I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
Happy Monday, everyone! Today I’ll be continuing in the introductory theme I began in the previous post (feel free to press pause for a sec and go check that one out, if you haven’t already.) Now the world knows what I believe, I’d like to share a little about what I write.
OK… maybe more than a little. As it happens, I’ve ended up splitting this subject into two different posts. In this one, I’ll tell you about the things that have helped to shape my writing. Next time, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the writing itself.
There are two factors that influence what I write more than anything else.
First is what I believe (shocker, I know).
But how exactly does one’s faith and one’s writing intertwine? How does that work?
It is my opinion that in order for a story to be truly good, it has to have some kind of meaning outside of itself. Its purpose must not be merely entertainment (though many good stories ARE entertaining). Some kind of substance is required.
Though a Christian, I do not subscribe to the belief that a work must be explicit to my faith in order to be worthwhile. There are overtly Christian themes in many great works, both from those who identify as followers of Christ and those who may not. These themes are there, as most everyone knows, in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. They’re also present in Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare.
Sometimes it works to bonk readers over the head with an obviously allegorical message, but that’s a tricky game. It is possible (and often preferable) to create meaningful art in other ways.
I am of the opinion that any art, if it is good, gives glory to God. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a poem, a symphony, or a young adult novel. It doesn’t matter whether the artist is aware of their offering or not. If it is good, if it is true, then it is His.
In the words of Abraham Kuyper,
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”
Because I believe this to be true, I try to avoid the head-bonking variety of “Christian art”. I want to write stories that reflect my beliefs, but I don’t want to alienate those who may not share them. Good stories should be for everyone.
This is a difficult balance to achieve, and I don’t claim to have done it. My first novel, in particular, is a bit heavy-handed, theme-wise. The trouble is in capturing a reflection in such a way that does not rebound with the dreaded smack of a sermon.
My Christian faith is not simply a part of who I am. It’s not in the same category as being a Cubs fan, or enjoying milkshakes, or even being an artist. It is who I am. It is everything. As such, of course it will bleed into the fabric of my stories. If it didn’t, well… that wouldn’t speak much for me as a follower of Christ, would it?
Says Madeleine L’Engle in her book, Walking On Water:
If our lives are truly “hid with Christ in God,” the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write. What we are is going to be visible in our art, no matter how secular (on the surface) the subject may be.
The journey homewards. Coming home. That’s what it’s all about. The journey to the coming of the Kingdom. That’s probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular artist–the purpose of the work, be it story or music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home.
I’m not sure if I’ve answered my own question as to how my faith influences my writing. All I can say is that is does influence it, just as it orchestrates every other particular of my life (and if that sounds creepy, I use the word “orchestrate” in the sense that a conductor guides his ensemble, not in that of a madman’s plotting to rule the world).
The second influence over my writing is my reading (which is itself, you won’t be surprised to learn, influenced by the first thing).
Any writer who claims not to have been influenced by the books she reads is, of course, a terrible liar. Either that, or she’s a terrible writer. Books… books are a love language to us. And the writers with whom we connect most deeply leave their impressions upon us, the traces of which linger beneath the pages of our own work.
Because my stories fall within the fantasy genre, I owe immense debts of gratitude to the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, and L. Frank Baum, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. I have been inspired by the quirk of Roald Dahl, the humor of Douglas Adams, the elegant wit of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, the irresistible simplicity of Kenneth Grahame, L.M. Montgomery, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Reading poetry has taught me whatever I know about putting one word after another without having them collide and detonate. My favorites are Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson. As a youngster, one of my favorite books was Louis Sachar’s Newbery Medal winner, Holes. To this day I have not met with a story structure that captivates me more. My affinity for fantastic creatures, meanwhile, can be traced back to the Ruth Stiles Gannet book, My Father’s Dragon.
If I haven’t been diverse enough so far, I could also give some credit to Greek myth, the Psalms, Emmuska Orczy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and whoever wrote the children’s picture book “The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes”.
I would further mention G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and N.D. Wilson, but I’d not met any of them yet when I started writing seriously (you can count on hints of them being found in my future endeavors).
And then there is C.S. Lewis, who merits his own paragraph. Hardly a surprise, given that he is among the best known of all Christian writers in pretty much every genre. Narnia, certainly, is responsible for lighting a spark under my imagination. But I’ve been no less impacted by the dark humor of The Screwtape Letters, the bizarre styling of That Hideous Strength, the fanciful wisdom of The Great Divorce. Even bits from Lewis’s Letters To Children have bled into my being.
If that weren’t enough, Lewis also taught me to check my own proclivity for overusing adjectives. Isn’t that admirable? Sterling? Meritable? Praiseworthy? (Alright. Maybe I still have some adjective issues. Don’t blame Lewis, though. He tried.)
The only man who could rank any higher with me is the one whom C.S. Lewis himself owned as “his master”. George MacDonald was a 19th century Scottish writer and minister. His work, though little known today, has influenced a plethora of others (not just Lewis, and Tolkien, and Chesterton, and— ahem, me— but W.H. Auden, Lewis Carroll, Madeleine L’Engle, E. Nesbit, Oswald Chambers. Even Mark Twain.) His best known titles are Phantastes, Lilith, The Princess And The Goblin, and At The Back Of The North Wind. He has been called the Father of Fantasy.
“I know hardly any other writer,” wrote Lewis, “who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.”
I can scarcely articulate the effects that MacDonald’s writings have had on me, personally. The best way to explain it, I’ve found, is to use his own words. In The Princess And Curdie (perhaps one of my favorite stories ever put to the page), Irene’s great-great-great-grandmother tells the title character, when asked how he can thank her:
There is only one way I care for. Do better and grow better and be better.
To put it simply, this is what reading MacDonald inspires me to do. Not just as a writer, but as a human being created in the image of God.
I could write entire posts on each of these authors alone. But I’ve been rather long-winded for today, haven’t I? Get me going on certain subjects… sighs.
If you haven’t already fled screaming, stay tuned for the next installment of What I Write. It should make it up within the next week.