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The Integrity of Dirt

Hope your holidays were fun and restful and full of the fodder for great writing. Mine were good, though I’ve been sick today following a week away with family. I thought I’d avoid the dirty little bug this year, but all the herbal supplements and dietary concern weren’t enough this time. Luckily, I think it’s getting better, but I still resent the little filthiness breaking in.

I used to hate getting dirty. In kindergarten, I would finger paint with my two index fingers barely skimming the surface of the slimy paper, hoping it was almost time for the next activity so I could go wash it off. One of my all-time worst memories is from elementary school when the class bully put 3 large snails down my shirt and then proceded to squash them against my bare back. That would probably be enough on which to base a lifelong tendency toward cleanliness, and though thankfully I didn’t develop one of those hand washing fetishes, I do hold a certain reverent distaste for all manner of sliminess.

So between sniffling and moaning today, I took a break to reread Bret Lott’s excellent Christy award keynote speech, including the quote from Flannery O’Connor in the oft quoted Mystery and Manners, “Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible.” Bret Lott says that was him before he wrote A Song I Knew By Heart. And for myself, raised in a Christian home, I can definitely trace the disposition in my early reading tastes. O’Connor goes on to say, “The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

Figuratively of course, but still for me, who never really liked backpacking for all the dirt one tends to acquire, I really worry about this. I want to believe I can write with integrity and see the world as it really is like Jesus did, with compassion and piercing insight, never looking away or turning his nose up in disgust. The world is messy, and for a writer to tell the truth about it he has to have a deeper appreciation of the mess to really love the audience. It’s arguable that Jesus saw the world more clearly than anyone ever has. What he saw in our humanity was our need to be cleaned up and he didn’t hesitate to break in and get dirty with people to do it.

He broke tradition. He broke up families. He broke up corrupt systems and prejudices. He broke laws. Not simply to break them, of course. Not to offend or to jump into trouble for its own sake. But by the extreme license granted him by his extreme insight, Jesus broke Sabbath laws to expose scandalous grace, healing, saving, and sharing stories with those who didn’t understand his actions. In my terrified little mind, this is what I tell myself I must do if I want to write books that escape the restrictive laws that currently bind them. And thank goodness so many writers and editors like Bret agree. Add to that all the success stories we’ve seen in the past few years when readers have found these kinds of books more satisfying, more “entertaining” than other kinds of books. These books and writers are becoming more prevalent. It all started with a renewed reverence for the Word by commiting to the difficult and uncomfortable work of carving out expressions of real substance–the ones so commonly discarded and replaced by lesser, good enough, and cleaned-up.

Because if there’s one thing I know as an editor it’s that the “how” of this ideal is the skill of economy: to learn what is essential. I believe excellent writing is nothing more than rendering the best representation of reality from the clearest perception of it. And that comes through honest first drafts and then careful second, third, and forth drafts, whittling, crafting, and shaping to omit the extraneous while maintaining (and sharpening) its integrity. I think to be of use as a writer, either in fiction or nonfiction, this means seeing the facts of dirt clearly and developing artful portrayals of that dirt in story. As Bret points out, Jesus knew his audience and used characters in his parables to surprise: widows, Samaritans, the lowly. I have to be willing to lose my prejudices and my assumptions about the dirt that doesn’t fit into “my” stories. But I also can’t hold so tightly to the “show don’t tell” mantra that I miss the chance to provide deeper insights and subtler observations you’d miss with simple demonstrative details. I can’t miss telling about the nuances of the characters’ emotions by failing to tell what’s unique about how they laugh at a joke or cry at a sad story. And I certainly don’t want to be shown all that came before the central story if an author can save me time and effort by telling me those essential details in a way that deepens my appreciation for the characters. In all of this, I have to use my freedom to write what serves the characters. And in that way, the story takes care of itself.

My thought here is, if we’re always worried about getting dirty or not breaking the rules, we’ll never get what is required to be reliable witnesses of these characters’ lives. Our job, then, is to open our eyes to it all, take it all in, and then to disappear–maybe to the dressing room to take a nice hot shower–so the show can go on to make its leap from the stage to the open mind.

11 Responses to “The Integrity of Dirt”

  1. siouxsiepoet says:

    thank you for this mick. i have a funny to tell you, i used to collect (and i’m told, eat) snails when i was young, filling my pockets full of my “babies” which goes to show why i have no aversion to dirt, i guess.
    even today, i still like snails. i don’t collect them any more though. or crunch them in my pockets when i sit down to dinner (as i’m told i did).
    but i still make messes.

  2. Mick says:

    Mary, that sounds about right!
    Although, preference is given to authors who hail from exotic locales. Like France.

  3. DLE says:

    It’s always bothered me that readers will grouse about certain “immoral” components of a Christian novel one moment, then in the next sit down to read or watch some secular book, TV show, or film with content far worse than what they found objectionable in the Christian novel. That’s not trying to make excuses to “dirty”-up Christian fiction, but just a simple assessment of the hypocrisy out there.
    I spent most of 2006 reading as much Christian fiction as I could to gauge the market trends. All I came away with was the nagging feeling that I don’t know any flesh and blood people who resemble the characters in most Christian fiction. Secular novelists seem to have a better finger on the pulse of real people. Oddly enough, I’ve found some Christian characters in secular novelists’ works to be more like the real Christians I know.
    I’ve discussed this issue on several other writing blogs and it seems to go nowhere. When I bring up the unholy trio of off-limits details–sex, profanity, and violence–most folks see no harm in killing characters in gruesome ways, but heaven help us if someone delves into the other two, even slightly.
    Hey, if anyone can make sense of it all, please inform me.

  4. Nicole says:

    How about the economy of dirt + the plethora of words?
    Or maybe the economy of hypocrisy + the plethora of honesty?
    Or how about the plethora of the anointing filling us up as writers to produce our best works yet?
    Or how about bending the rules to accomodate “rendering the best representation of reality from the clearest perception of it” without insulting our Lord?
    The clearest perceptions of life aren’t always concise and tidy and wrapped up in “economic” writing formulas.

  5. Okay, so here’s my thing: I have heard one two many times so comment to the effect of “But the message…” as an excuse for the art. But as Christians, we know the truth, we have a Mediator that connects us to the Creator Himself. Shouldn’t, then, we actually have a higher standard of art? And by standard, I don’t mean not digging our hands in the mud, I mean good art. Art that reflects and transcends. Etc., etc., etc.
    As far as dirt, I like getting dirty. It’s my house I hate to get dirty (which you would never guess if you actually ever saw my house).

  6. Meg Moseley says:

    I just read “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose and cheered when I saw this quote from Chekhov: “To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist.”
    That sentiment would get me in trouble in some quarters.
    I hope you’re feeling better, Mick.

  7. Susan Meissner says:

    I’ve been gnawing on this and I’m thinking that the dirt isn’t dirtier in books that are shelved up front in B & N, and that maybe it isn’t the liberty of dirt to be present that distinguishes these books from mine. I think it’s more often the breadth and depth of the prose. It is broader, it is deeper.
    Part of that breadth is the freedom ABA writers have to describe our dirty world with any word or scenario they feel best fits. But I will always limit myself in that respect. Not because I can’t appreciate that dirt is real nor do I underestimate the true state and nature of fallen man, but because I don’t like how it makes me feel when I read too much of it.
    I have given up on books half-read that gave dirt far too big a role in the story, and I simply couldn’t stomach it anymore. So I simply must, as a writer, work that much harder to give my prose depth — to make up for what I opt to leave out in its breadth. I must create deeply drawn characters, a setting that is thick with detail and imagery, and a plot that is multi-contextual and innovative. I just finished “The Thirteenth Tale,” and there were many nights when I’d put it down and whine for wanting to be able to write like that. It doesn’t just happen. It’s a work of art, “work” being the operative word. I think it can happen without hefty exposure to dirt, but it’s hard work. It’s hard work either way.
    That’s what I find myself lacking at this place where I’m at with my writing; the feeling that I’ve truly expended myself, wasted myself in the construction of my prose. For me, it’s not that I’ve not allowed myself to get dirty, I’ve rather not pushed myself to creative exhaustion. And what would my writing look like if I did?

  8. Meg Moseley says:

    Susan’s comment has a lot in common with Mark Bertrand’s post on the MA today. They’re both calling us to work harder, to create layers of imagery and detail to pull the reader to the heart of the story. I want to do that.
    I also want to figure out how subtlety can mix with the obligation to justify the existence of the tiniest smattering of “dirt” in a story. If I spell out the redemptive purpose of the dirt, its reason for existing in the story, I lose the subtlety and I get preachy. Ick. But if I don’t spell out the reason for the dirt, if I just let it lie there and be dirt, some people will take offense instead of seeing past the dirt to the redemption.
    Speaking of dirt, am I making myself as clear as mud?

  9. So then, if I fed my brother baked mud pies garnished with sticks, leaves, and acorns, and I was barefooted and dirty most of my childhood–does that count?
    And I’m so excited that God made me a rule-breaker. I’m finally seeing just a glimmer of hope for my untamed ways. LOL

  10. Eh bien, I’ll buy you some escargot, Mary (and Mick? : ))

  11. pandacanup says:

    I think part of this involves the inevitable difficulty in portraying a fallen world as a heavenly one. We will never be free of the “dirt” until we are outfitted in glory. It doesn’t make sense to cast a vision of a rose-colored reality for our reader–this only serves to further confuse, and that in the best case scenario. In the worst case, it serves to cast a shadow of suspicion over a belief system not robust enough to weather environmental obstacles like sin and immorality. I think that writing that pleases the Father wouldn’t ignore the presence of conflict, but would seek to isolate and examine it if only to make a grander spectacle of Grace.

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