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The Geyser Analogy

“I had to write this.”

Ever heard an author say this after receiving an award? What do you think they mean by it? And why do so many say it anyway? Are they serious? They couldn’t help it?

Over the next few posts before Christmas, I’m going to try something I’ve resisted for a few months now. I want to try to lay out the hierarchy I’ve been working to understand, this hidden structure that supports high quality books. It’s not an easy thing to come to and I’ve seen a lot of confusion about it, even in high places of the book industry. But something I’ve seen consistently in most authors who win awards is that they recognize there is a hierarchy in writing quality books. You don’t hear anyone talking about it—maybe it’s discussed in some Creative Writing classes—but these award-recipients seem to all be saying something about they way they came to their books, and this has led me to a word picture to describe what high quality books are and how they are produced.

So imagine a geyser on top of a mountain—Mars Hill, if you like. That little space between the rocks, the hole from which the geyser of the created work sprang? That’s the author. The story was not theirs; they were used by it. The author becomes the empty space through the process of writing, and both the water and space it flows through are subject to the forces of nature. Factual, objective reality dictates how much, how high, how prolific, how fresh that water is—everything about it, in fact. The author prepares himself for the work to flow through according to how the natural laws have shaped him or her. Now, you don’t have to understand these natural laws to write well, but they are what define high quality literature.

I like this analogy because it portrays why some geysers are “better” than others. While some people may prefer the visual explosion of the spray, others might want fresher water. But regardless, the best geyser will be the most appealing and the cleanest, thereby satisfying the most people. Any division between commercial and literary books is artificial because both types abide by the same rules defining high quality.

Rules are rules.

And what I find really interesting about these rules, these natural laws, is that they’re based in the same objective reality as the biblical doctrine of absolute truth. I suppose if I understood more of how deeply everything speaks of God I wouldn’t be so intrigued by this. But I’m still discovering how the act of writing can show us who God is and how he works. And it’s the discovery that drives me and convinces me we’re not just amusing ourselves here, talking about books and getting most of it wrong.

So I want us to work at discovering some of these natural laws over the next few posts. I think that statement from authors who stand on podiums and shrug is much more than a “golly-gee” response. There’s a reason they had to write what they did. A reason they couldn’t get away from it. And I think if we explore this a little, we may find some things underneath that point to the reason their geysers worked so well.

Maybe you’ve thought of this already but haven’t interacted with others thinking the same things, let alone heard their responses. But if we can stand here and consider what created this fountain on top of the hill, look at it rationally and experience it with all our senses, we should be able to figure out some of the things these authors have uncovered.

So if you’re a regular attender here, please consider yourself a part of the discussion and leave a comment. And new members, I apologize in advance if you get a little wet.

11 Responses to “The Geyser Analogy”

  1. Nicole says:

    Okay, I’m gonna be the first one here to stand too close, inside the barriers, and get soaked.
    “I had to write this” is as honest a statement as I can imagine hearing, but not just from award winning authors because I’ve said it myself. And meant it, and felt it, and knew it had to be written as per the direction the Lord gave me. The Holy Spirit is my hierarchy.
    He appoints and distributes the gifts and talents and the directions from the Father if we’re willing to take the time to listen and obey. Now if I hadn’t learned a single thing in my English/literature classes where I focused most of my attention in the schooling I had, I’d probably not be able to write “correctly”. However, if I never get published, only a few of the test readers will decide if I can write well, tell a good story, minister God in all His various character forms.
    It can come off sounding overly spiritual, but, my goodness, aren’t we talking about Christians here? Who is supposed to direct us, lead us, enable us to do His will?
    If you speak of secular story writers, who is their leader, their inspiration? Who are they writing for? What is the impetus? If they do not know Jesus Christ, it’s a slam dunk they aren’t writing for Him. And it shows.
    Anyone can allude to God in their writing, but if they really don’t know Him, it’ll show up.
    Awards can speak to talent of all kinds–there are so many classifications for awards now it seems. They can also speak to a group of judges’ tastes.
    What is success anyway? Writers for God are successful when they complete the task God has given them to do. When they feel down in their very bones that the Lord’s satisfaction at finishing the task they were given is paramount to personal success. It is the end all, cure all for those of us who remain unpublished but press on because we “had to write it.”

  2. siouxsiepoet says:

    quality defies description. so what are we really going to talk about? i am listening to z&taomm myself right now. touche.
    i’m dabbling with thoughts about things that must be written, will themselves to be written.
    i’ve not formulated my thoughts so i won’t try to here. but i’m listening and it is good to get wet. soaked, in fact.

  3. *Singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again.”
    **Can I dance, too?

  4. L.L. Barkat says:

    “By His Spirit He adorned the heavens….Indeed, these are the mere edges of His ways, and how small a whisper we hear of Him!” Job 26:14
    I have been thinking on this verse over and over… how adornment, art, flows from His Spirit, and how this gives us but the smallest glimpse of God, but a glimpse no less. So, I think that great art, great writing comes from talent, yes, but also from deep connection with this Spirit who adorned the heavens and adorns them still.

  5. Yep, sometimes I’d procrastinate due to fear of failure and fear of success to one degree or another, but I’d say, “Lord, you knew who you were dealing with when you gave me this story.” And I just had to write it. Favorite parts first, favorite research first, knowing the beginning, the middle and the end, and filling in the blanks slowly, just–having to write this book. Seeing such helpful oincidences. Working in real estate, listing a neighbor’s house. When he learned I was writing an air-to-air combat scene, he lent me his books–he was a former Marine fighter pilot instructor–and I first met him *on my doorstep* when he brought around a petition. Or going to an air show and remarking to a stranger in the enormous crowd that I wished my kids could get in the VIP section to see the Blue Angels up close like I used to as a Navy kid. She handed me passes. She was one of the Blues’ *mothers.* So many “coincidences” that kept me going. While I had to write this book…. The Holy Spirit is indeed the hierarchy if we’re open to Him.

  6. Suzan says:

    I’m pre-published, but I have an example of being “compelled” to write a certain story:
    In 2003 I started my first novel. While doing research, I “stumbled” onto a review (In a Canadian online newspaper) of a non-fiction book called, “The Natashas,” about women sold into prostitution in Eastern Europe. I bought the book from Amazon Canada because it hadn’t yet been released in the US. I couldn’t get the stories of the women out of my head. I read the book again, this time with a highlighter, for research for novel #2 or 3. But I found that I couldn’t concentrate on my WIP.
    So, I put my first novel aside, and wrote a novel with a character who had been trafficked. I didn’t want to write it because the material was difficult. But I knew that God gave me the story and I had to obey. (TMI: Since then, I’ve written another novel and recently returned to finishing book #1 after 3 years, and hope to publish a 3-book series in God’s timing. I write the stories. I leave the outcome up to Him.)
    I believe that each story was given to me. God, in His mercy and grace, showed me this when He “interrupted” my writing back then.
    The first thing I do when I sit down to write is to ask Him to give me the story, I pray to get out of the way and write what He wants me to write. Then I get to do the rewrites and the editing. :-)

  7. Susan Meissner says:

    I am fairly convinced that we writers approach our craft from many different angles. We produce the same product — words on paper — but we don’t manufacture them the same way. Or even use the same materials. I’m okay with that. I feel like I have to be. Because in many ways I consider myself an oddball. Perhaps I am not.
    Here’s the thing: I don’t feel like any of my books were books I simply had to write. I don’t feel like God has given me my storylines, and that I have been His willing scribe, forth-telling truth in story form because He asked me to.
    This is what I do feel: That God has given me a reckless passion for story, and because His grace fills my being, whatever I write well naturally bleeds His touch on my life. That doesn’t mean everything I write is touched of God, but when it’s good, it’s God’s influence, I’m sure. If I were a painter or a sculptor or a composer or any other kind of artist, I imagine the same thing would happen: whatever loveliness I produced would naturally honor my Gifter. But would I ever feel compelled to say, “I had to paint this,” or “I had to sculpt this.” I simply can’t picture it.
    When people who cannot imagine writing a book, ask me — with obvious admiration and awe in their eyes — how in the world I can write novels, my initial, internal response is, “How can I not?” I am hard-wired for it. I must write stories. Not I must write this story or that story. I just must write Story. If I didn’t, I’d be restless, discontent and probably half-mad.
    When I get an idea for a story, I toss it up to God and say, “What do you think?” Where do the ideas come from? They seem to come from deep within me and out of my own life experiences. Are they God’s ideas or mine? I don’t know that I can say for sure. It is easier for me to say that whatever gift I have for writing stories comes straight from God. Make your own equation.
    I’m drawn to the authors’ geyser like the cliched moth to a flame. I don’t want to be anywhere else, admiring any other natural wonder. This is where I want to be. That, to me, is evidence of God gifting me to be a writer and not something else. I must confess I don’t feel called to be a writer. But I itch to be one.
    It’s true I don’t understand the forces at work under the surface of the earth. Mick says I don’t have to. Hallelujah. What I do understand, at least for me, is that I am most at home standing in the spray at the geyser’s edge, getting really wet. I like to think that whatever I am gifted to do, and God chooses to bless, is what I meant to do.
    I just get to do this.

  8. My path has meandered through the arts (music, dance, visual art, writing) and still does. I’ve always had a love affair with words, but I didn’t begin writing books until three years ago. And so far, I know of only one story that I had to write. It was a matter of obedience, and I honestly felt that if I died before I wrote it, I would have failed to complete the work I was created to do. When I finished it, I felt a tremendous sense of relief.
    That book is still looking for a publisher, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve completed the task God required of me in the writing. What He does with it now is His business.
    Beyond that book, I would have to say that, for me, writing is like dancing. I hear music, and my feet want to move. But not just my feet. All my being. The dance rises inside me, begging to be released. I can quench it if I have to–say, if I’m at a symphony concert and it wouldn’t be proper go spinning down the aisle. So, I guess in that sense I don’t have to do it. But it’s in me. And the letting it out is a completion. I love it, so I do it.
    As long as the words keep coming out to play, I’ll keep knocking on the door. I don’t know if that makes me a geyser or just a party girl. But I do think the joy in the process is evidence of God’s pleasure, whether I’m writing the stories or they’re using me.

  9. pandacanup says:

    We can’t really put into words anything in its entirety. Just like a camera lens can’t ever really capture the detail a human eye can. Just like the painter can’t really recreate the way that light transforms a hayfield. It’s all an impression. But for the writer, his passion is impressing upon others. Secular, christian, whatever, the ideal is the same. We want another to be impressed with whatever has impressed us. And for the Christ-follower (yes, I like your article) part of that impression is Who He is. We’ll never completely capture it: He’s too big a God. But we can strive with everything within to find a way to express a hint of the One who has fully engulfed us in awe. And if we want to be especially effective in this pursuit, it helps to ask Him how to reveal it. After all, He came up with the extravagant plan of revelation in a tiny Baby who threatened the pride of kings and the executed Hero who saved the world.

  10. violet says:

    This is interesting. I like the geyser picture to describe the ‘have to write it’ phenomenon. But it’s also deceptive in how it pictures that ever-upward momentum. That hasn’t always been my experience. Sometimes, for example, I’ve accepted assignments for which I had no vision in the first place. But then, as I got into them, I ‘got it.’ At other times, the original vision turned to grunt – the research, the first draft and endless rewrites… I think how can this ever do anything for anyone?
    I remember one story I did like this. I asked myself often ‘Did I do the right thing by accepting this assignment? It sure feels uninspired.’ And yet, in the end, that story won a prize.
    All that to say, it’s always still a matter of faith. Sometimes the process doesn’t feel geyser-like at all. But in the end, you look back and see how it was somehow ‘ordained.’

  11. “There is more…”

    Anyone familiar with L.A. Story, that Steve Martin film from the mid 90s, will recognize this quote, from Hamlet. There is more in heaven and earth…than is dreamt of in your philosophy. Back in college, this struck me as a good bit of trivia to remem…

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