Friday, August 5, 2011

What is True and Right

First things first! We'd like to wish our bonnie Bonnie a very happy birthday! Hope it's the best ever!

I especially like the chapter in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird that Patti wrote about on Monday, "The Moral Point of View." Anne -- I love that we're on a first-name basis with her on this blog -- stated, "You need to put yourself at [the] center [of your stories], you and what you believe to be true or right. The core ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing ... Telling these truths is your job" (pg. 103).

Ayn Rand, in The Art of Fiction, concurs. In the chapter, "How to Develop a Plot Ability," she writes: "You must start with the abstract idea of a conflict, but thereafter your own values (emphasis mine) and your personal imagination will be a reliable dramatic selector ... do not censor yourself or check yourself against your moral code. Simply tap your emotions; you can judge later whether they are right or wrong" (pg. 58).

Those quotes spoke to me on two levels: the micro and the macro. In the micro, I thought about some of the issues I've written about in my individual novels, all from the perspective of my moral center. For it's impossible for me to separate what I write from what I believe. I can write about characters who are my polar opposites, and about situations I hope never to find myself in. What I can't do is condone a type of morality that I don't believe in.

Anne Lamott says, "I'm not suggesting that you want to be an author who tells a story in order to teach a moral ... but we feel morally certain of some things ... and we need to communicate these things" (pg. 104). I completely agree. No one wants to read fiction that's written with a heavy hand, and I'm no exception. As I wrote in my previous NM post, Paying Attention to Detail, the novel I just finished reading was "nothing more than a treatise on the author's pet issues." I don't enjoy that any more than most readers. No matter how intense or deep the plot, I still read fiction for pleasure.

The key, then, is how we address our moral certainties in our writing. I think this is something Christian authors in particular struggle with, because we do believe so passionately in our values. We understand the implications of sharing truth from Scripture. But what we need to remember is that the blank page onto which we pour our words is not our bully pulpit.

Consider the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee didn't beat her readers over the head with the moral issues plaguing the South. She simply told a story -- an excellent story -- and let the story speak for itself.

So, does "writing what I believe to be true or right" apply to not only the ethics of what I write, but to the style and genre of what I write as well? I believe it does. It's what I mean by the macro. If a writer of CBA fiction based her writing choices on what sells best in CBA, her selection would be ... ahem ... somewhat limited. That's a topic the six of us discuss among ourselves, because, alas, none of us writes in those best-selling genres. All I can say about that is, DANG! Seriously -- oh, wait, that was seriously. Bottom line is we each have to write what we "believe to be true or right."

As I've mentioned before, I just finished a novel that took two years to write, and I have no idea if a publisher will ever pick it up. But it's a story I had to write, and I don't regret one minute of those two years. The few who have read it have said some remarkable things about it, and one way or another it will see the light of day.

A few days ago I received an email from a woman who won Lying on Sunday in a drawing. She liked it well enough that she ordered and read Every Good & Perfect Gift. This is what this woman -- who is battling pancreatic cancer -- wrote to me: "I saw my own health situation in Gabby and DeeDee. I have bent pages and written down passages for recall. The way you handled this illness between friends inspired me and broke my heart at the same time ... Suffice it to say this novel hit several notes just beautifully. My theme of late has been tears ... for pain, sorrow, grief, and the occasional pity party. People call me strong and admire how I am handling my cancer. I'm not, but He is. Thank you again, Sharon."

As you can imagine, I shed a few tears of my own after reading her words. Hitting notes with my readers is the exact reason I write, and the exact reason I write what I write. It's what is true and right for me. And comments like this are what keep me going.

How have you found what is true and right for you as a writer? How does that affect your work?


Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, as one privileged to have read your recently-completed book, I can say that I clearly saw the moral center of the book, but not as something that waved flags at the reader and demanded attention. Rather, it did what other truly significant books have done in my life: The artistry of the book drew me into a subject I would never have entered willingly except with the guidance of someone as expert as you are. The images -- and message -- of the book will be with me always.

Anonymous said...

Funny how deeply some of these posts hit me. Thank you, Sharon.

The moral center is a balance that writers need to tread with caution. Too often I've felt lectured by the author. But then, I've also read well put ethics in books.

The difference is love. Love for the reader. The care and work that the writer takes to gently guide the reader. Huh. That's almost Scriptural.

I've begun to realize that my writing isn't what the CBA typically appreciates. My stories and novels can get pretty dark. There's hope and joy that shines through. But I don't know that I'm very marketable in Christian circles. And that's okay. I just love to write and I love to have readers. God is able to use me in that just as well as a "Christy" winner (even though that would be nice).

Samantha Bennett said...

What a beautiful post. I am all for letting the story speak for itself. Thanks for sharing!

Marian said...

A story without soul is hardly worth reading. Thanks for putting your finger on it. I didn't realize it before, but that is how I judge a book. I don't appreciate a book that has no moral centre, no sense of what is true and right. And, I want it expressed in such a way that I have to read on to discover the whole truth.

Patti Hill said...

Beautifully said, Sharon. I just finished a book, The Dry Grass of August, about a 13-year-old white girl during the summer and fall just after Brown vs The Board of Education in 1954. The author took 18 years to write it. I put it up there with The Help. It has an incredibly strong moral center, plus a message of faith and forgiveness that is powerful. General Market. I have some creative jealousy going on. So wish I'd written this book.

Anonymous said...

Latayne, as always I can't thank you enough for your support.

Susie, you're so right -- the difference is love. We so appreciate your presence here.

Samantha, I so agree. Thank you for commenting.

Patti, I looked up The Dry Grass of August and read the opening pages. I'm adding it to the list for my book club. Thank you for sharing. Boy, there are a few books I wish I'd written too!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Your words are so true, Sharon. I've struggled with this. My first book bludgeoned the reader over the head with The Point Of The Story. I find myself still tempted to do the same with my WIP, even though I hate reading novels that preach. It can be so hard to show restraint. What if the reader doesn't "get" it? LOL.

I also really liked your point about what is true and right with regard to genre. I've been working on a proposal for my novel and struggling with where my book fits into the market. It's not a "genre" story. What I'm most interested in, as a writer and reader, is the "sweet spot" between literary and commercial. You know - books that are beautifully written, but have such a big premise and/or gripping plot that they hit a note with a broad audience.

I wonder, though, if in trying to find some middle ground between literary and commercial, I'll end up hitting neither. That I'll write a book nobody knows what to do with. When I'm full of doubts (like I am at the moment) I try to remind myself to be true to my vision for the story. That's all any of us can do. Your words encouraged me today.