LS: Put It On the Bottom Shelf
I’m blessed with a hyperactive child named Gwynneth. Eight-years-old, she’s already perfected a British accent and a Popeye face, and she makes me laugh at her antics. We call her Lucille Ball in the making. Sometimes, however, when the little hand on the clock approaches eight and her volume approaches Harley Davidson, we all cringe and Will, my husband, will point at her and say, “Gwynnie, put the crazy on the bottom shelf.” And the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief.
Lately, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Flannery O’Connor. Essays mostly. Flannery O’Connor, a southern novelist, essayist, and writer was a “Christian novelist” before anyone thought there could be such a thing. She called herself, “a novelist with Christian concerns”, a description I find far more appealing. Recently, I’ve been centering my thoughts on “the novel as art.” This serves as a distillation of my calling, for a painter can only paint a picture and hope the work will compel those who’ve experienced his art to a higher purpose, a deeper appreciation of beauty, a greater love of truth. And as novelists we are called to provide much the same. O’Connor wrote in her essay, The Aim and Nature of Fiction, “ . . . all I mean of art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.”
So are novels by writers “with Christian concerns” vehicles for our agendas, our dogma, and our beliefs? Ideally, no. Practically speaking, yes. Because for all the glorified talk of art, we would be hard pressed to effectively banish our beliefs. How then do we aim after truth by aiming after art? The answer could be rather simple.
Let go. Or in Gwynnie lingo, put the agenda on the bottom shelf.
While most of us would love to come at our work with definite messages in place, I’ve come to the conclusion from discussions with other novelists, that normally, we end up finding out the deeper messages of our work after we’ve finished. How absolutely lovely; how organic; how creative. When I hear these words, “I want to write fiction so that I can present the gospel in a way which will really speak to people’s hearts,” my first reaction is to cringe. But then the practical side of me takes over and admits we all approach almost anything we do with an agenda. So then, as best you can, remove your agenda during the creative process, and remove yourself while you’re at it, and so let God have his way through your art.
In that frame of mind, you are on your way to creating something truthful, honest, compelling and even more honoring to the God who created you to create. “We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ.” Trust God to reveal His message through you, within your art, and you may find you have revealed a deeper truth in a more honest way than you believed possible, a truth you may not have realized before. For those of us who’ve been around the block a few times, the industry can make this a bit difficult – what with questions like, “What is the redemptive factor in this book?” or “What is the ‘take-home’ value?” asked during the proposal process. The most encouraging answer publishers could receive if they the ears to listen would be, “How should know? I haven’t written it yet!”
Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’m hoping that one day novelists with Christian concerns publishing for the Christian market aren’t forced to make up answers to questions they shouldn’t have to entertain; that one day, we can put those on the bottom shelf as well.
Author of The Church Ladies and Straight Up