1. I learned my calling in life not at a Christian conference or a dark night of the soul prayer vigil. It came from a high school teacher giving me a severe talking to on a botched assignment. I had self-identified as a writer for five years. I’d already finished the first draft of one of my novels. The spring previous I had co-founded a creative writing club. But this teacher was the first person to give me a direction for my work.
The assignment in question was a play where Emerson and Thoreau came to spend time with you in everyday life. We were supposed to get into an important discussion, and the transcendentalists’ speech was supposed to be footnoted from their writings. I decided to have them visit the creative writing club. The play became more of a presentation of our groups’ eccentricities than a discussion with the writers. Although my struggle to bring the writers into our conversations taught me a lot about the dynamic and problems of the group, I hadn’t fulfilled the assignment. My teacher pulled me aside in study hall to inform me that he had given me a C–but not because of my writing skills.
“You have a great ear for dialogue,” he said. “Have you thought about becoming a playwright?”
“A little,” I said. “A couple of my directors have asked me that too.”
He told me about different styles of drama that incorporated fantasy and then he said the most important thing of all.
“The stage right now is a very dark place. The plays being written are empty. I think you could write plays with hope.”
I thought about that a lot. I didn’t know how to write plays. I wasn’t sure that’s what I was supposed to be pursuing. But writing with hope…that sounded important. Around the same time, I started reading Printz winners and nominees.
For those of you who may not be familiar, the Printz award is the prize given for excellence in Young Adult fiction. It’s the Newbery for YA. It was first awarded in 2000, so it hasn’t been around for very long. Unlike Newbery books, which are usually books that you clutch to your chest and say, “Reading this changed my life,” Printz winners are the riskiest, most boundary pushing books. They are often well written. They are also often depressing, icky, and heavy. When I see the Printz symbol on a book, I know I’m in for a rough ride. I appreciate more of them as an adult than I did as a teenager, when I had too much angst and moral ambiguity in my life to handle.
I’d always liked YA, but the “best” of the genre was the sort of stuff that usually pointed to darkness. I thought about the vision my teacher had for my writing, and just knew that I was supposed to see that through in YA, not drama.
2. But what is hope? And what is hopeful fiction? The spring before I graduated, I started working on a much darker novel, one where most of the characters die. I wondered if I should be working on it at all. I wrote two chapters and set it aside, torn about whether I should pursue it.
And then I went to Ireland. Many things happened there to spur me on in my writing. I had a profound experience at Kilmainham Gaol and Arbor Hill Cemetery, where fifteen revolutionaries were killed and buried, respectively. I lived in a house with thirty people (well, the boys slept in another house, but hung out in the downstairs common rooms all the time). I also heard a life-changing chapel talk.
We traveled to inner city Dublin, where a friend of our chaplain had a ministry with his family. His name was Joe. We sat in a refurbished church sanctuary and he shared about his call to make “a hope-shaped space” in the heart of Dublin.
“What are things that bring hope?” he said. I perked up. “The things that bring hope are beauty, children, community, and justice. We know this because the things that bring despair are ugliness, barrenness, isolation, and injustice.”
I wrote that down in my notebook. I’ve thought about it a lot since. It’s my litmus test for whether what I’m writing is fulfilling my call. And the novel I was working on, despite the death and darkness, is about a community pulling together to fight injustice.
3. Spring of my junior year of college, I took a lit class called “The Novel”. We read eight of them in three months. Some were easier to get through than others. Crime and Punishment is probably the greatest work of fiction I have ever read. But before I got to enjoy that feast, I had to read Madame Bovary. It’s one of those “important” books. It was enormously influential in the Realism movement and set the precedent for more risky novels. The plot centers on a young woman who ends up in a series of adulterous relationships. Before I read it, I assumed that the book was intended to be equally titillating and risk-taking, like the Printz books I’d struggled through in high school. It wasn’t.
I realized that I knew Emma Bovary. I went to high school with her. She grew up in Appalachia, was always fascinated by the world outside but couldn’t leave. I know so many girls who could have left, but ended up pregnant, living with their druggie boyfriends. She might change jobs, boyfriends, houses, but she could never get free. It made the book so much harder. I realized that I couldn’t carry these girls. If I opened my thoughts to them, I ended up sobbing into my pillow at night, drenched with sorrow. If I let them go, I became angry and bitter, raging at their foolishness. I wanted to do something to help them, but I didn’t know what. I spent several days alternating reading and praying for God to show me how to love Emma Bovary. And then I saw the books.
Emma becomes who she is by reading. She grows up reading sentimental fantasies. She becomes obsessed with rugged, tortured men with supernatural powers or curses and the saintly women who are corrupted by them as they try to save them. They’re books that leave her with an unrealistic picture of men, women, and romance. Twilight, I realized. Before taking the plunge into her life of adultery, Emma is compelled to seek ways out. One of the first places she goes is the church. She tries to ask for help. The priest can only give her magazines with church sanctioned stories with very moral, safe stories where God fixes everything. Christian fiction, I realized.
I want to write books with people experiencing pain and confusion who find hope. (Like not-as-brilliant, speculative fiction echoing Crime and Punishment) I can’t carry Emma Bovary. But I can write books for her to read.
4. It’s a lot harder to believe in a calling to write when I’m no longer surrounded by Christian intellectuals. The first few months of my current life stage, I talked very little about my writing. It finally came up at work…and I felt embarrassed. I tried to remember my calling. And then I ended up in a conversation with a Christian coworker where I tried to explain what I wanted to do. I talked about showing the truth by creating longing. I talked about pointing to the gospel by pointing to hope.
“But how can it be truth if you never talk about Jesus?” she said. “I mean, he’s where truth comes from. So if you’re not talking about him, will it really do anything?”
This was not the first time I had heard this viewpoint. The thinking goes that Jesus is the most important being in existence. Therefore, anything which is not explicitly talking about Jesus is not important.
I stared at her, dumbfounded (as I always am when this crops up again). Thankfully she was pulled away, or I would have started arguing.
The writing goes slow, and this idea keeps coming up. I shut my hands over my ears and start spewing arguments (The Chronicles of Narnia never explicitly mention Jesus. Are they a waste of time?) or I curl up and burst into tears. Maybe I was wrong, I think. Maybe I just made it all up. Maybe I’m just a sham.
I keep going with three steps. I remember when the calling felt most real. I pray it will feel real again. And then I thank God that I’m going to Calvin.
The Calvin Festival of Faith in Writing is in two weeks. I wasn’t planning on going this year. The not-student price is a week’s wages and I figured starving artists could be excused. Thankfully, I got it for Christmas. I didn’t realize how much I would need it. I’m going as a writer to listen to other writers, to remember that all the doubt and confusion and exhaustion is worth pushing through. I’m going to hear Anne Lamott, Bret Lott, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Scott Cairns. I know that conferences and retreats and long dark nights of the soul aren’t the only way to hear God speak. Still, it is good to rest and remember where I have been and where I am going.