How Writing Fiction Made Me Believe in God

Jesus Toast.

Okay, in the interest of honesty (since we’re going to be talking about God and all), the title is a little misleading because writing didn’t make me believe in God.

Though one time my fountain pen spilled and the ink spot did look just like that face of Jesus on that piece of toast…Kidding. (BTW- did you know you can just buy a toaster now and have Jesus on your toast every day?)

I suck at titling (ask my agent), but the title: Writing Made Me Believe in God Better didn’t sound right. Kind of a flat tin sound on that last bit.

I believed in God before, but as I began to study writing and committed myself to my best– my own excellence– in this craft I pursue, I did learn some things that made my belief in God, well,  better.

Cliches– There is no room in excellent writing for cliches. Writers must be vigilant to watch for them in word choices, plots and characters. They can sneak up on you too. If I’m going to write something WORTH IT, I can not do it in the same ol’ way with the same ol’ tricks that have been done to death (cliched phrase there).

And do not confuse cliche with classic. Classic are lines from Shakespeare, Austen, Hemingway and Steinbeck that are just IT.  Classic is Peace Like a River that reads like a story that was here all the time, just waiting for Leaf Enger to transcribe it.

And God should feel like that. New, worth it, classic.  We must  rout the cliches when it comes to God just as we would in that middle part of our story that isn’t working. If it fits in a twitter feed, bumper sticker or tshirt, it might be time to think it through a bit more carefully. If you hear someone preaching or singing God and roll your eyes or feel nothing or nod without no real depth of emotion, you may have some editing to do.

My experience of God makes me quake and quell at the same time. His way of speaking to me in a way that makes me call it a voice when really it is TRUTH and LOVE seeping out of my bone marrow. His way of showing me who he is in my children and, on rare occasions, in myself as their mother. His way of allowing me to approach a glimpse of the Sacred as I run my fingers in the grooves of the sequoia tree. His way of being there in crinkly pages of numbered verses, his way of using a stranger or a loved one to say the exact right thing. All this makes me quake at his Holiness and Mystery and makes me quell with his steady hand gently on my head, saying, “Shhh. Rest for now. I got this.”

Characterization-– God isn’t a cliche. So who is he? Well… This is where another writing principle, characterization, has helped me figure some stuff out. I used to get God and people invoking God confused. It was confusing (and gross) when a fine upstanding deacon at church pushed me into a dark corner and tried to tongue kiss me. I was 15.  Which is one reason I didn’t speak to God for a long long time.

But a writing teacher taught me that my characters can be revealed by other characters and actions in my story, they should not be defined by them.

Another words, my hero is who he is. And he may be more of who he is as the story progresses, but he shouldn’t show up in my pages as some piece of fluff to be changed hither and thither. Characters in good writing have to work. They have to make some kind of sense. They have to have a continuity that keeps your head in the story. In fact, they have to cease being characters and become REAL.

God is. Emphasis on the IS. So after I refused to participate with church (and God) anymore (and therefore avoid dark corners), the goodness of the friend who would sit me with on the little kids swing set while I waited for my parents to finish their time under the steeple revealed something of God. But it did not define God.

I may get a glimpse of him in others, but I never want to confuse God with something man-made – or man-titled. He made us in his image, not the other way around.

Craft– This is the term generically applied to the whole business of trying to get it right. Study craft. Spend time with your craft. Focus on craft. The craft is what we writers try to figure out as we move forward (hopefully forward) to become better writers. I write because I feel a pull towards words that will not let me go, but that isn’t enough. I have to study. I have to practice and fail and look to others for support and critique. There are times when I am so addled, I don’t know if I’ve written great or garbage. I look for help. And there are times when I sigh with my brilliance and the critique points out shameful mistakes.

And that is true of my faith too.

I’m still working at it. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to understand. Sometimes I get it just right. And others, it’s so fouled up, I’m embarrassed to call myself a believer.

So, I keep trying to get better at writing. And believing.