Literary Fiction as Spiritual Journey: Part III. Exhortation

(Transcribed from the November 2003 Image Conference)

I don’t know what faith tradition you are from, if any. I am uncomfortable with the word Christian because, at a certain level it doesn’t mean anything anymore in our culture. When I talked to Ron Hansen about being labeled a Christian writer he said, “I’m a writer who’s a Christian, I’m not a Christian writer.” I feel that way about the work that I do. I think you understand what I’m saying. But I am a follower of Jesus and it is important to me. I’m part of the Christian faith community, so when I do the work I do, and I observe this spiritual journey happening in fiction, I want to end with three words of exhortation¢â‚¬¦

I think we have this wonderful great, grand opportunity as both readers and writers of serious fiction, to take art seriously. If there’s something that bothers me about being lumped into the Christian community it is the pathetic stuff that is published in the name of Christian publishing. My very first year in Chicago I was asked to speak at — and actually it was the last time I was ever asked to speak at this group — I was asked to speak to the Evangelical Press Association. And the question I was supposed to address was, How can we get more authors on your show? And it was a pretty short talk expanded with a lot of gruesome illustrations and funny stories. The basic point I made was you’ve got to write better books, that’s what you have to do. I don’t want to see a book about creation that’s written by a guy with a Master’s degree in physical education. I want to talk to people who know something more than “Stephen Covey just wrote Seven Habits of the Heart, so now let’s have Seven Habits of the Christian Heart” so let’s pay a journalist to write the knock-off. In an interview once you get this writer-for-hire off the outline that the publisher gave you, he is clueless.

1) I think we have a call to artistic excellence. Dylan Thomas, the poet, said he liked to “treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone, to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound.” Writing is a craft, and those of us who are readers ought to know the difference between something that is well-crafted and something that isn’t.

When I talked to Ron Hansen about this issue, Ron said, “Well, there’s a kind of doctrinaire aspect that comes sometimes in being a Christian, that the message is more important than the ways you go about doing your work. You always suspect that there’s not the same level of art as in people who actually, of people of faith who also practice fiction. I think Jesus would have wanted us to be good writers, as well, and pay attention to our craft as well as tell a meaningful story.”

One of my favorite books last year was the book, The Life You Save May be your Own, which is the story of Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Dorothy Day. And the author Paul Elie said, “These writers, sometimes the publishing culture seemed hostile to the ideas they had in their books. So they knew the best way to get their word out was to write extraordinarily well¢â‚¬¦Because people were suspicious of Flannery O’Connor’s background and her convictions, she had to be all the more of an artist. And I think it’s true of all four of them. They really outdid themselves in their effort to make work that was of the highest quality.”

2) I think we have a challenge to be true to the countercultural nature of who we are–to not fear being alien. Chaim Potok made an entire career out of the dissonance he experienced with his own faith tradition, and the dissonance he felt in the broader culture. He said, “When I left the parochial school system I had to rebuild my world literally from zero. To this day there are people from the old world who won’t speak to me. And yet, while this tension is exhausting, it is fuel for me. Without it, I would have nothing to say.” I think people of faith who want to write need to take seriously that our greatest gift is our dissonance with our own tradition and with the culture.

Some of you know ¢€œ I hesitate to say this because I don’t think it’s a well-written book, I’ll blame it on the publisher and the editor ¢€œ but I wrote a book, the title of which was Too Christian/Too Pagan. The basic thesis was if you’re truly following Jesus you’re going to be too Christian for your pagan friends and too pagan for your Christian friends. There’s a tension in following Jesus. The late Mike Yaconelli said, “I go to bed at night sometimes and I feel like I’m the only one. Am I the only one that’s asking these questions? Am I the only one that doesn’t feel like I fit anywhere?” That’s the nature of the alien.

Daniel Gioia says, “The basic donnee of the Catholic writer is to examine the consequences of living in a fallen world.” Philip Yancey said, “I became a writer, I now believe, to sort out words used and misused by the church of my youth.” That kind of sense of dissonance being alien. It’s very powerful and our writing ought to reflect it.

3) We are artists and aliens but we also have an ambassadorial opportunity, an opportunity to build bridges. I said I am among the most blessed of men. I remember the last time I interviewed Norman Mailer. It was in Chicago. It was a very difficult interview to get because, even though he likes to say a lot of things, he’s not easy to work with. He would not come to the studio so I went to the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Chicago. I approached the desk and said to the 29-year-old desk attendant, ¢â‚¬ËœI’m here to see Norman Mailer, to which she said, How do you spell that?’

I took the elevator to the top floor, to the penthouse, and I expected Norman Mailer to be this combative, duke-it-out kind of guy. And he did say at the end of the interview, “That was a most rugged hour.” He liked the¢â‚¬¦ (Joyce Carol Oates who, as you know likes boxing, said of interview together, “I felt like I was just in a good boxing match. “) Norman Mailer met me at the door, he was using a cane, he was kind of a little feeble. And we went over and sat down. And among the things he said in that interview, he said ¢€œ (he won the National Book Award when he was 25 years old. Can you imagine that? And now he’s in his 70’s.) “Fifty years ago I was an unknown man sitting in a cheap hotel room with a pad of paper and a pencil. And now fifty years later I’m still an unknown man sitting alone in a room with a pad of paper and a pencil.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the 29-year-old didn’t know who he was, because he takes himself rather seriously.

But my point is, when I first started interviewing famous writers ¢€œ (and by the way, I try to interview unknown writers, too ¢€œ it takes a lot of energy because you’re reviewing a lot of stuff to decide. I did the first ¢€œ this is a little off the subject — but I did the first radio interview with Mitch Albom, who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie. Do you want to know why? When the review packets came out to all the hosts they all said it’s a book about death. Who wants to interview a depressing story about death? I took the time to read it and said, This isn’t a story about death, it’s a story about life and hope. Mitch Albom was kissing my feet for taking a chance on him. Of course, now he’s sold bazillions of books and, you know, went on to great fame and glory while I continue to toil in obscurity but alongside me was Norman Mailer.)

But as we got into the conversation with Norman Mailer we got near the end of the interview and we started talking about the book he had written about the Essenes and his interest in Jesus. And he found out that I had attended Gordon-Conwell Seminary and had also taken some courses at Harvard Divinity School, and he came alive with energy. And he said, “Oh, I wish I would have known you’re a seminary guy. I would have gone out drinking with you. I used to go out and get drunk and talk about sex. Now I go out and get drunk and talk about God. I’m obsessed with God.”

All I want to tell you is, almost without exception, the well-known literary figures that I interview, once they get to trust that I am trustworthy with their work, and that I care about what’s on their heart, almost without exception, they would like to talk a little bit about their spiritual stuff. We have a culture that is alive with the conversation full of questions, and it’s as if we’re deaf and mute at times. And depending on where you come from in the spectrum of the Christian sub-culture and the degree to which it is intellectually anti-intellectual or engaging intellectually is some issue on the spectrum. But the bottom line is we are simply not, often we are not in the conversation and WE SHOULD BE. We are artists, we are aliens, but we are also ambassadors. We are people who have something to bring.

And so I’ll end with Annie Dillard who, when she talked about the seriousness of writing/calling said, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, write away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place. Something more will arise for later. Something better. Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

My tradition says we’re all terminal patients. And that there’s good news for terminal patients, but people will only hear it if it’s crafted well, if it communicates clearly, if it comes out of an authentic point, vantage-point perspective from people who care. I think this is our calling in a world where I do think literary fiction is spiritual journey.

Thank you.

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