Category Archives: On High Quality

What’s a Meta-For?

Okay, results of the contract contest are in, and it seems our ubiquitous General Bertrand was favored from the start. Yet what connections between the 2 articles did you find? I’d hoped the stunt would get you to think about the way we work as Christians who write fiction. With Leithart’s article as context, Pamuk showed just how critical our tools of symbol and metaphor really are to high quality stories.

Here’s Mark: “[In lower quality fiction] there’s an over-determined quality to the symbolism, as if it came about cognitively rather than procedurally. It is at once too meditated and not meditated enough. The grace with which Pamuk can write about his ancient calligraphers, knowing what’s underneath it but never pointing directly to the symbolism, simply isn’t possible when Symbol is seen as a technique to be applied rather than a hallmark or byproduct of method…”

Exactly. Quality metaphors are not premeditated. The challenge is to allow them to arise naturally–and then trust readers to connect their own dots. The alternative is to come up with symbols after the fact and insert them. Very few authors are able to make these kind look seamless and end up unintentionally weakening their books. The better idea is to discover those less obvious metaphors after you’ve written the first draft.

This is an incredibly freeing discovery: Metaphors that effortlessly appear for the observer as if all on their own, first appeared for the writer that way.

I like Mark’s word for how symbols arise as a “byproduct.” Deeper meaning is a result of meditation, usually after the story is already out. The work of that second draft is of finding the metaphors and drawing them out without making them too obvious.

We need to trust readers, and not assume stories with implicit truth and beauty can’t also be mindless escapes. It’s not commercial vs. literary; this is a big part of what makes writing quality or not. Simple books and deep books can both offer the commonplace experience of transcendence. Transcendence is a universal experience, isn’t it? No explanation is really necessary.

And in writing metaphor well, there’s this great result that happens in counteracting the widespread commercialization of faith and God. The divine is not reducable into nice, clean parts. We were created to experience incredible, complicated things, and good books provide those experiences that are otherwise unavailable. Reading is an escape from the everyday and if we wanted commercials, there are over 200 channels to choose from. But what I’d like for Christmas is for someone to blog about choosing to develop the natural metaphors in their story and sharing the observations and discoveries they find. (If you do it–or have an archived post–let me know and I’ll provide a link:Meg’s great post, Suzan’s, Michelle’s, Madison’s.)

Can you relate to this part of Pamuk’s speech? “I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences…have not come from my own imagination–that another power has found them and generously presented them to me.” This goes beyond “getting in the moment,” to the deep mystery O’Connor spoke of. The sacramental art that doesn’t separate spirit from body, meaning from method. This is a divine interconnectedness beyond our words, our ideas, our place in space and time. This is why we can’t control what people will take from our books. Ultimately, we don’t control it. And that’s a great thing if you’re looking to die to self.

Pamuk says he “knew only too well that I lived in a country that showed little interest in its artists – be they painters or writers – and that gave them no hope.” Sounds familiar, and yet he takes writing incredibly seriously: “writing and literature are intimately linked to a lack at the centre of our lives, and to our feelings of happiness and guilt.” That lack is the longing to be reunited with the source. Sacramental art involves natural metaphors, as all of life does because it is all metaphor. And God doesn’t make sure we catch it. “My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. …a single humanity, a world without a centre.” When we write, we are not only one; we are all one. We all can have this same experience through books.

And finally, there is Pamuk’s metaphor: his father’s suitcase of words. It stands for something, many somethings in fact. Did you see? A suitcase full of your father’s words is very fitting for us. It’s a weighty thing to carry. Some might think you’re pretty high and mighty to assume you can open this. But we must. It’s our birthright. Our legacy. And we must open it if we want to know what’s inside.

At any rate, I hope all you wonderful writers have a happy, safe, and restful Christmas and an inspired New Year. Let’s make it one to remember.

(As I was writing this, trying to put a certain precocious 3-year-old daughter to bed, she came downstairs with the traditional stall tactic that she was hungry. I gave her the traditional Wheat Thins and milk after reading her another book, and twenty minutes later she tiptoed downstairs to tell us she spilled her milk. After we cleaned up, she said she wanted more. Pushover Dad got her a little more. But no, she said, she wanted it full to the top, pointing out the line on the green cup, the amount she’d had before it spilled. I started to smile, insisting she didn’t need that much milk, that she wasn’t even thirsty, and that she’d have to pee. Three strikes, I win. But she insisted calmly, hands folded, serious as a china doll.

And I stood there as she repeated herself—“I just want it up to the top, Daddy”—and something about it, her persistence, her calm determination about this very serious business of getting a lot of milk struck me funny. I choked down a laugh, told myself I wasn’t necessarily contributing to misbehavior by complying, and went to fill it up. When I got back, she inspected it and took a slow, satisfied sip. I couldn’t hold it back anymore and cracked up–just her seriousness over the whole thing. And she laughed too though not really knowing what was funny. Maybe she was surprised at how this had gone.

As I kissed her goodnight and shut the door, I thought, This is it. This is how metaphor is. You write the little details, the particularity of the green cup with the silly little pepper people on it, that stuff that sticks in your head forever—all of it is significant. It matters because it means something. You don’t always know what it means and that’s the point, the whole reason for all of it, and why getting it right isn’t so important. Everything simple is so remarkably ineffable. You can’t understand it, so you just enjoy it, and you keep living and writing about it anyway.)

“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 remember. In those mind-bending, soul-stretching days, I thought a lot about life and where mine specifically was going. I nursed fantasies of directing movies and writing brilliant screenplays, transforming Hollywood, and basically expanding my influence. For God, of course. But like love or personal character, influence can’t be manufactured. To have influence you must first be influenced. So the thing to remember, it seems, is choose your influences wisely. And attending film school the year L.A. Story released, I started looking for my own magic freeway sign to show me what I felt I needed.

Fact is, each of us is responsible for our influences. Not much of a new thought, but the rub for me is that ultimately, you can’t help but be influenced by many things—more things than anyone can ever know. Concepts, philosophies, cultural histories, experiences far removed from our own. For instance, consider the ways of perceiving you carry, passed down to you by Greek philosophy. Disastrous assumptions about the world go by us every day, unexamined, and among them, this one from ancient Greek philosophy that the world can be escaped by whatever convenient means we prefer.

If escape from the world is what you want, you’ll find Christian fiction to serve your purpose. But if it isn’t? Is there also Christian fiction that provides escape from the illusion that we can escape the world? With so much escapist literature competing for attention, this kind of Christian fiction is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to write. There’s also TV, video games, and surfing the Internet for free blogs to fill our need for input. Will our books conform? Can Christian books fight for incarnational truth?

Who will resist the enormous pressure to revise the intense suffering of our world which grace came to destroy?

“A [Christian] writer who wants to get to mystery cannot bypass the evil and pain and suffering of the world, because that is to bypass the cross.” –Flannery O’Connor

Here’s what’s hard to get at in writing to the best of our abilities: we can’t aim to bypass the truth of a fallen world. A singular, powerful idea emerges from the best books—incarnate—in the very process of writing with our eyes wide open: we must grapple with this thing called reality, and when we do, we can come out more alive as a result.

Here’s a little philosophy I want us to ponder today–and next time, we’ll link it up with the heirarchy of our geyser analogy (On High Quality-12/7/06).

  1. If: the best writing mimics God’s redemption of reality (in nature),
  2. And if: reality is how we experience God’s redemption,
  3. Then: the best writing is that which depicts the most accurate picture of reality.

If we accept this, some questions follow:

  • As writers, are we attempting to mimic the original creative force or the struggle of creation with evil?
  • If God allows natural consequences rather than intervening, should our stories portray the natural world as any different?
  • If we show nature as less-than fallen in our books, are we negating God’s process in redeeming it?
  • If we are not accurate in portraying this process, are we writing at our best?

Nature is fallen. Not all of it portrays God. Yet the "groans" of creation do display the work of God in the way they’re continually redeemed. If the fallen natural world is what we have to work with as writers, does ignoring the influence of evil–either for our books or in our lives–end up undermining God’s deep redemption? I can’t deny the fear that I’ll get this wrong and end up writing poorer for it. The big question, it seems, is: If I don’t study how God’s creation struggles here and now, am I going to naturally write reduced? I think we’re forced to look at this struggle to portray it accurately and not look away or try to deny it. And frankly, I don’t understand why evil is necessary for grace (as it was for Jesus in inviting Judas to his table, or similar such things), but do I have to? To write well, I don’t think it matters if we know why the presence of evil precedes the knowledge of grace. What matters is what happens if we ban it from our books.

I’m content to say "I don’t know" the why here, and leave that part to God. He gave us the Word, the Logos (the Logic) to hammer out the natural laws, and the whys remain his. But there are some things we must grapple with; we must wrestle within the tenets of our faith. These are the questions I’m wrestling with–ponder them at your leisure. I’ve been pondering a while so I have some answers, for me. But you need to find yours, too.

Think of Hamlet. I think Shakespeare, like O’Connor, understood that nature is both sinful and holy, sacred and profane, but that it all would be ultimately redeemed, in the end. It didn’t mean their stories always showed this full redemption, but in my philosophy, we can’t extract good from evil here on earth. We must commit to writing creation interacting with both, so that no one misses the greater point.

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.