There has been quite a lot of discussion on this blog lately about the moral standards that ought (or ought not) to govern a faithful Catholic’s creation of literature. If you’re just joining us, it all started with Johnathan McDonald’s consideration of how the abolishment of the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books shifts the impetus of protecting audiences from dangerous literature to the author him/ herself. Katy Carl jumped in with a response, and several posts later, Josh Nadeau expanded the discussion to look at the audience’s responsibility in engaging with morally suspect works. The result has been the development of the “Four e’s” – explicit, exploitative, enticing, and endorsing – as lenses through which to look at the moral content of a work, though learning how to use the “Four e’s” as an analytical tool is still an ongoing process.
However, the analysis so far has centered around finished works of art, not the process of creating art. If the goal is to empower Catholic authors to tell their stories in morally acceptable ways that enhance – rather than detract from – the story’s aesthetic value, then we have to go deeper than the surface of the finished product. We have to delve into the process of creation. Johnathan and Katy touched on this in Purifying the Source and its response, but I think something more concrete is required.
Last year, I published my debut novel, Jennifer the Damned. My protagonist and narrator, Jennifer Carshaw, is a sixteen-year-old orphan vampire who has been raised by nuns. Her vampirism is a metaphor for concupiscence; Jennifer never consented to become a vampire. Her desire to kill is a product of someone else’s sin, and she would gladly rid herself of it if she could. But she can’t, and her sinful desires lead her into depravity that is, well, worthy of a horror novel.
I do not intend this post to be an infomercial for my book, but in writing it, I did a lot of soul-searching about precisely the kinds of questions we’ve been discussing here. The Catholic writer’s duty to his audience really is to purify himself and his creative process, and to trust the Lord to use his talents in ways that serve His divine purpose. So, let’s talk about the creative process. Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of purification.
More than once, I have referred to fiction as the laboratory of the soul. It is the place where we experiment with the consequences of the full range of human behaviors, and the means by which we do so is empathy. Readers submerse themselves in the inner lives of the characters to discover how real people think, feel, act, and react. The characters in books do not put up the same sorts of barriers to intimacy that real people do – at least, not to the reader. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is a reclusive, taciturn S.O.B. whose family and friends pound their heads against walls trying to understand him, but the reader gets full access to the inner workings of his twisted mind. For most of us, that’s as close as we ever want to come to understanding what it’s like to be a murderer; but it is good to come at least that close, to realize that even murderers are still human beings worthy of understanding. This is empathy that we can (hopefully) translate into our relationships with actual reclusive, taciturn S.O.B.s, and everyone else, too.
But to write such a character requires opening oneself to be the medium who brings that fictional person’s depravity into the world. The relationship between author and character is a bit like the relationship between Elliott and E.T. in the movie E.T. The character is an alien presence who imparts his emotions to the author so that the author can express them to the rest of the world. This can be a thrilling experience (think: flying bikes), but playing medium to a fictional consciousness can also be terrifying. To open oneself to empathize with a murderous un-dead demon (like I did) could easily be an act of self-destruction. Not because there is any great likelihood that writing about murder will tempt the author to commit one, but to descend, even in the imagination, into the mind of someone who is willing to sacrifice a human being to her own carnal desires; to invest one’s energies in someone who speaks heresies with the certainty of truth; to pore over how to express the darkest dreams of a soulless monster… Such a process is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining. True empathy is only possible when one is able to draw some kind of parallel, however tenuous, between one’s own experience and the other person’s. To write about darkness requires delving into one’s own darkness. My sins are not as dramatically evil as Jennifer’s, but I still had to draw on my own experiences of sin in order to depict hers. And then, I had to give her the words to justify her actions to herself. Believe me when I say, that process could easily lead a writer to despair.
The obvious solution is to say that Christian writers ought not to make such an attempt. Why open oneself to the temptation to despair merely for the sake of a story? But this is the coward’s way out. It denies the very nature of what writing is – or at least, what it should be.
Christian writers often speak about writing as a vocation, and I firmly believe it is. The usual thought is that the writer is a vessel through whom God speaks to others; but the first person God seeks to shape by means of a story is the writer him/ herself. For someone who truly views writing as a calling, the first link in the chain of communication comes directly from God to the writer. And God is not a coward. He has a long, rich history of calling very ill-suited people to do weird and seemingly impossible things. The Catholic writer who feels called to create stories about horrific sin should not dismiss that calling out of fear. He should do what anyone should do when pondering a vocation: he should pray for discernment.
What does discernment look like for a writer? I’m sure the answers are as varied as writers themselves. Below are some of the insights about this process that I gained by living through it, but my list is not meant to be exhaustive. I learned on the fly, and I made a lot of mistakes. If you find holes to poke in my formula or have wisdom of your own to add, please do. My thoughts are only meant to be a piece of a larger discussion. (The “you” I’m addressing below could be any Catholic writer, but it is first and foremost myself.)
Remember that it is God who gives you your words. If you have prayed and asked God to guide your writing, He will. But remember that you are asking for help from the same God who flooded all of creation to destroy it, who made rivers run with blood, who left His own people to wander in the desert for forty years, and who sent His only Son to be crucified. He did these things to His own beloved children. Don’t be surprised when He demands that you do the same things to your characters.
It is not a sin to “feel dirty.” Writing about anything vividly enough can make it seem very real. That is the point of writing fiction, after all: to make the story come to life. If you are writing about murder, incest, abortion, or any other gruesome act, your stomach ought to turn. You ought to feel drained and disgusted. If you don’t, then you didn’t write it very well. If your character is a blasphemer, you have to write blasphemies. Pray for the grace to let the story dramatize the reasons why those blasphemies are lies, but you still have to enter into the mind of the character who believes them. Likewise, sex is real. To ignore it is dishonest. In some stories, it may be enough to write, “He led her into the bedroom.” In others, it won’t be – and you may not know which way is the right way until you’ve written the scene six times. You cannot find the line between “too explicit” and “just right” if you are afraid to see both sides. Fiction is a laboratory where we experiment with morality without having to commit actual sins. The fact that those sins often feel real does not mean they are.
You will know good work by its fruit. I’m not talking about book sales and reviews. Those do not exist yet while you’re writing. If the process of writing leads you to speak and act in uncharitable ways – if it causes you to commit real sins, as it sometimes did to me – then it is time to step back and reconsider. The problem may or may not be the content of your story; it might have something to do with the time you’re devoting to writing at the expense of other matters, or you may have stopped listening to God’s directions, or any number of other problems. Step back. Pray. Discern. Change. But if you sense that something strange and wonderful is happening, something inexplicable and scary that you might not be able to explain, something that causes your soul to expand… keep going. If your writing makes you better, that is reason enough to continue.
Love your characters unconditionally. All of them. Not just the soulless vampire who longs to be human, but the even more depraved soulless vampire who created her. For a Catholic, there are no throwaway people. If your character is Judas Iscariot or Adolf Hitler, love him. If your character is a nameless guy buying a Coke at the Qwik-E-Mart, love him. Kurt Vonnegut (not a believer, but a wise man) had this to say:
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their madeup tales.
And so on.
Remember: you are writing to practice empathy. The nameless guy at the Qwik-E-Mart might get gunned down in a drive-by shooting and never be identified, but the story should never treat him as disposable. If the author loves him, it never will. To the utmost extent possible, the author’s love for his characters should mimic Divine love – including the love that allows us the free will to sin and die.
Hopefully, as you watch the story unfold, you will be granted insights about why God called you to walk through darkness, both in terms of why the story required it and why you yourself needed to take that journey. Only then, after you understand what you’ve been given, is it time to start asking how the story might affect a reader.
Ask why – and be able to answer it. So, now you’re living under the patently bizarre impression that God called you to write a scene about a vampire who sucks embalming fluid out of a dead body. It’s definitely time to apply the “exploitative” test. What purpose does the scene serve in the development of character and story? Could it be served equally well in less appalling ways? If not, why not? What impression does the reader take away? Is there anything that could be construed as merely titillating, or endorsing vice? My own novel is an exploration of concupiscence and the nature of sin. The nature of sin is both violent and profane. I could not write any other kind of story.
Find the right kind of people to give you criticism. This is the hardest piece of the puzzle to fit in. The right people are few, far between, and extremely busy. These are people who know good writing but also understand the moral imperatives you seek to serve. They do not necessarily need to be Catholic (unless you’re crazy enough to make your whole plot hinge on the truth of Catholic doctrine, like I did), but they need to be people who are not afraid to say, “You’ve crossed the line,” and help you explore why – yet they can’t be Philistines. These people do exist. Do not rest until you find them. I flatly refused to self-publish my book because I knew, deep in my heart, that my draft was not complete. I cannot express how grateful I am to have found the right people to help highlight and clarify both its moral and aesthetic content. But I didn’t really “find” them. God sent them.
For a writer, “purifying the source” is not necessarily something that happens before he puts pen to paper. Rather, God uses the act and vocation of writing to purify him. To learn greater empathy, whether through fiction or through real encounters with other people, is always an experience that brings us closer to the mind of God, who understands the inner workings of every human soul. I am a very imperfect person who wrote a very imperfect book, but by calling me to empathize with demons, God led me into a more profound love for Him and my fellow human beings. My job now is not to worry about how my words will affect sensitive readers; my job is to trust that God has a plan, and He will carry it out. Most days, I do that job very badly. But so did Jennifer – and I, her creator, love her anyway.