From Faith to Fiction: Lessons from Katherine Paterson
or Write from your Inner Truth and Don't Wreck it!
In my last post, I listed writing from your deepest beliefs in my revised, “Write What you Know,” mantra.
The wise and wonderful Jane Yolen, in her book Touch Magic, explains:
My inner truth is my faith and when I tried to add that to my creation, I ran into even more difficulties. Regardless of what a writer’s inner truth is, it must make up the core of your story. BUT, doing the very thing Jane Yolen tells us and our heart urges us to attempt, can lead to some egregious errors that can turn your fiction into something you didn’t intend.
When I was trying to do this and making an awful mess of it, I turned to Katherine Paterson’s work--artistic and critical--for advice. Katherine has always been public about her faith and is not shy about discussing how it impacts her work. Hallelujah! I studied her and that study became the basis of my MFA critical thesis, graduate lecture, and a lecture I recently gave at BYU’s annual writing for children and young adults conference. (Fabulous conference, by the way. Go if you ever get the chance.)
I can’t include the whole lecture in this post, but I can share the most important highlights.
For me it all started with fellow LDS novelist, Ann Canon. Her editor, Wendy Lamb, vice president at Random House Children’s Books and publisher of the imprint that bears her name, told a packed ballroom full of children’s writers at SCBWI’s 2001 annual conference in sunny Los Angeles that she “keeps finding books that deal with teenagers and faith” and would like to see more. Good news. She explained she didn’t want to see “overly” religious novels, but appreciated novels that explore “the meaning of faith in kids’ lives today.” She had just finished editing Charlotte’s Rose. This was such a revelation for me. It was the first time I thought it was possible for me to “write what I know” and have an audience outside Mormondon.
I wrote to Wendy Lamb and asked her what characterized an “overly” religious novel. The first thing on her list was, “PROSELYTIZING.” Critics used to call this egregious mistake, didacticism.
For centuries, didactic books, meaning books that instruct in “moral, ethical or religious matters”—not simply books that teach-- (Holman 131) dominated children’s literature. Today, overt preaching is not tolerated by children’s editors, librarians or the kids themselves. An author who intrudes religious doctrine that does not play an integral part in the life of the character into her narrative at best bores the reader at worst annoy him/her enough to disrupt the fictive dream she has worked so hard to create. Critics will lay charges of proselytizing. The art the writer has endeavored to create will fail. And editors, like Wendy Lamb, will reject the manuscript. (Believe me, I know.)
Our wonderful expert, Katherine Paterson, clarifies this issue in terms a writer can apply. In an article for U.S. Catholic entitled, “The Spiritual Reading Life of Children,” she explains:
Stories that teach religious doctrine will always have their place. Christ’s parables in the New Testament will never go out of style. Moses, Job, and Esther teach important religious truths to the faithful far better than straight sermonizing. Religious presses, magazines and curriculum departments all appreciate the power of story to strengthen the faithful and convert the doubting. But, as Paterson says, these stories are not fiction and “have little to say outside their faith communit[ies]” (Terabithia.com “Questions” 2).
If a writer is steeped in a particular faith, it is difficult for her to discern if what she writes will feel like proselytizing to a reader outside that faith, and a writer who has spent years writing for her faith community faces a constant struggle to keep propaganda out of her attempts. No writer of fiction who is serious about her art will be pleased if the novel she has poured her blood, sweat and tears into only rises to the level of propaganda. Of course, most are too humble to claim that what they have created is art, but a writer who is religious will probably want her fiction to do more than entertain.
Paterson provides an important key. She says, “When authors write serious fiction, even if the reader is to be a child, they are struggling to find an answer for themselves” (“The Spiritual” 3). Propaganda will result if the writer begins with the answer. Fiction is a writer’s tool for discovery. Questions give life to fiction.
You must learn to . . .
Leave those statements for critics, editors and lit classes.
When people who have not read her books ask Paterson what “message” or “moral values” she tries to teach children, she says,
Remember Sam Goldwyn? Messages belong in telegrams. Stories are born of questions. What if? What would happen if? How would he feel if that happened? Then what would she do? If a writer is an expert on religious doctrine, he should write essays. If he has a question or a problem that excites or torments or terrifies his adult or child self—that’s the stuff of fiction. Fiction can rise to the level of art if it is an honest quest for personal answers.
This is a huge challenge, for writers who, because of their faith and life experience, feel they already have the answers—the truth. Maybe these writers can ask themselves if they understand the truth. Can they live up to the truth. How does the world around them react to the truth. I have found through my own attempts that my novel wouldn’t work until I discovered the thing that scared me the most and faced it through my characters.
What freaked me out most as a teen? What did I least want to deal with as a fiction writer? Sexuality. Let’s be frank, sin. What is TAKEN BY STORM all about? Grief? Yah. Faith. Of course. Spirituality. I even managed that. But it comes right down to, Michael expresses love through sex and Leesie is a righteous girl with a loving, compassionate heart, and healthy hormones, trying to keep the law of chastity. All these other LDS authors are writing noble fantasy with sweet, pure romance in them, and I’m writing a standard’s night girls won’t put down. I get abstinence. Thanks a lot. At least, the powers on high sent Stephanie that dream and her Edward made abstinence hot so I could FINALLY SELL THIS BOOK!
When those same powers on high made it plain, how far I had to test Leesie, and I realized I would have to write a couple of fairly frank, not explicit, but honest, temptation scenes, I did not want to go there. It was painful writing those scenes. They took revision after revision. I fretted, I cut, I prayed, I rewrote again and again and again. I ran out of time or I’d still be trying to perfect them. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written.
Paterson has often said that she writes “out of [her] own needs” (“The Aim of the Writer” 227). When she hears the fears expressed by her children—and now grandchildren—and the thousands of young people who write to her, she remembers her own fears as a child. She says, “I seem to be in tune with the questions my children and their friends are asking. Is there any chance that human beings can learn to love one another? Will the world last long enough for me to grow up in it? What if I die?” (“The Aim of the Writer” 227).
I know why I wrote TAKEN BY STORM, why I had to craft those difficult scenes. It was for the young women in my early morning seminary class in London, Ontario, Canada—who faced this challenge every day of their lives—and all the young women like them. In the LDS community, we lose so many young women to non-member boyfriends. The culture around us is saturated with temptation. We have to face it—confront it—and cheer for the righteous if we can.
Painful questions yield fiction that has the power to move people, change people, but not through means of persuasion. Through a story that evokes that truth. This is the power of art.
I also learned that nauseatingly good characters who never make mistakes are impossible to write about and how to judge what type of religious detail and experience to include in your novel. I’ll include some that material in later posts.
Today, let’s just start asking questions and take heart from some inspiring words from Katherine:
Amen, sister, amen!