Monday, August 1, 2011

To Bowl or to Write, That is the Question

I'd planned on doing a video blog today--a vlog?--for our book talk today, but filming did not go well. Alas, we're reading and writing today as per our usual. You're good with that, right? I thought so. So, here we are to discuss the chapter, "The Moral Point of View" in Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. If you haven't joined our book chat before, we discuss this new classic from time to time, and you are invited to join in if you've read the book or not.

But you have to believe in your position, or nothing will be driving your work. If you don't believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. You might as well call it a day and go bowling. Anne Lamott

This is such an interesting chapter.

Talking about morals seems so old-fashioned. And preachy. If we're honest, we don't want to be either of those things. But writing from a moral position isn't being archaic or dogmatic. It's being honest, passionate, caring. I'm good with that.

I'm not suggesting that you want to be an author who tells a story in order to teach a moral or deliver a message.

There are plenty of stories around that do teach morals and deliver messages. These sorts of stories were read to us as fables and fairy tales as children. They definitely have their place. Who hasn't worried about crying wolf or touching a tar baby? Contemporary equivilents are--many times--memoirs: This is how I did it; I don't recommend it; go this way instead.

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park came out when I had a junior paleontologist under my care, my son Matt. I had to read it. What a premise! What a story! Until Crichton stops to explain what he wants his readers to "get" out of the book. It was like being thumped over the head with an apatosaurus bone. I didn't like the Left Behind series for the same reason. Too much explanation! The premise was there. Moral dilemma abounded. And readers, however affirmed they felt, were robbed of the power of story. We must expect our readers to step willingly into our shoes to see how we view the world's machinations. And grow or not.

As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. This is moral material.

In my first book, Like a Watered Garden, the heroine is suffocating under grief. And yet she has a son depending on her to do motherlike things. Enter my belief that what helps in life is to do the things that are right and justified before I feel like doing them, and, sometimes, my heart follows. So, in the story, Mibby prepares microwaved lasagna and shakes salad out of a bag for her son. One foot in front of the other. This is moral material.

When a more or less ordinary character, someone who is both kind and self-serving, somehow finds that place within where he or she is still capable of courage and goodness, we get to see something true that we long for.

Yes, yes, YES! As Lamott mentions in this chapter, we already know that the sky has fallen. We don't need anymore Henny Pennys. What we need to see is how people care for one another among all the broken pieces.

I just finished a junior fiction book, Crunch by Leslie Connor. The United States has run out of fuel for cars, so there is a huge demand for bicycles and bicycle repair. No problem, our hero and his family own the Bike Barn. There is one problem, maybe two: The parents are stuck hundreds of miles away and five siblings must take care of each other and the shop. Connor wrote out of moral certainty that families who are nurtured to care for one another in good times will fare better in bad. I was all teary-eyed when the parents returned and so very pleased at how the kids conducted themselves. Very reassuring.

So moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you.

Here are some examples:

In The Help, Kathryn Stockett is morally certain that the black maids are worthy of love, respect, and a voice.
In Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks is morally certain that a classic education should empower equally.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee is morally certain that justice should be attainable for all.
In my latest, Seeing Things, I wrote with moral certainty that our faith is most eloquently voiced by surrender.

Christians write from a very strong moral center, and I'm not talking about writing against certain behaviors. I'm talking about the Christ follower so intimately knowing him and being known by him that s/he can't help but write passionately about redemption, forgiveness, and unconditional love--sometimes using those words and sometimes not.

What passionate caring do you write from? What examples of moral certainty have you gleaned from recent reads? What obstacles do you anticipate to writing from your passionate caring? Let's not be catty, but who does this badly?


Latayne C Scott said...

About moral stories -- I recently read (or, more accurately, listened to) John Grisham's book The Confession. I was deeply moved by one scene of a woman viewing the body of her deceased child, was moved by the whole book to such an extent that I have come to re-evaluate my "firm" convictions about capital punishment. It really was a game-changer book for me. But I was very surprised to read comments from other readers saying that Grisham had been heavy-handed and indoctrinating (is that a word?) with his moral lesson. I didn't think so at all. Any book that makes me cry (and there are VERY few of those in my life) and take another look at what I deeply believe is one I will regard as one of the most significant of my life.

Anonymous said...

Actually I didn't at all feel robbed of the power of story by the Left Behind books. Quite the opposite.

We may have "norms" we expect in writing style, but all styles can be used to reach out to people.

BK Jackson

Patti Hill said...

Latayne: Grisham definitely writes from the heart and people respond, like you with a changed perspective and belief or they respond with anger. I would rather write from a passionate center and evoke an anger response--with the hope of enticing a new or refreshed belief--than write dispassionately.

BK: Perhaps you're right. I did find the abridged audio versions of the books more enjoyable. I just think they missed a chance to reach a wider audience, to evoke faith rather than affirm it. Just my silly opinion. I have great respect for both men. They've impacted my faith walk greatly.

Samantha Bennett said...

Thank you so much for this post, Patti! I actually check out this blog now before I write... helps get the juices going. Thank you for doing what you do, ladies.

Marcia said...

Patti, your post this time touched on a subject I've often struggled with: how can I be passionate without blowing people out of the water?

Yes, I agree with you when you say: “I'd rather write from a passionate center and evoke an anger response--with the hope of enticing a new or refreshed belief--than write dispassionately.”

If our short lives matter in the landscape of eternity, must we not help people gain that perspective? Two blinks and we're all out of here, on to the next life. If I'm reading the Word correctly, what we choose to believe about God now determines our proximity to him then.

From somewhere in the universe, light years from today, will there be millions of agonized beings groaning, “Oh, why weren't those Christians at the edges of my life more passionate? Why did they try so hard to hide their lights under a bushel? To be politically correct? Why didn't they get in my face and make me see my own accountability to God?”

What could be more imiportant than my passion--and yet... and yet I have to respect the free will of each creature. The question becomes, “How much leeway do I allow others to make up their minds?”

Christ Himself taught in parables, so that “Seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” Seems to me His disciples were enlightened while hordes of others were left in their preferred darkness. A disturbing thought.

In light of that, should I write in parables, knowing I'll be merely entertaining some while getting the message out to others? Is that what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien often did?

Marcia said...

P.S. Don't give up on your "vlog." Try it again, because I would love to see you talking!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Passion coupled with morals. Only a God-lover could, would and should try to reconcile the two. In our world today passion means lack of restraint and morals are the epitome of slavery.
If only they knew the passion of God! The fullness, satisfaction and exultant fulfillment of walking 'in His way', with a framework of morals.
I write from within this passion. When He lets loose into my pen I hope devotion, passionate adoration- mutual and flowing in both directions - comes through to the reader. That is the only lesson I want them to learn. Love the Lord with all your heart soul mind and strength. After that they are hungry to love their neighbours.
I just read Aurelia's Colours by Jeffery Overstreet. It was recommended to me from many directions and I would like to recommend it back and out again. It is all about story in a flagrantly passionate and moral way. I am struck by the intensity of Grace in several of the plot points. Can't wait to read the sequels.

Patti Hill said...

Marcia: Good questions all. For the kind of direction we're all hoping for--how to direct our passion for Christ to a dying world--the answer is fasting and prayer, I think. Scripturally, this is how people of God seek specific direction for their ministry and purpose. Instead of NaNoWriMo, perhaps we should fast and pray. Thanks for expressing the angst we all feel.
As for the vlog, I'll try again soon.

Henrietta: What can I say but AMEN!