The Artist’s Dilemma

I’ve just read (in one evening) The Sister of the Angels by Elizabeth Goudge, a sweet story about a young girl, an artist, and a chapel full of frescoes. I recommend the book for anyone interested in any form of art, as well as anyone looking for a new family Christmas favorite. But I’m not going to review it at length; I’m just going to quote one passage that is worth the whole weight of the book. The young girl’s father, a writer, is telling her a story about the artist.

“In some ways this man was rather unfortunate because no one wanted to buy the pictures that he painted, and as he had to support himself and his family this was rather awkward, because if people don’t give you money for the work that you do you starve, and so does your family, and you don’t like that, nor do they. All artists, whether they are musicians or painters or writers, experience the same difficulty. . . . It’s a difficulty that passes, of course; for one of three things is bound to happen fairly soon: either the artist, under pressure of starvation, gives up painting the pictures he wants to paint, but can’t sell, and paints those that he does not want to paint but can sell; or else he manages to last out until the public, having got accustomed to the kind of art that they formerly reviled, suddenly change their minds and like it after all; or else, remaining true to the kind of work he likes and not having the kind of body that will last out unfed while the public slowly change their minds, he dies.”

“But there’s another thing he could do,” said Henrietta eagerly. “He could give up being an artist and do something quite different; he could be a ticket collector or a pork butcher.”

“No,” said Ferranti somberly, “with an artist that is only another form of death. I’ve tried it, and I know.”

I guess this puts me, and a great many other writers, among the walking dead. We kill ourselves with work we don’t love that puts bread on the table, while trying to keep ourselves marginally alive by doing the work we love in bits and pieces of time left over. This is not a good way to live—or to make art.

Of course, it could give you plenty of first-hand experience to use in writing zombie fiction, if that’s what floats your boat. It doesn’t float mine.

To Write, You Must Read

That proposition will probably seem self-evident to most of my readers. But I recently heard an acquaintance who is the author of a fiction manuscript admit that she is “not a reader.”

I have to say, I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. To the extent that I couldn’t find words to tell her she must read if she ever wants to succeed as a writer.

As a child, I was so eager to read that I taught myself at age four. I don’t say that to brag, but to emphasize how inconceivable it is to me that anyone would not be interested in reading. So it’s difficult for me to isolate specific reasons that reading fiction is necessary to a fiction writer. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.

1. Reading gives you a feeling for language.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, language is the writer’s medium. Just as a painter has to learn how to use brushes, paints, and canvas, a writer needs to learn how to use words. This knowledge includes everything from the mechanics of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage to the fine shades of meaning and sound.

I’m convinced that my instinctive feeling for proper and improper English is primarily attributable to years of reading writers who were as skilled in wielding words as Leonardo was in wielding a paintbrush. You can learn rules in a classroom, but you can only internalize the depth, breadth, and infinite possibilities of language through reading the work of writers who have used it well.

2. Reading teaches you how to tell a story.

How would you even know what a story is if you don’t read them? Of course, we all hear stories, or watch them in movies. Certain factors are common to stories in any form, but others are specific to written stories. How do you begin a story in words? How do you develop character? How do you portray a character’s inner life? How do you integrate setting into your story? How do you convey your theme? Movies can’t teach you any of these things, because they use different techniques to accomplish them.

This is just the tip of a whole iceberg of what a writer can learn on a technical level through reading.

3. Reading acquaints you with what has already been done.

If you want to write something fresh, you need to know what has already been written. In every genre, certain stories, character types, patterns, and tropes have been done to death. These may well be the first stories, characters, etc. that pop into your mind when you decide to write a book. You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you know up front what to avoid.

On the flip side, wide reading will give you a cultural context that you can employ to enrich your writing. Allusions to your favorite writers—subtle or obvious, conscious or unconscious—will add depth and resonance to your story as they cause your reader to reflect on the connections implied.

4. Reading acquaints you with the conventions of your genre.

This is the argument I most often hear advanced for writers to read, but to my mind it’s the least important. Nevertheless, if you are going to write within an established genre, it is essential to know what readers (and correspondingly, agents and publishers) of that genre expect from a story.

Some genres have more specific requirements than others. My understanding (second-hand, as I neither read nor write in this genre) is that category romance is one of the most restrictive, with rules about word count, character professions and personalities, and in which chapter the hero and heroine must meet, kiss, fight, have sex, etc. Literary fiction is possibly the least restrictive in terms of specific elements, although arguably the most difficult to write well.

5. Reading gives you membership in the most fascinating community of people in the world.

When I open a novel, I’m entering a new world. Not just the world the author has created within the story—though that’s a thrilling experience in itself—but the world of the author him/herself and of all the people who have read the story, are reading it now, or will read it in the future. It’s also the world of everyone who had some kind of impact on the author’s life that contributed to the story being what it is. And it’s the world of all the writers the story’s author read and loved, and the people who read their stories. When I open a novel, I’m only six degrees of separation from the greatest minds ever to live on this planet.

I imagine every reader has had the experience of making a new friend through a book. Maybe the person next to you on the plane asked what you were reading, and that author turned out to be one of your seatmate’s favorites too. Maybe you met someone on Goodreads, or at a bookstore or a library.  Maybe a teacher recommended a book to you, and through that recommendation you discovered your teacher was a kindred spirit after all.

If you try to write without being a reader, you’ll miss out on this community, and the loss will hurt your writing. It will also substantially impair your chances of getting published. Personal connections are just as important in publishing as in any other field. If publishing professionals you meet sense that you’re not a kindred spirit—because you’re not a reader—you likely won’t get far.

6. Reading shows you what can be achieved.

Those striving in any field of endeavor need to be inspired by the greats who have come before them. You need a sense of what is possible so you know what to strive for. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, unless you’re a born genius like Shakespeare or Dickens:

You will never write better than the best authors you read.

Why Fiction?

This list is far from comprehensive, and it doesn’t even touch on the most basic point of all: Why would anyone who doesn’t love reading fiction even want to write it? If it’s because you have a message to convey, a point to make, there are many better ways of doing that than through fiction. Fiction is (ideally) art, and art does not exist for the purpose of conveying a message or making a point. Art doesn’t so much answer questions as ask them. If you think you have answers, hire a co-writer or ghostwriter and write a nonfiction book, or a blog, or go on the radio and speak your mind.

But please, don’t waste your time writing fiction.

P.S. My apologies for the blog silence the last couple of weeks. Health issues have been limiting my working hours, and I can’t prioritize the blog over my fiction or my day job.

The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life (review)

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (Sellers Publishing, 2011). It’s a beautifully designed mixture of excerpts from the letters, writings, and talks of a dozen classic female authors with summary meditations from Ms. Atlas. And it’s charming, surprising, inspiring, and an all-around must-read for any female author. Non-writing admirers of these ladies will also enjoy an intimate glimpse behind the scenes of their genius.

The authors—Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—offer comments from dry to bitter to encouraging to ecstatic on subjects ranging from becoming a writer to conquering inner demons to combining writing with motherhood to rejection, acceptance, and money to handling success.

Some of their situations are notably unlike our own. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th, it seems to have been significantly easier to make a living by writing than it is now—even for a woman. Not to say these women didn’t work hard—they were their own slavedrivers, for the most part. But in that milieu, hard work, excellence, and persistence were almost sure to pay off eventually, whereas now there are no guarantees even for the most dedicated genius.

And on the flip side, these women all faced active discrimination the likes of which have almost disappeared from the current literary scene. (Atlas does quote one statistic that claims male writers still make significantly more money than female writers, but I think it would be hard to make a case that they have any easier a time getting published or are favored by readers or reviewers.)

But when it comes to matters of the pen and of the heart, all these literary ladies are completely kindred spirits to women writing today. They struggled with other responsibilities, feelings of self-doubt, sometimes opposition from family and friends. They endured rejection, personal and artistic misunderstanding, and the dark side of fame.

Some of them wrote from the heart, while others wrote what their market demanded and produced wildly popular classics—to their own complete surprise (e.g. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables). Some, notably Virginia Woolf, were literary pioneers who were never entirely confident as to whether their work was genius or garbage. Some made a handsome fortune in their lifetimes; others barely got by. But all have a lot to say that can help contemporary writers through all the rough spots of our writing lives.

(One caveat for the terminally particular like myself: This book has a lot of typos. I find that odd given the number of people credited in the acknowledgements who had a hand in making the book—was none of them a proofreader? However, the beauty of the design and the content made up for the typos in my estimation. And that’s saying a lot.)

I found the book quite inspiring. All these famous writers were regular gals—they put their petticoats on one leg at a time like anyone else. They started from nothing, with nothing but a dream and the boldness to pursue it, and they earned a permanent place in the literary pantheon. It gives me hope that if I work hard enough, I may someday be able to do the same.
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Literature and Orthodox Culture

This post is part of a synchroblog by the Orthobloggers. See links to others participating at the end of the post.

Culture can, and does, mean many different things—anything from the entire socio-politico-religio-artistic milieu of a society, to those high art productions like ballet and opera that Average Joe wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot basketball goal. For a couple of reasons, I’m not going to attempt to tackle the former:

  1. It’s beyond my scope. I’m not an informed student of sociology or politics, and when it comes to religion and arts other than my own, I mostly just know what I like.
  2. It’s nonsensical to talk about an “Orthodox culture” in that first sense in any Western country. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any country in the world where it currently makes sense, because the Orthodox underpinnings of society have been eroded by persecution and secularism almost everywhere. You can’t have an “Orthodox culture” unless you have a predominantly Orthodox population—and maybe not even then.

I’m also not going to talk about ballet or opera or painting, not because I don’t enjoy them, but because they’re not my field.

I’m a writer, so I’m going to talk about Orthodox culture in the context of literature.

To some people—probably the same Average Joes and Janes who shun ballet and opera—”literature” is a dirty word. It conjures images of dusty tomes whose content is as dry as the ancient paper they’re printed on. It revives unpleasant memories of stern high school English teachers who apparently believed they could make students love Dickens and Melville by telling them all the reasons they should. It’s epitomized by scholars like the (possibly fictional) one who wrote the introduction to the poetry text in Dead Poets Society, which suggested a poem’s worth could be determined by plotting its scores for skill of composition and significance of theme on a graph.

These people, if they read at all, don’t want “literature”; they want stories. The more action-packed, the more like a movie translated to print, the better.

From my point of view, literature simply consists of the best stories of all time dressed up in their best Sunday clothes. Also from my point of view, the best stories of all time are those through which eternal truth shines most brightly.

By this I do not mean stories that contain a “salvation message” or that depict nice Christian people going about their nice Christian lives. I mean stories like Perrault’s Cinderella. Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment. Lord of the Rings. Till We Have Faces. Bleak House. Mansfield Park. The Way We Live Now. East of Eden. Peace Like a River. The Wind in the Willows. Harry Potter. Stories in which good is rewarded, evil is punished, and sinful people and a sinful world are redeemed by acts of heroism, sacrifice, and love.

If Orthodox Christianity is the purveyor of eternal truth to mankind, then Orthodox culture as embodied in literature refers to books like these. If we want Orthodox culture to flourish in the contemporary West, we need to do all we can to produce and encourage books like these.

If we are writers, we need to write them. If we are publishers, we need to publish them. If we are readers, we need to buy them and read them.

I could with little difficulty count a dozen or so Orthodox writers who are currently writing excellent fiction but cannot find anyone to publish it. It’s “too religious” for general market publishers, too sacramental and incarnational for “Christian” (read evangelical) publishers. And (putting on my editor hat for a moment) it seems for the time being too financially risky for Orthodox publishers who have built up a somewhat shaky business based on nonfiction. Orthodox bookstores don’t know what to do with it, they don’t have a shelf for it, so they don’t buy it.

If the rapidly growing Orthodox population of the West wants Orthodox culture in the form of literature, it’s going to have to put its money where its mouth is. It’s going to have to start clamoring for—and buying—good works of fiction by Orthodox authors (and those who share our fundamental point of view).

There’s an old saying among Orthodox: You get the priest you deserve.

There’s a new saying that’s equally true: You get the culture you deserve.

Other blogs participating in this synchroblog:

When Good Characters Die

This post is inspired by one of those ecards going around the internet—you know, the ones with the cute, sometimes Edwardian-looking drawings and the clever sayings?

Here’s the one that caught my eye yesterday. Just ignore that extra “o” on the last word (and remember I didn’t create it!).

What Do We Mourn For?

Having been known to cry over the deaths of fictional characters—and having been known to kill off a few myself—this got me thinking. What are we really mourning when we mourn a character’s death?

When we mourn for a real person, we’re usually grieving for ourselves, because we will miss having that person in our lives. If the person’s life, or our relationship with him, wasn’t what it ought to have been, our mourning may be embittered by regret. If the person dies at the natural end of a good life, our grief (if we believe in the resurrection) is tempered by the confidence that she is at peace.

But when we mourn a fictional character, it isn’t quite the same thing. If we miss the character, we can always go back and read the book again. She will live forever in the pages that precede her demise.

Also, our relationships with the characters are not really an issue—unless you get into books a lot more deeply than I do. For Meggie in Inkheart that might have been a concern, but then Meggie  herself is a fictional character. Let us keep these things in perspective.

We do sometimes mourn characters who have died as a result of their own poor choices. Hamlet, for instance. But think about it: When you look back at the whole play of Hamlet—not immediately after watching or reading it, but at some distance—is it his death you focus on? It isn’t for me. You might say Hamlet died because he had nothing left to live for. It’s everything that happens before his death that causes us to mourn for a wasted life.

A Death Most Moving

When I think about the deaths in literature that have affected me most deeply, I realize they touch me for one (or both) of two reasons:

  1. The character has sacrificed himself to save others.
  2. The character will be deeply mourned by other characters with whom I identify.

Dumbledore. Fred Weasley. Jean Valjean. Gandalf (apparent death). Beth March. Matthew Cuthbert. Bambi’s mother. Jeremiah Land.

It also makes a difference how well we know the character himself and how lovable we find him. I didn’t cry as much over Sirius Black, even though his sacrificial death devastated Harry, because I hadn’t had as much time to get to know and love Sirius—and neither had Harry.

For Those Left Behind

The point I’m trying to make here is that when we mourn for fictional characters, just as when we mourn for real people, our mourning is not so much for the one departed as for the ones left behind. We project ourselves into the characters of Harry, or George, or Frodo, or Jo, or Anne, or Bambi, and feel the same devastation they feel.

Of all the deaths I’ve mentioned, the one that tears at my heart most painfully is that of Fred Weasley—because I can’t imagine how George will go on without him. He won’t even be able to finish a sentence, let alone run Weasley’s Wheezes, without his twin to bounce his thoughts off of, to be the ever-present echo of himself. I can see why some Weasley or other had to die, but I really wonder what J. K. Rowling was thinking when she chose one of the twins. (Note that she didn’t dwell on George’s reaction—it must have been too painful even for her.)

Ultimately, though, we have to forgive her, because Fred died, as one of many, to save his world from Voldemort. His death had meaning, as did his life.

As a reader, then, if you mourn for fictional characters, don’t feel badly about it. You’re exercising your compassion muscles for when you need them in real life.

And as a writer, if you feel compelled to kill someone off and want that death to have the maximum impact, choose someone the main characters will be devastated to lose—but make sure his death means something. Let your readers’ grief be permeated with the light of resurrection.

What characters have you mourned for most? Do you agree with my conclusions?

Poll: Theology in Fiction

Both as an editor and as a writer, I have to deal with the issue of theology in fiction. Even if a writer is not deliberately writing to espouse a particular theology, his or her own views do tend to percolate through. How much does it matter? What if the writer wants to speculate a little, especially about areas where theological thought is vague or divided, such as the afterlife or the world of spiritual beings? Must fiction be held to the same firm standard as nonfiction lest the weak be led astray?

Please note I’m not primarily talking here about the kind of fantasy that invents whole other worlds. I think people who enjoy fantasy understand that an invented world, even if it doesn’t play by exactly the same rules as the real one, can still communicate fundamental truths.

I’ve created a poll about our attitudes as readers. Please feel free to comment at greater length as well, since this is hardly a cut-and-dried issue. I’m really curious to hear what you think.

An Answer to The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow

The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow (by Joyce Magnin, Abingdon Press 2009) is an honest book. An engaging book, with well-crafted prose and intriguing characters. A fun book and sometimes a troubling book. A book with more questions than answers.

In other words, I loved it.

I can’t say I altogether agree with its premise.

Agnes Sparrow is a whale of a woman, too fat to leave her house. She also has a very dark secret buried deep in her past. But she seems to have a mission for prayer. Lots of her prayers have been answered miraculously for all kinds of people in her little town of Bright’s Pond. Now the town wants to honor her by adding her name to their Welcome sign.

All the things that happen as a result of this decision got through my suspension-of-disbelief filter just fine. It’s the basic idea that God might use a woman with zero self-control and a huge unconfessed sin on her conscience to work miracles that makes me squirm a little.

You see, I come from a tradition that values holiness. We Orthodox Christians expect miracles to come through people who have grown unusually close to God through lives of voluntary asceticism or involuntary suffering bravely borne, through the zealous pursuit of righteousness in word, deed, and thought. People in whom the presence of the Holy Spirit often literally glows.

Not people who bury the physical evidence of their crimes in the basement and pop M&M’s all day to bury their feelings of guilt.

On the other hand, I’d be the first to admit that God is not limited by anything, not even His own habitual patterns, and it’s not impossible that He might choose to work through such a sinner as Agnes Sparrow. Stranger things have happened.

And if you can get past that, this is really a delightful book. The townspeople of Bright’s Pond are vividly and affectionately drawn at the same time they’re mildly satirized. The idioms of mountain-village Pennsylvania enliven the writing. And we can’t help but root for the narrator, Agnes’s long-suffering sister Griselda, as she attempts to find a way between caring for her sister and making a life for herself.

The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow is the first of a series of books about Bright’s Pond, and I look forward to reading more.