.

  6. Count me in, too. It sounds like a daunting task, but the best works of art always are. I think it is G.K. Chesterton who said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” I don’t want to shy away from excellence and the call to redemption. Especially when there is no doubt the pen indeed is mightier than the sword.
    Susan

  7. Yikes! I’m almost scared to say I’m with you. That’s a tall order you describe, but it’s exactly what I want to do. So, if I can pose questions only God can answer, if I can develop my psychosis to a fine point, and learn to live with a permanent sense of failure while trying to get the vision on paper…
    Count me in.

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