This is my second address from Inscribe's WorDshop 2005 – Abiding Writers. A CD of this session will soon be available from Inscribe's web site or from my web site.
As abiding writers we must be willing to let our hearts be broken and molded. We must be willing to crack our sentences open and peel away the outer skin of our paragraphs. We must bear the responsibility of the gift.
Earlier I talked about the necessity of holding on to Jesus and to his Word. We must let the word of God sink into our hearts and minds, and, more importantly, we must let it change us. Sometimes we have to let it draw blood. We have to let it work in our lives and in our writing, to the point where we are willing to face the ugliness in ourselves and in the world around us. We have to let it work to the point where we are willing to struggle with that ugliness as we portray it in our work, as we experience it in our lives.
I think perhaps as Christian writers we tend to shy away from this. We want to write only about what is pleasant and wholesome. Our novels have to have a conversion experience by the end of the story and our poetry has to depict only the beauty of God’s creation. There is nothing wrong with writing about those things, but there is much more to the reality of life. I think perhaps we stop too soon. We picture the strong healthy tree but we don’t go where the roots are, sunk deep into layers of things that have died. We stay too much on the surface.
In his wonderful book, Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorback talks about cracking open sentences and bits of writing where we have remained on the surface of things, where we have slipped into a kind of voice over and distanced ourselves from the truth in the story. He challenges his students to go deeper.
We all resist doing this because it might mean we’ll bleed. There seems to be an underlying belief that facing what is painful and ugly in life is somehow denying the goodnes of God. But that is not what the Bible teaches. Listen to Psalm 12:6 (KJV) says – “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. “Tried in a furnace of earth.” That doesn’t sound pleasant to me. “Purified seven times.” That sounds like struggle and anguish and pain that has been forged into what is pure and wholesome. That sounds like process, not instantaneous perfection.
I was a pottery student many years ago. When I decided I wanted to do pottery, I thought it would be fairly easy. All you do is play around with the clay, right? I discovered there are many skills to be learned to become a potter, some of them quite difficult to master. It takes time to acquire those skills and there is a lot of knowledge to be gained – I discovered a potter has to be a geologist, an electrician and a chemist. And then there is the sort of mystical side of it all – the mystery of what makes a piece of work turn out beautiful, and even, in a way, inspirational.
As I began to learn all these things, I found out that you can’t use just any old clay to make pottery. It has to be the right consistency, the right combination of elements. Some clay is too fine. When it’s thrown on a wheel it won’t stand up, won’t keep its shape, won’t survive the heat of the kiln, so a substance called grog is added. Grog is clay that has been previously fired in the kiln, then ground into fine particles. Grog sometimes hurts. As you throw a pot on the wheel you can feel it scraping your hands. Sometimes it even makes them bleed.
Our writing needs grog. We must put the stuff of real life into it, or it won’t hold up. We must struggle through the pain to find the redemption, and own the truth we say we believe. Writing coach Natalie Goldberg has said -"A writer must be willing to sit at the bottom of the pit, commit herself to stay there, and let all the wild animals approach, even call them up, then face them, write them down, and not run away."
We can so easily wrap ourselves in a very comfortable theology and not do what God wants us to do. We like to stay safe in our comfortable lives and we like to stay safe in our writing. As a Christian, I wrapped myself in a lot of theology, things I said I believed. Over time, they became comfortable, familiar, and made me feel quite safe. Until I met a woman named Teri.
The first time Teri walked through the doors of our church, she extended her hand to my husband, the pastor, and said, “I want you to know I’m infected. I have AIDS.” Perhaps it was the shock of her bluntness, but I immediately felt something give way inside me, as though the parameters of our safety had been breached. Panic rose to replace my sense of comfort.
My husband and I had visited a friend who had died of AIDS not long before. The mental picture of his emaciated face was still very real, but that had been far away, in another city. Facing an AIDS victim in the doorway of our own little church was much different. It abruptly threatened my cocoon-like world. It shattered the illusion of well being and forced me to look in the face of pain and struggle.
As Teri stood in the doorway that day, I felt the parameters of my theology also begin to crumble. “Love one another,” my theology said, “Do unto others; Give a cup of cold water.” On and on, the theology rang in my ears while I observed others in the congregation care for Teri and her daughter. The carpeted foyer of our church seemed to echo with Jesus’ words. Words like, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matt. 25:45). I began to question what I really believed. Did I trust God? Did I trust Him enough to involve myself in this woman’s life, when that involvement could be dangerous and undoubtedly painful? What was I trying to protect so desperately? I began to ponder, with new perspective, what the apostle Paul meant when he said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil.1:21).
I pondered more as my husband and I began picking Teri’s daughter Brittany up for Sunday school – a little six year old girl also dying of AIDS. She was the same age as my own daughter, Meagan. Watching Meagan take her hand and lead her to the Sunday School class tore at the fear and callousness that was keeping me at a distance – keeping me on the surface - and it began to bridge the gap between my theology and my life.
Teri and Brittany were living in that precious, precarious state known as the brink of immortality. As we spent time ministering to her, she ministered to us. She entered into our lives, asked the probing questions that unraveled our pain, showing us the barriers of fear and mistrust that were keeping us from loving as we should.
Two days before she died, Teri sat in her wheel chair in the hospital lounge and we talked about going for a drive to see the fall colors. It didn’t take long to go from that superficial diversion of my world, into hers. She gave me one of her probing looks and then we talked about purpose: “I think I’ve been here to teach you,” she said. Aware of the irony of her words, there was a glint of mischief in her eyes when she spoke. Teri had never been a mature Christian nor a Godly role model, yet she was teaching me what faith meant, what trust looked like, what deep healing was really all about. She simply presented herself, flawed, diseased, and without speaking a word she said, “Here I am. What will you do with me?”
That short span of time when I struggled with what to with Teri was the grog in the clay of my theology. It’s what made it stand up – it’s what made it able to withstand the fire and be shaped into something useful, something beautiful and even something inspirational.
Writer Marianne Jones has said - “Creating is God’s gift to us, God’s way of taking the wreckage and broken pieces of our lives and recycling them into something more extraordinary than the original.”
Bill Roorbach’s book is full of exercises, some of them dealing with life mapping. It’s a fun process and there are different ways of doing it – one of the exercizes in R’s book is to map your childhood neighbourhood. As I did that exercise, all kinds of things came to the surface – people and places, incidents and even snatches of conversations. It was a writer’s dream! There was one memory that seemed particularly vivid, of a day when I was sitting on the front step of our house. My mother was there and I was crying. I wanted to go to the nearby store for ice cream. Then my father appeared in the memory. I remembered he gave me some money and sent me off to the store by myself, an unheard of thing until that day.
As I began to write that story, putting down all the details, the surface things, I realized there was something more there, something deeper, something disturbing. At first I tried to ignore those feelings. I just wanted to write a simple little story. But the more I wrote the more I could feel the tension in the story and in myself. So I asked my mother if she had any memory about that day. She was amazed that I remembered it. That was the day my father had closed his business and came home to tell her they would have to sell the house. That was the day the tension that had been in our home erupted and came close to destroying our family. I haven’t finished that short story yet, I’m still trying to crack open the sentences and the paragraphs. Those cracks have led to some things that I haven’t wanted to face about my childhood. It’s not an easy process but I know in the end it will be a far deeper and more useful story than I originally intended. Perhaps it might even be something beautiful, something inspirational.
Many of us have a lot of skill as writers. We’ve paid our dues, we’ve reached a level of comfort with our craft. Perhaps it’s time to go deeper, to put a little grog into our work – the stuff that will make us bleed, the stuff of truth.
I remember hearing the story about the Nobel prize winning author Eli Wiessel. As a young journalist in Paris he was assigned to interview a well-known Christian man and when that man began to talk about Jesus, Wiessel became angry. He said, don’t talk to me about your Jesus. Only a short distance from here unspeakable things happened. And we can’t express them. Don’t you understand? We can’t say the words.” That Christian man, with tears in his eyes, encouraged the young journalist to try, to try and find the words to say what was inexpressible because of its horror. I can’t imagine the pain it must have caused Eli Wiessel to write that story but he did open that vein and the result is the Nobel prize-winning book, Night, and a body of work that is powerful, noble, beautiful and inspirational.
Madeleine L’Engle has said - “The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.”
This is our responsibility – to struggle toward that wholeness in our lives and in our work. To take our work deeper, to make sure it has enough grog in it to ensure that it will stand, to put it through the kiln and ensure that it will be something useful, something beautiful, something inspirational. And all to the Glory of God because it’s His plan for us, His plan for our work.
This essay is part of the Celebration of Christian Fiction. Read more great essays etc at the Celebration -http://www.livejournal.com/users/ellezymn/48098.html