Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Forgiven By Reason of Good Intention

In this short interview, writer Gloria Sawai talks about writing about concepts of grace and redemption rather than religion. I think this is perhaps where some of us, myself included, fail. In our zeal to communicate the message of the gospel, we try too hard. We give the answers before the reader has time to ask the questions. It is a failing that can be forgiven, if only by reason of good intention, but it makes for weak writing.

This makes me think of Sawai's moving story, A Song for Nettie Johnson, in the book by the same name. The story made me ache for Nettie and her husband, yet there is a thread of grace, of redemption, of even joy in it, that rings so true. Perhaps that's what made me ache.

Perhaps as writers we try too hard to rid our readers of the ache, the longing for wholeness that we all feel. We want to fix them, to draw them into the relationship with Jesus that we know will do that. But we forget that it is the longing, the aching, the painful process that accomplishes what Jesus needs to do in our lives. Perhaps it's not the end we should be trying to depict, but the getting there, the universal epic journey of a soul trying to find its place.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Perspective is Everything

There was a time when I perceived my life to be out of joint. I'd only been married a short while and my husband had chosen to take a job that kept him away from home for weeks at a time. I was not happy. I told him I didn't get married to live life as a single woman. He told me he had a five year plan. I brooded and almost told him that if he intended to live that five year plan he could live it with someone else.

Then I did something very stupid. I borrowed a friend's one-man rubber raft and launched out, alone, onto the Yukon River. I figured it would take me three days to get to my friend's cabin and by the end of that three days I had to make up my mind about my marriage.

I wasn't far from the spot where I'd launched myself onto the river, when I realized I was totally committed to doing what I'd said I'd do. I couldn't go back - the fast Yukon current only flows one way - and it was obvious I'd put myself in an extremely vulnerable position. It only takes two minutes to die in the silty waters of the Yukon River. I was alone, in a rubber raft barely big enough to hold me, and I wasn't even exactly sure where I was going. The raft was also missing a paddle, which meant every time I took a stroke I went in circles, so it took a long time to get from one side of the river to the other.

But after drifting for several hours I began to relax into a sense that there was something huge around me - something much bigger, much more significant than my problems or my vulnerability. The Yukon winds through some beautiful country and as my little craft swirled slowly toward Alaska, I began to feel the immensity of it. I watched rain sweep down through valleys and rifts in the hillsides, clouds scudding so low they seemed like messengers, and rainbows shifting within the mist like flags of promise. I smelled the sweetness of a slope of poplar trees and the earthiness of fresh bear dung. I saw salmon flipped from the water by fish wheels driven by the momentum of the current and bald eagles perched on the swaying tops of spruce trees, waiting.

And by the time I reached my destination I had gained perspective. My problems seemed not quite so momentous, not quite so life-shaking. I decided my marriage was something I had committed to, with all the resident possibilities of failure and danger, and all the vulnerability, just like that river trip.

Writing is a lot like that too. It's a commitment that opens your mind to accept not only your vulnerabilities, but also a widened perspective on your work. You sense there is something much bigger happening than just the mere words printed on a page. You begin to see the beauty and vastness of the country around you. You realize you may be the tiniest part of it, but that there is purpose there. It is your country, this river you have launched yourself onto, and there is no going back. You begin to realize there is much you are to learn from the journey.

There have been times when I've wanted to give up, wanted to tell God he could rope someone else into this "write" plan. But then I launch out, in my little rubber raft called a poem or a short story or a novel, and my perspective changes. I glimpse the bigness. I relax. I engage in the joy.

I'm still committed to my marriage and I hope I'll remain committed to the gift of words God has given me. It's a very small raft but it keeps me afloat.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Day for Dying

My dog died today. She's been under my feet for about 14 years - always acted like she was a puppy the minute I came in the door, even tho' she was old many years ago. I just had to go back and change that sentence to past tense.

Then I got an email from the acquisitions editor that was considering my ms. It wasn't good news.

I'd been expecting my dog to die. She was old. I was expecting the ms. to be rejected. It has some major flaws.

But it was still a bad day.

Except for two hours when I went to lunch with my friend Linda. God knew I'd need her today. She's a poet with the soul of a saint and we talked about being real in our work, about writing what we know instead of what we think someone else wants to read. We talked about the importance of authenticity. Interesting word, that.

We talked about my friend Doug, who's dying and the way he's being real about that. The way we need to live and work as though we're dying too. Because we are.

Then I realized I'd been able to lay my hand on my dog's heart one last time and cry a bit before having to go on with a day that was full of doing what needed to be done. And I'm thankful. For the 14 years that little bit of fur and bone was underfoot and for friends who can make you feel better just by sipping a cup of tea on the other side of a table, and for a day full of mundane things that are so beautiful in their rhythm you hardly notice. And for that word 'hardly,' for the fact that I did notice; for the hope that gives me, that maybe I will be a little more authentic because my dog died, my friend is on his way, and so am I.

And for an editor that said no in a way that made me believe I could still achieve the dreams I have about words strung together on a page.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Writerly Fear

Sir Walter Scott has been quoted as saying – "In literature, as in love, courage is half the battle." Courage is defined in the Oxford dictionary as the ability to disregard fear. Why would this quality be important to writers? What fears are there to be overcome?

The answer is perhaps as varied as the writers themselves, but there are common denominators. There's fear of making mistakes, which keeps us from making the phone call for that interview; fear of public scrutiny, which keeps us from writing that column in the local paper; fear of failure, which keeps our manuscripts in hidden files on our computer; fear of success, which allows cynicism to convince us we are better off staying small fish in small ponds.
Courage is as essential a tool to a writer as the paper and pen, or keyboard, used to write. Without courage, the devil wins.
So how do we conquer our writerly fears? They are conquered with the knowledge that God has called us to write, conquered with a confidence that He will open the doors and show us how to walk through them.
With each step taken in that knowledge, our confidence will grow as we see evidence that God is with us, leading us on a journey that will lead to His best for us. The fears are conquered with the joy of knowing in our minds and hearts that we are at the centre of God’s will when we write. And above all, with love, the one force flowing through us, to Him and from Him, which conquers fear completely and forever.