Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Faith and Writing

I have always had a strong faith in God. When I am doubtful and wavering about myself, my Christianity is not one of the things I wonder about. In middle school and high school I made no secret of my love for God and my desire to seek Him first in my life. I read my Bible often, often in public. I incorporated my faith in my writing: creative, compositions, even science papers.

But I didn't choose to go to a Christian college, and I got a lot of questions from people about that. I think it seemed to others the natural course for me, but my decision was based on my belief that if all Christians went to Christian schools, who would be salt and light to the students who didn't know Him at public universities?

I was not afraid to stand for God at Penn State. I have not ever been afraid to stand for God.

So why is it in my own writing, I find myself wondering how far to go?

In my first novel, the characters were not people of any faith, who found themselves facing difficult decisions with moral dilemmas. I chose, before I even put a word on the page, to have the two main characters do the right thing at the very end, even though it was not the thing they wanted to do, not the thing 90% of characters in books would do. I wrote it that way, not just because of my faith, but because I am tired of seeing movies and TV shows and books depicting people as puppets of their own desires, without the ability to see right from wrong, to choose right even when it is hard, to face the consequences that come from immoral choices. I am tired of affairs being no big deal. Affairs rip families apart. They desecrate a person's ability to trust anyone, for a very long time. They lead to lies and guilt and rage and depression. I wanted Caroline to stand on the brink of this canyon, consider the jump, play at it a bit, see all she has in life on the edge of disintegrating, and choose to take the right path, even when her heart is longing for something else.

This decision was not a hard one for me, until I began to wonder if it put the book in a no-man's land. It isn't a Christian book. Moral, maybe, but not Christian. It's not something I would hunt out a Christian publisher for. But maybe it's a little too straight-laced for the secular publishing industry. I find myself wondering if it's possible to be faithful to my faith, and be competitive at the same time. Who wants to read a book about an affair that never happens? (The book is about so much more than that, but I can hear an agent picking this out as the sticking point).

Even more surface than this, though, is language. People in real life swear. I know. I hear it all the time. I hear it from the mouths of kids who learned it from their parents. But I don't swear. I have never, once, even said so much as damn, or God, in a swearing manner. And it bothers me to read books with a lot of language in them. My writing teacher told my class back in college, when it seemed the students wanted to sprinkle generous doses of language through their stories just because they were in college and now they could, that seeing a word on a page is much more powerful than hearing the word, and you have to be careful how you decided to use it, and how often, because even people who talk that way may find it abrasive to see a lot of it in writing.

It seems like every book I pick up these days is strewn with it, so I'm not sure if what he said is true, or if the publishing industry hasn't figured that out yet, but it does bother me. I read a great book last week that I won't be buying for the three people I usually buy books for because I know the language would be offensive to them. Even though the story was really good. And don't even get me started on the language in books that are aimed at the middle grade and youth market. What agent - editor-publisher decided it was okay to put language that makes a movie an R-rated movie in a book aimed at middle schoolers??

But I know people do use language like this. And my characters are people. And sometimes, not people who would care so much about swearing. So what do I do then? Although in my own world I might say, "Oh my gosh!" or "Holy cow!" or "what in the world?" these statements sound hollow and funny on the page. In the first novel, I managed around this, sidestepping these moments like land mines. I've heard others deride cuss words as a lazy way of talking, using the easy words rather than finding the specific ones. This is definitely true in writing because, in choosing not to use the swearing or the easy, lazy alternates I sometimes use, I was forced to choose good, specific words. Lively words. Better words. I think the writing is stronger because of that, although I wonder if someone will actually read it and say, "hey, there's no cursing here.... this isn't realistic!"

This book that I am working on now faces the same struggle. In a crescendo of crisis, in the flow of the dialogue, Travis says, "What the hell?" I hesitated before I wrote it. I know some of you are laughing at that, but for me this was a big deal. There was nothing better to capture this moment - his surprise and shock and anger. I left it, but I have revisited it several times, wondering if I should write something in the book that I would never say myself. These people are not me, not by a long shot, and yet I am still the author. It is my name on the cover (someday, I hope). And what I believe in my personal life colors every part of my life, including my writing.

This book, in contrast to the first one, is a bit about faith. It's faith clashing with science. There is a church community that plays an important role, although not necessarily always a positive one. And they are Texan, so there are lots of other great substitutions for language. "Oh sugar" is my favorite one so far.

Still, I wonder if the aspect of their faith, and my own, will make this a less viable book. And I feel like I am in no man's land again.


  1. Whooo! don't I know it....

    I didn't go to Christian college either, even though my grandparents would have footed the bill. I didn't really want to go to college at all, but I chose to go to art school. Ha. Whatever. Anyways, I have had my faith struggles but the result is that with every struggle it gets stronger.

    My book isn't a Christian book either. But two of the main characters are Mennonite, like me, and there are plenty of scenes with the girls sitting in church writing notes to each other.

    Their faith, or lack of, definitely shapes the story. But, I didn't have them all on their knees being converted at the end. There are hints as to what their lives could be like, but I don't spell it all out.

    I'm going for mainstream agents. I don't think a Christian publisher would want my book. There is a lot of bad language in it -- which I feel like I have to constantly apologize for. I am not perfectly clean mouthed myself I admit. But I always say OH MY GOSH and none of my characters swear with God's name. I couldnt' bring myself to do that!

    At first I thought I was writing a YA but it bothered me the whole time that it's such a nasty, gritty story. I can't pitch it as YA. I don't want my own kid reading it.

    So yeah, lit fic about teenagers struggling with their Christian faith while sorting through a friend's suicide and drug use. I, too, am in no man's land here...

  2. One more thing Heidi--

    I would like to read more stories where the affair doesn't happen. Just want you to know that.

    The way you described the situation in your first book sounds so much more interesting- more internal conflict - than if the character just gives in and does it.