Literary Fiction as Spiritual Journey: Part II. Explanation

(Transcribed from the November 2003 Image Conference)

When I observed that serious writing appears to reflect a spiritual journey, then I asked myself why? Why is there a connection for a writer between their writing and a spiritual journey? And I’ve concluded that it is in part because writing is, for lack of a better phrase, a God-like exercise. Those of you that are writers will understand what I’m talking about.

When I look at Genesis 1 as a reflection of who God is, I see that God is a creator, bringing order out of chaos, that God is a seer, God sees things (and God saw), you see that God wanted everything he made to be good and God is relational, God concluded it is not good for man to be alone. Artists, created in God’s image, reflect that image in their art. They are creative, they want it to be good and it is their way of relating to others what they see. The writer has a particular vision and a set of gifts, and an ability to see certain things that they want to communicate. The source of their God-like work is why they often experience their work as spiritual. `I’m captivated by John Updike saying, “I feel closest to God when writing.” You’re singing praises, you’re describing the world as it is. Even if the passages turn out sordid or depressing, there’s something holy about the truth. “ There’s this sense of spiritual connection for a writer when they write.

To develop the theme along the Genesis 1 lines look at the writer as creator. Arthur Miller said, “I’m a writer, so I write. That’s my job. But it’s more than a job. I just have a terrifically pleasant feeling if I create a form that completes itself and you can walk around it. It’s a whole object.” This is what’s so interesting about a writer’s function, because a writer sits down with nothing and a writer begins to write. And soon they have chaos that is of their own making. But what is it that inevitably drives them to try to bring order to it and to make sense of it? I think it’s this image of God in us that drives us to create and to want to get it to the place where it’s a whole object. Artist’s want to say, “I’ve finished something, it is complete and it can now take on a life of it’s own.”

James Lee Burke recognizes that he is not the creator, but he is a partner in creation. This is what Burke said, “It was during this period, as a young writer, I had to relearn the lesson I learned at 20 when I worked on an off-shore oil rig. You write it a day at a time and let God be the measure of its worth. You let the score take care of itself and, most important, you never lose faith in your vision. God might choose fools and people who glow with neurosis for his partners in creation, but he doesn’t make mistakes.” This is a guy who has a clear sense ¢€œ and we’ve got other quotes of his ¢€œ he has a clear sense that his part of the story is to be a writer, and that God has not made a mistake. And he has this sense of God’s grace in choosing someone who glows with neurosis to be a partner in the creative enterprise. Isn’t that a great?

¢â‚¬¢ The writer is a seer. We could spend a lot of time on this. Writers see something. Its what they see that drives them to communicate and write. Brennan Manning said recently on my show, “I believe the real difference in the American church is not between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists, charismatics, republicans and democrats, the real difference is between the aware and the unaware.” Do we see? When I interview people who are Buddhists, when I interview a lot of people from different religious traditions, it always frustrates me when they co-opt language that is from my tradition. Those from Eastern religions often talk about “awareness” as if it isn’t part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. They imply that as a Christian I have to yield the practice of “awareness” to their tradition. I think Brennan Manning is right. I think a writer is aware, sees something. Seeing begins with God and ¢â‚¬Ëœseeing’ is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

¢â‚¬¢ Writers are driven by a desire for excellence. The first time I interviewed Michael Chabon he had just won critical acclaim for Pittsburgh Stories. I’ve interviewed him over the years. After Pittsburgh Stories I didn’t hear from Michael for the next five or six years. Later we talked about what happened. When Chabon wrote Pittsburgh Stories he didn’t have a contract. He didn’t have an advance so nobody was pressuring him to finish anything so he wrote it because he loved it. And then he got that double-edged sword of success, almost like what Stanley Haeurwas once said, “Would you want to live the life you created?” Based on the success of Pittsburgh Stories he got a sizeable deal. So now there’s deadlines and expectations and other people telling him what good work is. And he starts to lose his way. He spends five years working on a book and at the end of the five-year process he throws in the trash.

It was a book called Fountain City, and he said of it, “five years and some 1,500 pages later, I was still trawling (if you’re a writer this is going to hurt). “I was still trawling the murky waters of the innermost sea in search of that fabled wreck which by then I was calling Fountain City. In that time I had found fantastic shattered hulks and ruins down there, helmets and rimmy flatware, chests of moldering silk, astrolage, the skeletons of men and horses, but nothing that I felt could honestly be considered treasure. Five years, I’ve got a bunch of interesting artifacts, but I’ve got no treasure here. And I’m a writer. I’ve already missed five deadlines, and I’ve already spent the money they advanced me.” And then he says, “And then at the end of 1992, with the help of my editor, Doug Stumpf, I tried one last time to hoist the whole rotten caravel to the surface and it all just fell apart.” Isn’t that a great image of a piece of work that you loved and worked for and it just didn’t happen, the whole thing collapses and falls to the surface? It fell apart. And then, “At the beginning of 1993, after 62 months of more or less steady work and four drafts, each longer than the previous one, I dumped it. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my wife.”

Now, the good part of the story is this. He was resurrected from the ashes of Fountain City and in a period of about 60 days wrote The Wonder Boys which, whether you think it’s a great book or not, was well-received, made into a movie, kind of acknowledged that there was something there in Pittsburgh Stories, but not everybody knows the rest of this story.

What is it about a creative person that drives them to keep pushing? I think it’s the image of God. It’s the, God saw it was good. It’s the creative impulse, it’s the bringing order to it, it’s the, “Wow, this is going to be great,” of it all. It’s that perfectionism that drives you and makes you hate your editor, or whoever else, whether you’re a musician or not, whatever it is. It’s a writer’s drive for excellence. That’s his quote, “I hoisted the whole rotten caravel to the surface and it all just fell apart” How many of you are writers here? Are you in pain? Can you relate to that what he said? It’s brutal.

¢â‚¬¢ Finally, The writer seeks relationship. Maeve Binchy talks about good old Ireland. She’s a great Irish storyteller. She says, “In Ireland we used to have a class of people in the old days before books and printing. They were called storytellers.” She has an Irish name for it which I can’t pronounce. She said, “They would walk around the country, going from house to house, just telling stories. Sometimes they told historical stories, sometimes just gossip from the next parish. All they had to do was to entertain with words and people gave them room and board.” People just loved them and vied with one another to be their hosts. Nobody ever said, Oh heavens, here come those loud-mouth storytellers. Hide quickly and pretend we’re not at home so they’ll go and bother somebody else.” She said, “I grew up believing that telling stories was good, and sitting there like a stone listening was dull and bad.” She wanted to be a storyteller.

Why do people want to tell stories? It’s always interesting to me how many writers say, I just wrote it because I had to write it, like they don’t care if anybody reads it. I don’t know a writer who writes that doesn’t care if nobody reads it. I think you want it to be read. There’s a relational aspect to writing. It’s connecting. Now, it is true that many, particularly fiction writers, non-fiction writers aren’t this way as much, but fiction writers will often enter the studio with the attitude, it’s in the book and I dare you to try to get me to talk about it, because the attitude is I spent years crafting these characters and these words and putting it the way I wanted to put it, don’t ask me to explain it or describe it. Having said that, they’re still wanting to communicate it in the print page, in the words.

I will tell you a story, it’s a little odd, but it kind of gets at the desire to connect. Tim O’Brien, and this is public knowledge now so I now tell this story. Tim O’Brien had won the National Book Award for writing on Vietnam. He was on tour with the book Lake of the Woods. Tim walked in the studio ¢€œ I had never met him before ¢€œ and we started talking about his book. And remember, I told you that you begin to connect with a writer’s story and issues if you’ve connected with the book ¢€œ and we began to get in some very emotional territory. And at the end of the first break Tim O’Brien looked at me and said, “You are an amazing listener and I feel like you care.” And he said, “Last week I tried to commit suicide.” And he started talking about it.

Now, this is live radio, I’ve got four minutes until we go back on the air. And I’m thinking, I want to be here for this guy, but I also have to get him back on the air¢â‚¬¦ We’ve got a show to do. These are the tensions of life. We continued the interview, we had the conversation¢â‚¬¦ He started crying. I mean, he was pretty unglued. About three days later he was pulled off the book tour in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But I never forgot ¢€œ and he was back here this summer with a new book ¢€œ and we talked a bit about it. I’ll never forget him saying, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

There are times when you’re interviewing an author where you get to the actual point of pain or tenderness that led to the writing of the book, where you almost feel like they have this sense, I don’t know why I told this story. This story hurts, it means too much to me to tell it, but I’ve told it. It’s out there. It’s in the story. It’s in the book. And I think that grows out of being created in the image of God.

A writer, a serious writer is a person who wants to create. Writers want it to be good. They want to relate. They believe it’s not good for me or other people to be alone. There’s a communal sense of a good book. A writer writes in loneliness and alone and isolated, wondering why they’re doing this. And a writer often doesn’t get to learn that anybody’s life was changed. Depending on their publisher, they may or may not even get to go on a big tour. And if they do go on a tour, they may show up at a book signing with very few people. And it’s an agonizing life. Why do you people do it? I think it’s the image of God.

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