Friday, January 23, 2009

A Plunge into Reality

Before I start my post, just a reminder to enter the contest to win Sharon K. Souza's Lying on Sunday, a great example of what I'm writing about today. All you have to do is comment on a good friend, a strong theme in Sharon's writing. The winner will be announced on the 30th.
Now, let's take that plunge...

People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won't survive the ordeal. --Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners.

This is my favorite quote about novel writing. There's a touch of hyperbole in O'Connor's words (I still have my teeth!) but not much. A story owns the writer, not just for the hours set aside for tapping on computer keys, but while we sort lights from darks and wander down grocery aisles. We forget to eat, and yes, personal hygiene suffers. What's more, to write authentic fiction, we are forced to wrestle with God, dig deeper into what we believe about him and how he interacts with us and the world, and hopefully see him with fresh eyes.

Novel writing is not for the faint of heart!

But a deeper truth in O'Connor's words shakes me: Novelists plunge into reality. In our stories, we can rearrange topography, give an alien extra arms, or allow mythical characters into the landscape, but we cannot, must not, rescue our characters from their fallen natures or transfer them to a fall-less society (La-La Land), or save them from meaningful struggle. They will fail, not in a contrived, acceptable-to-Christian-culture way, but in a way that makes our own skin itch. That's when grace shows up.

Does this mean every novel should portray the underbelly of society?

No, but we disrespect our readers if we mishandle the human condition, both its nobility and frailty. After all, the Bible is wrought with counterexamples. Think of David; he committed adultery and sent the husband to certain death, and yet, he is the apple of God's eye. Peter denied Jesus. Judas betrayed him. Thomas forgot. Even Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. The faith life is messy!

Now, it's your turn. Have you read a novel lately where the author plunges into reality and does it well? Tell us about it.


Lori Benton said...

I love the O'Connor quote. That's going in my writing quotes file. Here's another, similar:

"The reward comes sentence by sentence. The reward comes in the unexpected inspiration. The reward comes from creating a character who lives and breathes and is perfectly real. But such effort it takes to attain the reward! I would never have believed it would take such effort."

~Elizabeth George, from WRITE AWAY

I just finished WOUNDED, by Claudia Mair Burney. That book didn't hesitate to plunge into a world of struggling, fallen characters, and yet the book is infused with hope and grace. Same goes for her previous book, ZORA & NICKY, a particular favorite of mine.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

That is a wonderful quote, and it would interesting to see if Ms. O'Connor would qualify her statement today that only people with hope write novels. I have begun novels that I have put aside because they were overly dark and seemed to absorb all the light from the room, and it appeared that the author wielded only a flashlight, while a floodlight was in order. I agree that we need to portray our characters' struggles honestly and not short-change their stories of hope.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, I agree with everything you said. That quote sounds like the gospel truth, to me. Lori, yours too.

The thing that makes the plunge so difficult is that if I want to create a character who lives and breathes, then everything I put on the page I must first find within myself - even the frailty, even the mess, even the dark underbelly. And alas, it's always there to be found.

Books I've read lately? Yours, for one. I loved your honesty in The Queen of Sleepy Eye. Amy's all-too-real tendency toward sanctimoniousness, the minister's failure to buck the expectations of his congregants when the love of Christ called him to do so. And the grace that worked through each person in the novel, despite their faults.

Another book I love for its truth-telling, both about the frailty of people and the inscrutable beauty of God's love, is Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. A gorgeous book, with the best beginning and end I've ever read anywhere. I recommend it.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

One more item...
I recently read "Keeping Faith" by Jodi Picoult, about a child who talks to God and manifests stigmata. It has a very interesting view of miracles, saints, and faith from the perspective of believers and non-believers. Great for discussion--even if you disagree with the characters.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: I knew this would happen. My to-be-read list is now, officially, out of control. Thanks for the leads on great writing.

And I so agree with Elizabeth George. Writing is the toughest thing I've ever done, mostly because of what Katy added. To write authentically, we must see ourselves truthfully.

Debbie: You write with a great deal of hope and authenticity!

Anonymous said...

Lori, Write Away is one of my favorite books on the writing life. I have too many sticky tabs jutting out of the margin to count, but suffice it to say, this is one of my favorite resources.

One of the best books I read in '08 -- maybe one of the best books I've read EVER -- is Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan Lake. I knew nothing about the story or the author. I only picked it up at the bookstore because I loved the cover. I'm so glad I did. It's a beautifully written, deeply moving story of what happens in the south in the 1970s when a group of teens brings a girl from Sri Lanka into their inner circle. Ms. Lake dives deeply into the human condition then brings you up with the air of grace. It's one I will certainly read again.

Anonymous said...

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill displays the messy side of life when the protagonist, as a young girl, is stolen from her African tribe and sold into slavery. But the amazing part of the story is the redemption in it. The young girl, despite the sufferings she experiences and sees, never loses her dignity nor her sense of humanity. That's the trickiest stuff to write, I think, messy life but the redemption in it all.

Steve G said...

Joseph takes up a few pages in the Scriptures, yet we don't see him fall. Pilgim's Progress was written in prison. Why don't we see more stories where the grace is up front, where people are storong and don't fall? That is reality too!

One of the reasons people write about fallen people is it sells - look at your local newspaper. People love to reader about other people who are worse off than themselves!

I would be cautious in referring to Jesus' struggle, which was about the looming pain and suffering, not so much like the other people you mentioned. Earlier, Jesus handled His temptation quite well.

Word verification - tinglaxe: A spicey chocolate laxative that gives you an extra tingly sensation.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

That's a great quote. I like your point that even Bible stories show both the good and the bad about people, and that our stories should as well. None of us like somebody's who's "perfect," even in fiction. :)

Nichole Osborn said...

I love the quotes. I am reading Magdalene by Angela Hunt. It's a fiction novel, because we really know very little about her.(really only that Jesus healed her from demons and what we know of her after His death.) In the book her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and unborn grand child are brutally murdered and her house torched by Roman soldiers. She is bent on revenge and justice. This leads to abandoning the God of her Fathers and turning to Egptyian gods, which leads to the demons invading her mind. This side of life can be very messy. I'm glad Ms. Hunt took that plundge. It makes Mary more human.

Patti Hill said...

Another great offering, Nichole! Angie Hunt is definitely a "plunger." Thanks for stopping by.

Steve: Thanks for pointing out my faulty logic. I read my blog a hundred times and missed the lack of symmetry of examples. I need an editor for my blog entries!

I believe, however, when we see a character counting the cost, coming close to rejecting or even stepping away from what is required, the author has an amazing opportunity to portray sacrificial love and/or grace.

"A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God." Thomas Merton

Unknown said...

First of all, I was happily surprised that you referenced such a prolific writer as Flannery O'Connor in your post. I am unsure of how widely read she is today, but I studied her short stories back in college and always came away awestruck by her writing techniques and the ways she drew in her reader. Not that I was always thrilled with the content of her stories, but it was the way she told them. But not to turn this into a Flannery post...

A few months ago I read The Black Cloister, written by my good friend Melanie Dobson. I absolutely loved it. The story was on the dark side to be sure (the main character is searching through her mother's past, which involves a religious cult), but was told with such vivid imagery and detail that I couldn't put it down. And although sad at points, the redemptive grace of God is woven throughout, assuring the reader there is light at the end of such darkness. It's a great read, and I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

I too enjoyed Melanie Dobson's The Black Cloister. It plunged into darkness then emerged with the light of grace. Thank you for sharing with us.

Anonymous said...

O'Connor's quote has given me courage and hope of being real, in the face and glare other's spectacles. No doubt there is enough in my own reasoning to create the novel I want to write.

I recently read Stepping Heavenward and 'got' the heart wrenching she lived through. The story is based on parts of Prentis's life; and so there is hope for me!
I've got a new list of books to read! Yay!