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.