Monday, April 30, 2012

Swatting the Monkey

Last Thursday Bonnie and I discussed in conversation certain changes she was making to the manuscript of her not-yet published novel, Fish.  I begged, “please, don’t change your protagonist.”

“What do you like about her?” Bonnie asked.

I explained that I like those times when I strongly suspect the character is clinically insane, but also suspect, just as strongly, that she may be God, himself. Something she says or does suggests a kind of wild love, and a profound knowing that gives me shivers.

Bonnie observed, “You like thin places.”

And I thought , “Of course. Don’t we all?”

Don’t you?

You know what thin places are, right? The ancient Celts used the term to describe places that were both one thing and another, and neither. The slope between the plane and the mountain is not mountain or plane,  and it is both. The shore between the land and the sea. The age between childhood and adulthood.  It was thought that these locations and times were holy places, where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God through the cloth.  I’ve always wanted to touch hand to hand.

And after talking to Bonnie, it came to me that yes, this was exactly why I read.  The books I love are full of thin places, and the ones I don’t love… well, they aren’t.

There’s a book on my shelf, Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, that puts a name to this kind of writing. The name - you may have guessed – is “Myth,” and the definition Hein gives to myths is “stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal.” Thin places, those stories that offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the Walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Joy poignant as grief. Couldn’t you spend a week thinking on that one?

One definition my dictionary gives for the word, “poignant” is “Keenly distressing to the mind or feelings.” I’ll admit, it’s the second definition, the first being simply, “arousing affect,” with little or no negative implications. But the kind of stories I like arouse a kind of joy that is heart-breakingly close to grief. I think that’s why I like the faith aspects of novels to stray into the unexpected. We expect God to peek out through the eyes of Father Flanagan. But when he reaches through the hands of the mentally ill, he touches me in the places of my own neuroses. When he descends on a cloud, that’s impressive, but when he calls through the voice of a broken minister (see Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman), my own broken shards  become puzzle pieces, with at least a hope of wholeness.

It’s why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story. As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

We are all children in the inner layers, and we all have our dragons.

I think of a favorite scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, (the first one). Do you remember? A moonlit night, and Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) climbs a rope ladder to board The Black Pearl, even though the ship is overrun with cursed pirates that look like rotting corpses. Just when things are really tense, Jack the monkey confronts her full on, looking like the picture here. You can see what a terrible moment it is. But then it dawns on Elizabeth that this is just a monkey, after all. She gives the creature a look that says as much, swats at him, and he ducks his head and skulks away.

The new testament tells us of a devil defanged, defeated already, no matter what he tries. Oh Hell, where is your victory? Resist him and he will flee from you.

It’s like the story about Martin Luther – which may or may not have happened:  Luther awakes to find the devil himself seated on the end of his bed. He springs upright, prepared to scramble, till he takes a good look and says, “Oh, it’s only you,” and goes back to sleep.

What a story that is! Even if it isn't factual, it's true.

Just as thin places are true. We touch our hand to the veil, and another touches back.

What books are thin places for you? What about the story places your hand on the veil?

Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.


Cherry Odelberg said...

Your quote from Chesterton “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” pretty much sums up why I write - what kind of stories I write; and, come to think of it-why the novel matters:)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm due to take one whopping swat at the monkey this morning. Been fighting off discouragment this am.

I adore books that bring you into the thin places and give you a real picture of where you are and how it feels to exist there, knowing there is more that awaits...

~ Wendy

Kathleen Popa said...

Cherry, yes, me too.

Wendy, the discouragement is only a monkey. If you haven't seen the film, you might watch it, just to get that visual into your head. It's been there for me many times when I needed to remember.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

When I think of thin places, I think of Flannery O'Connor. She was a master of the thin place. And of joy that hurts like grief.

Megan Sayer said...

Sheesh Katy, do you ever write anything that's NOT completely profound?
I loved this. For lots of reasons I won't go into. But one of the biggest takeaways is that it's helped the first big turn of my new WIP fall into it's right place.
Thanks! : )

Samantha Bennett said...

What a glorious start to the day! Oh my word, I loved this post. I recently read Into the Free by Julie Cantrell. Brimming with thin places. Weeks later, I'm still hung up on those thin places. Loved!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Katy - great post! I especially loved "We touch our hand to the veil and another touches back." So comforting and insightful. xoxox

Anonymous said...

Katy, this is a beautiful post. I love the discussion about thin places -- a phrase I'd heard before but couldn't have defined. I'm going to give some thought to books I've read with thin places. I too loved Leaving Ruin. A great story. Your line: "It's why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story" really spoke to me. It's so absolutely true. How I love hanging out with all you amazingly talented people!

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, you're so sweet. Wouldn't it be fun to be stuck on profound? On the other hand - maybe not. At any rate, I needn't worry. I'm glad this helped. I'm learning you are quite a writer.

Samantha, I've added Into the Free to my list. Weeks later! How cool.

Debbie & Sharon, thank you. I'm trying to remember where I first read about thin places, but can't. The concept comes up in a book by J. Philip Newell titled Listening for the Heartbeat of God. And isn't that the coolest title ever?

Bonnie Grove said...

Love this.
And so happy I get to talk to Katy. She's as wise and wonderful in person as she is on the blog.

I weigh in with my thoughts on Wednesday.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...


Sometimes all I can do after reading your writing is sigh. The way I'd sigh after watching an achingly beautiful sunset, one that speaks of the divine. Some things are inexpressible.

Love what you wrote about when the faith aspects of novels "stray into the unexpected." Never thought about it quite that way before. You have such a gift, Katy.

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you, Karen. You make me smile.

Can't wait for Bonnie's post tomorrow.

V. Gingerich said...

I agree with Samantha: Into the Free is definitely worth reading. There is one scene in particular that is almost too revolting to read and too gorgeously written to skip. Beautiful prose and plenty of "thin spots".