I don’t wanna waste your time
With music you don’t need
Why should I autograph the book
That you won’t even read?
I got a different scar for every song
And blood left still to bleed
But I don’t wanna waste your time
With music you don’t need
--Over the Rhine, “Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time”
Writing is a funny thing. Like, right now I’m writing about as quickly as I possibly can, as my thoughts are all in a row, ready to go, begging to tumble out of my head and through my fingers. About two minutes ago I was slogging through writing a scene that I can absolutely, completely see in my head but that I simply can’t seem to put in to words. Writing is a fickle bitch like that, I suppose.
I’m back to my old project. It’s existed in one form or another for a good five years now. I’ve known exactly what the main narrative was literally since the beginning. In a very real way it came to me in a dream.
I like dreams. They’re cool. When I’m dreaming my brain isn’t so encumbered with those issues that are so important otherwise in coming up with a narrative. Is it realistic? Is it flattering? My dreaming brain doesn’t care. It’s got a story to tell for its own nefarious purposes and it’s going to tell that story come hell or high water. Last night I had a dream that involved leading a Roman infantry unit in a library. I mean, seriously.
Anyway, dreams. Specifically, that one dream that has haunted me for five years or so.
I actually remember basically nothing of the dream itself. What I do remember, though, was that there was an eight year-old girl named Morgan in the dream. And at the very end of it, when all else had been resolved (or, y’know, dream resolved), she looked at me and said, “Tell my story.”
I woke up that morning with the plot of a book in my head. Oddly, the plot had absolutely nothing to do with the dream. It was like this little dream child had provided me with her back story when I wasn’t paying attention or something.
The problem was that it wasn’t a story I was capable of writing in 2005. I lacked the skill to actually do the story justice. It was this story about love and loss, fear and grace, and realizing that everything you’d wanted to accomplish in your life had just fallen by the wayside. It was about waking up one morning and realizing that the world had passed by and you’d just watched it happen. Mostly, oddly, it was about fathers. But, really, it was about the heavenly father.
I wrote little bits of it back when I first conceived of it. They were character sketches, really, attempts to cement aspects of the people who inhabited the story in my mind. I absolutely know that one of those bits will make it in to the final in basically the form in which I first wrote it. I strongly suspect a couple of the other bits will make it in one form or another, too.
That’s one of the craziest things about this. I know these characters. I’ve known them from the moment they popped in to existence. I know how they interact, I know how they talk. I know their fears and desires. The fact that they only exist in my head doesn’t seem to be a problem. Although I suppose it’s a recipe for insanity. Hell, maybe that’s the line between writer and mental patient.
The book at the time I conceived of it was probably a reflection of my own mental state. Also, that statement makes no sense. Of course the book was a reflection of my mental state at the time. I’d finished a different book not so long before that I’d intended to sell to the Christian publishing world. To this day I think it’s actually a pretty good book, just with several fatal, gaping flaws. The biggest problem is that it ended with the standard Jesus-based sales pitch. Although I suppose that it kind of worked on a weird level. It was your basic boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy becomes a Christian because otherwise he’s unacceptable to girl story. So I guess it works on the level of social commentary on why we choose to believe or not.
But the problem was that it didn’t follow. The boy did meet the girl. The boy did fall for the girl. The boy wasn’t a Christian and the girl was. But she seemed to appreciate him for who he was. And she seemed to be aware of the fact that “Christian” didn’t necessarily mean “a good person,” nor did “non-Christian” necessarily mean “worthless.”
And I say “seemed to” as if I didn’t really know this character who exists entirely in my head and on the hard drive of my computer. The truth is that I don’t know her entirely. I find that my characters have an odd habit of telling me who they are even though I’m usually pretty sure it should be the other way around. But if you develop a voice and a story, then let the character react in his or her own way, you tend to find out that the character isn’t who you think they are.
Terrible things happen to the characters in my stories. People in my stories do terrible things. Every once in a while I wonder if I’m some sort of fictional sadist. But I take no delight in having to write about those things. They’re usually a part of the back story of the character and where we are now is looking in on them as they deal with life in light of the things that have happened to them. How does someone who has been abused learn how to trust again? How does someone who has lost everything ever feel secure again? What happens when someone who has been abandoned and someone who has been abused pull in to the same orbit? How do they interact? How do they respond? Do they fall in love or do they leave?
When I first conceived of my five year project I thought the answer was simple. It was all about god. Deus ex machine. The interesting thing, though, is that I didn’t have an end to the book. I might have literally had to have god step in to fix everything.
In my own life at the time, though, I was realizing that god didn’t make a habit of stepping in and fixing things. It never seemed to happen, no matter how many times I was promised it would. When I left the church I still had the book, though.
The weird thing is that it started making a lot more sense. As soon as I wasn’t slaved to the idea of writing a Christian book I was free to let the characters genuinely question the situations in which they found themselves. I was also free to let them find answers that weren’t necessarily the proper Christian answers. They’re free to find answers that aren’t Christian at all.
But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to write about. I need to remember. Specifically, I need to remember what it was like to go to church, what it was like to pray and genuinely believe god was there, waiting. I need to remember the feeling that god was actually listening. I need to remember the despair of feeling no answers were forthcoming.
Mostly, though, I need to figure out how to write about it in a way that’s not disparaging or embarrassed. That’s the thing I’m having the absolute hardest time with in all of it. I can see the scene. I can see the people in the scene. I can hear them interacting. But when one kneels to pray I lose the words.
Because the weird thing about this is that it’s not a book about how Christianity is wrong. It’s not even a book about how Evangelical Christianity is wrong. I have no intention of disproving anything, and I think it’s folly to use fiction as a vehicle for that, anyway. It is, instead, about the gradual realization that if you’re going to claim god has a plan when things are good, you have to be able to admit that bad things come from the same place.
It’s about the gradual realization that simplistic explanations don’t add up. It’s about the point where, “God is in control,” stops being comforting and becomes horrifying.
My writing methods get in the way, though. I need to be able to express genuine belief. I need to be able to express honest doubt. I need to be able to express tenacious attempts to hold on to the former in the face of the latter. But in order to do that I need to remember what it’s like to feel that belief and to want so strongly to hold on to it.
Music, I’ve long known, is a key aspect to my writing. It creates the mood I need to feel to properly write. What I’ve found is that I actually need to pull out my old Christian music in order to properly do this. Andrew Peterson, Eric Peters, Mitch McVicker, Caedmon’s Call. It’s all stuff I thought I’d put away forever. And yet, here we are. Life’s funny like that sometimes, I guess.