Monday, February 3, 2014

The Religious Writer in the Twenty-first Century

There's an interesting conversation going on over at Paul Elie's blog, about a what it means to be a religious author, writing in this century.  Dana Gioia has also been writing about what it means to be a Catholic writer in America; see this essay for more of his thoughts.  I've been spending time with Elie's ideas for several weeks now.

In some ways, Elie began this thinking with his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.  And certainly, he'd been thinking about these issues long before writing that book.  You don't wake up one morning and just start writing that kind of book.  Well, maybe you do, but you certainly don't finish writing it without a lot of thinking.

Elie has been engaging in cultural criticism, most notably lately with his essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" in The New York Times.  He concludes that article this way:  "All the while, you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade. You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all to­gether. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable."

In this blog post, he talks about the role of criticism and gives us an interesting insight into writerly process:  "Likewise these essays about the absences we writers feel.  If you are a writer, especially a writer 'with Christian preoccupations,' as O’Connor put it, you know that you can’t write for all time; you have to begin with the time you live in.  Say you feel an absence of work of a certain kind and quality.  You consider this feeling, reflect on it.  You watch and wait (ten years, in my own case, since the publication of The Life You Save May Be Your Own).  Then you decide to act.  You try to find words for the absence you feel.  You present examples drawn from the work that does exist, and compare them to one another, making distinctions and drawing out shades of meaning.  You allow for exceptions to the general point you are making.  You look outside the usual categories  (outside fiction, say, to nonfiction, or to work from abroad).   You invite conversation and correction (as I am doing here).  And yet you trust the sense of absence you feel, and in stating it and restating it you envision and evoke in words the kind of work you have in mind – both for yourself as a writer and for other writers in the near future, beginning with those who might read the essay you are writing."

The article has fostered all sorts of replies, which Elie chronicles periodically in his blog, but I won't post/link them all here.  Let me leap to my own dreaming.  Could we write the fiction of Christian faith that Elie sees as missing?

I know that you could disagree that the type of fiction is indeed missing from our culture.  In the NY Times article, Elie spends some time thinking about authors that he feels have tried and failed.  Subsequent writers have offered their own possibilities, but I'm not convinced.  I think that Elie is onto something with his hypothesis that Christian faith as a living, breathing, important part of a person's psyche is missing in our fiction.

Which of course leads me to the question:  could I do it?

I've spent a lot of time writing novels about creative folks, grad school folks, but not much time writing about regular people wrestling with religious questions.  I've created characters out of people I've known in school.  What about the people I know now?  Could they be characters?

I worry it would seem contrived, even though it would be based in real life:  an atheist, a Hindu, a Lutheran, and a Wiccan . . . it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

But the idea is there, percolating in my brain. If we were characters, and the plot was about finding our way while staying true to our spiritual beliefs, what would that book look like?

As I spent yesterday thinking about Elie's blog post and the article in The New York Times, I was also finishing a short story for my writer's lunch with my Hindu friend today.  It occurs to me that some of the stories, if not most of the stories, in my linked short story collection might be doing what Elie yearns to see.  They are not based on my current set of friends.  They may have once been based on people I once knew, but they've become distinctly different now.

My current story deals with how a man at midlife wanders sideways into seminary.  So, of course, I worry that it's too obvious an answer to the lack that Elie sees. 

This morning I was working on the ending of the story, which I often am the morning of my writer's lunch date.  I wrote these sentences: 

"I thought of our Bible stories of burning bushes and angel choirs.  What would our churches be like if our stories of God’s call involved cross-dressing, gender transgressive gypsies?  My students believe that if they don’t heed God’s call, they’ll end up in the belly of a whale.  For most of them, it’s a metaphor."

The end of the story may be too much telling, not enough showing.  I can fix that later.

Back to the larger issue, the one that Elie ponders.  I worry that I'm not understanding the question, the lack that Elie sees.  I would love to send him the story to see what he says.  I worry that he'd write back and tell me that my story is a blunt instrument and certainly nowhere close to art.

I'm no Flannery O'Connor, but oh, how I yearn to be! In this time after my writer's retreat at Mepkin Abbey, maybe I can figure out how to be a Flannery O'Connor for this century.

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