Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Writer's Journal - On Telling the Truth in Fiction

If, as Latayne said Monday, a fledgling novelist might not do best to hone her craft by writing short stories, then where might our poor would-be author begin? Where to gain the credibility, where to build the credits?

My best advice? Write a novel, and make it good. Write something entertaining and adventurous and rich, and above all, make it the truest work of fiction you can muster. Do that, and you'll have all the credibility you need, and soon enough, you'll have the credits, too.

Oh great, I hear you say. Write a good novel? Never thought of that. Thanks! I'll get right on it.

But I didn't just say to write a good novel. I also said to make it entertaining, adventurous, rich... and above all, true.

Because I can get adventure from a comic book. If I'm going to invest my time reading 300 pages of your novel, I want those pages to leave me nodding my head, saying, yes, yes! That's just the way life is, just the way I feel, though I'd never seen it written before.

That special feeling is literary gold. But how to mine it?

I suggest you journal. You need practice in writing the truth.

I hear you again. I'm not in the habit of writing lies. No, but you may not yet have the habit of writing the real truth, either. It's not easy. Because it can't be the sanitized, accepted truth we tell each other every day. It probably isn't even the truth we tell each other in Sunday School and sing in our praise choruses. "Jesus is the answer for the world today." Yes, true, but working him into our questions is going to take some deep soul work. We're going to have to wrestle our angels and come away limping. It's the hardest work we will ever do, but it sure makes for good stories.

And so the journal: a book of blank pages on which you will write your experiences, observations, and responses with the goal of drilling past the commonplace, the stuff you tell aquaintances, down to the stuff you rarely tell even God. I like the method Robert Olen Butler suggests in From Where You Dream:

"... at the end of the day or beginning of the next day, return to some event of the day that evoked an emotion in you. Record that event in the journal. But do this only - only - moment to moment through the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion; never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion. Record only through those five ways I mentioned that we feel emotions - signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, sensual selectivity - which are therefore the best ways to express emotions."

I think the God we worship is pleased with truth in our fiction, in the way he likes it when we offer a glass of water to the least of his children. Consider the story the angel told Hagar in Genesis 16. just after he asked where she was coming from and where she was going. At this juncture in her life, he chose to offer a spoiler for the rest of the tale: Your son Ishmael will be fine. He'll be stubborn and angry and always getting into fights, but he'll be fine. Not the best news, but look what the woman made of it: "Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, 'You are the God who sees me.'"

I love that verse. How many people had ever really seen Hagar, the slave woman forced to bear Abraham's child? How often does your reader truly feel seen and understood?

Give her that gift.

And let us know about your experiences with journaling and with reading true stories. We always love to read what you have to say.


Nichole Osborn said...

I have had a journal since I was a teen, but rearly write personal stuff in it. I used to as a teen, but now it's been, more or less, my place to write story ideas or a place to write devotionals. I think it's time to get back to the personal part. Thanks Kathy. :0)

Elaine said...

While serving the Lord as a single missionary in the heart of Africa, journaling helped to keep me sane. Now as I read through the pages chronicling those events 20+ years later, I have a goldmine of material from which to write. And I have a record of God's faithfulness to me and to His people.

Anonymous said...

Elaine, I'm sure it truly is a goldmine. God bless you for your work and your faithfulness. My husband just returned from South Africa and Swaziland.

What do you write?

Carla Gade said...

I've journaled off and on through the years, especially during trying times. One thing I try to record is those breakthrough moments when I've been struggling and the holy spirit illuminates something for me. Those times are like gems in a treasury to draw from when writing. I don't share my own experience, but I've discovered things that can provide authentic stuff for characters and plots. So as a writer, I guess it makes a double blessing for me. And hopefully the reader and others I can share with.

Kathleen Popa said...

What great journaling stories! Nicole, I have to admit, my journaling has been spotty through the years, but what I have done has taught me a lot about emotional awareness, and about telling the truth.

Elaine and Carla, both of your journals sound like absolute treasures. Thanks all of you for telling us about your experiences.