Friday, August 13, 2010

Touching Beauty

Debbie's post on Wednesday got me thinking about devastation. She rightly noted that it is an overwrought phrase found on too many jacket flaps. I haven't used the word in my proposals, but I still had the feeling of getting my hand smacked on the way to the cookie jar. I mean, if Talking to the Dead wasn't a story about personal devastation, then Bob's my auntie. Somehow I managed to wade through without using the word. Skin of my teeth.


I believe that all fiction is spiritual because all fiction (even the cheesy paperbacks we hide under our beds) is the exploration of what it means to be human. The human experience is the spiritual experience. And fiction is the human experience under duress. It asks, what is your mettle? What does it matter if you and I were born and grew and cried and wandered and settled and died?


Life asks more of us then we are wont to part with sometimes. We go through seasons of sorrow, loss, ill health, depression, bad bosses, divorce, abuse, or self-hatred and long for them to end - or better to have never happened at all. We turn to fiction to assure us, in a way only fiction can, that we will rise again. That in the midst of the gut wrench, there is lasting meaning. We ask, what worth is suffering? And fiction replies, come close and I'll show you.


When I read impossibly great stories such as Let The Great World Spin, History of Love, Latayne's upcoming novel A Conspiracy of Breath, I'm pulled into the levels of loss, the degrees of suffering common to the human experience. And inside these stories I find I am stretching my hand in front of me, working hard with the story to reach the goal. What is the goal? I suspect there are many ways to say it, many forms it takes, but for me, the goal it to touch beauty.


I can survive the ripping away as long as you can help me see the beauty in the pain. And I'll need help seeing it. Fiction is our helper. It reaches into our untapped reserves and helps us practice living within the safe confines of imagination. It's a stage on which we can rehearse our truth by examining the truths presented to us in story. And the whole time it whispers, Look for what lasts. Don't look away when it hurts. Find meaning. Picture yourself as a rising Phoenix. Touch beauty.


In the end, we all want to trade our ashes for beauty.


What purposes have you found for fiction? Has it shored you? Been a lasting example of hope? A warning? Has it helped you touch beauty?

10 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Yes, fiction has helped me touch beauty.

Fiction reminds me of the heart. An ugly organ with such potential to fail—to become scarred. But at the same time the heart pumps vigor into us, keeping us alive. It’s a masterpiece. An unsightly organ. A beautiful organ. And like the surgeon, the writer gets to see both, gets to feel both. Holding both the ugliness and the beauty.

Can’t wait to get my copy of Let the Great World Spin.
~ Wendy

Karen Schravemade said...

"I believe that all fiction is spiritual because all fiction is the exploration of what it means to be human. The human experience is the spiritual experience. And fiction is the human experience under duress."

So much truth in these three lines.

I love secular fiction - it's probably 95% of what I read - and yet lately I've found myself growing hungry for something more. You're right, even "secular" fiction is spiritual, and often blatantly so. Unfortunately in our postmodern brand of spirituality it's often modish to scorn Christianity and question the existence of God, or to simply wallow in existential angst.

I know there are exceptions; recent discussions here have shown this. But lately book after book has left me with a niggling longing for something transformative. Redemptive. Something that dares to cut deeper than the shallow spirituality of our age and offer real hope instead of a humanistic happy-pill. God created art and gave us the ability to create art, so it angers me when we use art to belittle him and make much of ourselves, or worse, to make nothing of anything.

I like a bit of devastation in my fiction as much as the next girl. (Probably more. I like things edgy.) But as you said so beautifully, Bonnie, we want books to show us that "in the midst of the gut wrench, there is lasting meaning." In my experience, that's a rare thing.

That's what I want for my writing.

Nicole said...

Said it well, Bonnie.

And, Karen, to read without hope is to read so many in the general market. It's why I search for the gems in CBA. Hope.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: Nice analogy. To think of fiction as a pumping heart alludes to its absolute necessity. Without art there is no life. Very nice. It's always so good to hear from you, Wendy.

Karen: I think it is a rare thing to find the truth of redemption inside the fiction. Even in CBA where redemption is a spoon fed concept, I find most of the fiction misses the point (redemption seems to mean we get the boy we like, we get the money we inherited, we get the life we always wanted. There are, as always, wonderful exceptions to my grouse). I think this is more because we are a society that has become used to analyzing what is wrong, broken, or dysfunctional in micro-detail. Therapy anyone? Parenting book anyone? And we get used to accepting bytes of rehashed advice. I consider your comment a wonderful challenge to dig deeper and work to nurture hope and redemption in my stories in an organic way. Thanks Karen!

Nicole: Thanks so much!

Samantha Bennett said...

Love this post! And yes, I have touched those beautiful, redemptive places through fiction. :)

Kathleen Popa said...

Bonnie, I'm so glad you've read The History of Love, and that you love it as much as I.

This is such a beautiful post. I especially love the wisdom in your comment:

"redemption seems to mean we get the boy we like, we get the money we inherited, we get the life we always wanted... I think this is more because we are a society that has become used to analyzing what is wrong, broken, or dysfunctional in micro-detail.

Bonnie Grove said...

Samantha: Thanks so much for stopping in today. I'd love to hear more about your experience with fiction.

Katy: History of Love is such a surprising novel. I think Gursky is a literary character for the ages. And yes, I was surprised at the end. Enthralled with the character and the whole amazing story. Brilliant. Inspiring. Heartbreaking. Surprising. What a great novel!

And your words honor me, Katy. Much love to you.

Steve G said...

"We turn to fiction to assure us, in a way that only fiction can, that we Will rise again. That in the midst of the gut wrench there is lasting meaning. We ask, "What worth is suffering?" and fiction replies, "Come close and I will show you."

This is one of my favourite statements you have made. It is layered, much like your writing. You can read this and think, "Oh yeah, fiction needs hope. I read the in the expanded Star Wars universe because of the heroes and the fact the good guys win, even if at cost. I am not looking for just dark reality. I know life is dark. I do look for the hope and good.

But then there is a more personal layer that speaks to me. There is a layer of personal loss I (and I think it is common to all of us whether it is a great loss like a death or a divorce, or the great stress of money or employment issues, severe health issues like cancer, etc) have that fiction can touch and stir. There is an intersection here of the reality of life (and death) and faith. Do we really let God enter into this devastation? Yes, this is very much special. What is my mettle? Can I be a hero too? Give me fiction that speaks on this level. This is a powerful post.

Megan Sayer said...

Yeah Bonnie this was a really profound post. I've been thinking recently along a similar line...

Has anyone here read Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth"? I had to read it for uni and found it boring and irrelevant to my faith. His concept is that all the lasting stories across time and culture all follow an identical pattern.
HOWEVER...a couple of years later I read Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey", in which he takes Campbell's premise and updates it to reflect how well-told modern stories (Star Wars, Pulp fiction, Titanic, the Lion King) also follow the same pattern (So worth reading BTW), and how writers can use this to hone their stories.

The REALLY COOL BIT though, is that this generic structure is reflecting the story of God's redemption of mankind! Obviously Campbell would say that the story of Jesus' birth and death is just another example of the mythic structure, but as Christians we can see it the other way round: all these stories we love of devastation and the quest for restoration are retelling (whether we recognise it or not) what God did for us!

To summarise Campbell and Vogler:
Jesus left his "ordinary world" of Heaven, to come to the "special world" of Earth on a quest to restore that which had been broken. (Sounding like Star Wars yet?). On the journey he encounters "tests, allies and enemies" and numerous other things, before a final "death and resurrection" (I'm not joking, this is Campbell's description!) before he can re-enter the "special world" again.

Fiction is spiritual? You can say that again!

Bonnie Grove said...

Steve: I like the way you put it: Can I be a hero too? Yes - excellent point. We do look to fiction in order to recognize something wonderful inside ourselves. Something brave, or honorable, or loving. . . . . Thanks for that!

Megan: Some very interesting thoughts here. Thanks so much for that! It seems perfectly lovely to me that humanity has been breathing God's love story to us over and over across time - often without knowing it. What a picture!