I am the author of several nonfiction volumes and one novel. It was the latter, however, that tested my mettle, both as a writer and as a Christian. One of the reasons–perhaps the primary reason–writing true fiction is so difficult for people of faith is because you have to be part-insane to do it well. Creativity, whatever its form, comes to full flower only on the edge of insanity. That is scary for the writer or artist.
What is one to do with the confluence of forces that seem stronger, greater and more alive than you yourself are? Do you go forward, unleashing these forces to enter uncharted waters? Or do you pull back?
In my case, as a writer, I felt I had go forth into these unsettling horizons because it is in these scary places where God is most alive in our writing and in our souls. We find him best outside ourselves, beyond standard conventions, and into a place where we feel afraid or lost. This is where God meets us and takes us by the hand and leads us. We must go. It is the only place we can go and still be moving forward. Who will go if you don’t? Who will take on those dark places and introduce to them the light of truth? This is where you, and I, belong as artists and writers and lovers of God. We must go into the insanity.
So you go. It scares you. You wonder where you are. Is this what’s real? Is this where you are supposed to be? You hammer out a plot in lumbering prose. It sounds really bad. You say, ‘I can’t write’ and ‘Who am I fooling?’ You read John Updike to get a sense about dialogue. You think, ‘he’s a dirty old man, but a brilliant writer. My descriptions don’t sound like that.’ You cry on your pillow for the longing you feel to make your story real and the helplessness you feel in getting it there. You cry because of your fear of the insanity.
It’s too late. You can’t turn back.
It was on a Saturday in a February many years ago when, for the first time, I used the f-word in my writing. It was hard. Why did I do it? I was writing a novel (above), called The Warrior King (Ecco Qua Press). I had to confront this issue once and for all. I came to understand that I had to use the f-word (thus tip-toe to the edge) in order to be true to the character in my novel and the situation he was in. I would have dismissed that line of thinking once. I would have said, ‘People don’t have to say the f-word. You can write a perfectly good book with strong dialogue without bringing the f-word into it.’ That is true. It is better writing to find a way to develop hard edges in a character other than constantly resorting to the f-word. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult for Christians to write good fiction. Good fiction means yielding oneself to the integrity of the characters, even if it exceeds your comfort zone. (It’s like life.)
The character in my novel who uses the f-word is a young street-punk Honduran kid who speaks crude English of a kind one learns on the street. This young boy sees a man he has grown to love about to make a terrible mistake with a woman of unsavory character. The young boy intervenes boldly and innocently. With tears streaming down his face he asks the man if he is going to f*** the whore. He is a loving boy, but he grew up on the street and that word is the only word he knows for confronting the act that was beginning to unfold before him. (He would not have intervened with gentility asking the man if he was going to ‘make love’ to her.) The use of the f-word in this case is not gratuitous. It is necessary in order for this young man to be who he is. Since as a writer I have surrendered my course to God in the realm of true fiction, I must be prepared to make these concessions. Is it an affront to God? Yes. Banality is an affront. Does this infer that people of faith can write only fiction that does not involve bad behavior? No. God can handle it. He sees things for what they are (or are not) more so than we weak-willed humans do. ‘Are you going to f*** the whore?’ is just how an eight-year-old Honduran street child would put that question to this man in this moment. Assuming he grows up and becomes a good Christian, he will probably stop saying things that way. But he hasn’t grown up yet.
As writers who also happen to be people of faith we have to be willing to look straight into the world as it is and at the people who inhabit it for who they are. They are real. They are weak. Sometimes they have sex outside of marriage. Do you know anyone who says the f-word? Have you said it in the past week?
So you write the scene. You wake up the next morning and can’t get out of bed because of the headache. Your eyes hurt and your stomach knots up. The insanity takes you there. But the only way out is to keep going, keep moving forward, believing you will get through it and that the Lord himself is guiding you.
Please Note: Author Wendy Murray is incrementally posting on Twitter Chapter One of her novel The Warrior King. She began her posts on June 3 and will keep posting daily between 3 and 5 pm until the entire first chapter has been rendered. Follow Wendy on Twitter at @WenMurray and use the hashtag #WK.