It’s a dark and stormy day… Outside the wind is howling. (A perfectly true cliché on this October day!) A constant rain is pouring from the sky and on occasion is sounds like someone is tossing buckets of water at our windows. I’m sitting down to rewrite one of the stories that will be part of my thesis. It’s a hard story. I’ve been thinking about how to proceed with it for days. And the word I keep coming back to when I don’t know what to write is “honesty.”
This particular story (the one I’m just about to get to, when I’m done here) is personal. In it I’m exploring the myriad of emotions I’ve felt and situations I’ve encountered over the years as my spiritual beliefs have changed away from those of my family of origin. It’s a topic I’ve thought about for more hours than I can count. The potential for misunderstanding is great.
My hope with this personal story, though, is not to tell my own story. My hope is to transcend my own story. My story is small. In a world of billions, it is a speck in time and history. But the truth I’m trying to get at is relevant, and will be for as long as people exist. My challenge is to get out of my own way, to move beyond my own experience, to reach beyond my own hang-ups and fears.
Early in 2012, I wrote a blog post in which I was fretting about whether I should be writing fiction or nonfiction. (It’s about scary stuff, which seems relevant this week since it’s Halloween and I’m writing about religion.) At the time, fiction seemed terrifying. Now I believe that the idea of choosing one genre over another is kind of a silly notion. My job as a writer is to explore the human experience and I’d be limiting myself if I allowed myself just one avenue for exploration. My constant work, my never-ending hope as a writer, is to find the best way possible to tell a story or articulate an idea, an emotion or an experience.
In the case of this story I’m rewriting, fiction is the tool that’s helping me get the job done. It’s the tool that allows me to wedge in, from a safe distance, to one of the most consuming topics of my own life. With this tool I can pluck out morsels of truth from my own history and plop those truths down into the lives of characters that are nothing like me, who may behave very differently than me. With its help I can dig deeper into those hidden corners of my own understanding and pull out surprises that I didn’t know were lurking in the background—like my own biases and my own tendency toward intolerance.
In this way, I suppose writing fiction is something to be feared. Not because it’s impossible (although it does feel that way sometimes), but because it can lead you to dark places within yourself. And when you see those less than flattering things that live inside your heart you have to make a decision. In my case, it’s do I acknowledge my biases and try to overcome them, or do I ignore them.
And isn’t that just like writing to go full circle on a topic? You sit down to explore religion and its role in your life, and you find that the writing itself is a lot like religion. It’s a way toward empathy and truth. It challenges me to be a better person.