Category Archives: On Writing

On Being a Writer of Faith (and of Doubt)

10300238_703013109778807_6610893359144546667_nThis post originally appeared on Good Letters, the blog of Image Journal, on July 16, 2014.

I am not the kind of Christian my parents wanted me to be. Case in point: I rarely call myself a Christian in public. These days it seems more of a political statement than I’d like it to be—and often not one I’d care to make.

I just don’t want the ordeal.

Any faith I could be said to have is troubled by doubt, such that most days I do not know where one ends and the other begins. This is not a new problem for me and hardly unique. It is not even, when you come down to it, a problem. It is simply the way of things.

Most days I feel I am a terrible Christian. And most days that’s exactly what I am.

You will protest. You mean well, of course, but you don’t know me like I know me. The human heart is not an easy organ to live with. “Our ticker,” writes poet Lisa Ampleman in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Image, “is not meat / and mainspring but measure and limit.”

I go to church sporadically, sometimes because I’m feeling philosophical about the whole affair, but most times because I’m lazy. I’ve broken nearly all of the Ten Commandments, in thought if not in deed. I frequently use God’s name in vain because, to be frank, it hits the tongue just right in a moment of need and because, when I don’t want to take the blame myself, or when I don’t know how else to account for the mysterious forces of life that lead to the myriad pedestrian tragedies of everyday life, God makes the perfect scapegoat.

Christ said: Do not judge. Go in peace. Give love freely.

I habitually fail at all three.

So.

Any qualms I have with calling myself a Christian are paralleled by the qualms I have in calling myself a writer. Once I make the declaration, people want to know what it means.

What kind of writer are you? people ask me.

A terrible writer, I want to say.

It takes me hours to compose a single status update, months to complete a blog post, years to finish a novel draft that is languishing with three final chapters to go. I’ll empty the crumb tray in the toaster or scrub the toilet or watch marathon back-to-back episodes of 90s sitcoms before I will sit in the chair and write.

And even then, once I finally manage to produce something, I regularly get the most basic kind of feedback: Your ideas are vague and abstract; your sentences too long and unwieldy; your word choice awkward, imprecise.

I am a beginner still.

“There is deep gladness,” writes Francisco X. Stork, “in the acceptance that what I do, poor as it is, will be my best” (Image #79).

I do not disbelieve this, but it is hard to keep faith in the gladness when mostly what one feels, day in and day out, is the abiding poverty of it all.

I am reminded of Annie Dillard’s telling of the Hasidic rabbi who left his house every morning convinced that he would die in fits of prayer. Or, similarly, the ritual slaughterer who every day left his home and his family in tears: Who knows what will become of me after I call on the Lord’s power and before I can summon the words for mercy?

All I know to say of the writing life, and of the life of faith—which for me are one and the same—is that to attempt to write, to attempt to believe, is to suspend myself, willingly and perpetually, in that split second of time wherein I might be saved or I might be damned.

And what compels me to this life of radical suspension is the very thing that continues to steel and sustain me for it: the devoutly artistic and doggedly interfaith work of Image.

For writers and artists whose creative work is deeply, perhaps stubbornly, informed by a religious or spiritual worldview, reading the pages of Image is like coming home. In Image we encounter a rigorous yet inclusive artistic community that strikes down the myth of a heart divided between a life of art and a life of faith (or doubt, as the case might be).

The work of Image, when all is said and done, restores us to ourselves. In its pages, we are made whole again.

“Artists need communities,” writes Greg Wolfe (Image #79). “The writers need to just keep writing—and, remarkably, they’ve continued to do so.”

He’s right, of course, but I reckon many of us might not be writing today if it weren’t for the community of Image. I certainly count myself among that number.

If I can call myself any kind of Christian, if I can call myself any kind of writer—let alone (on those rarest of days) both at once—it is because of Image.

I hope I can prove myself worthy of the call.

The State of a Modern Writer

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Recently, my hubby and I tried to work together. He is a writer, too, though I doubt he would call himself this out loud, or even thinks of himself in this way; what I mean, though, is that he writes for a living. That he is a demographer at work on a dissertation and I am a daydreamer at work on a novel seems irrelevant when it comes to actually doing the work: both of us, after all, have to get our lovely little asses in our chairs and write.

 Sometimes we try to do this together. It does not work often; we are different creatures. My hubby likes coffee shops and office spaces, the gentle pressure he feels to work when other living beings are thinking and moving around him, ostensibly doing their own work in the world.

 I prefer to work at home, alone, where I have a little writing desk wedged into a corner of our living room, facing the wall so as not to become distracted. But distractions abound. There are dishes to be washed, after all, and snacks to be eaten, and back-to-back marathon episodes of Sex and the City to watch. There is also, of course, the couch, where yesterday, after changing into my workout clothes with every intention of walking outside by the canal, arms pumping, I proceeded to sit down and watch television for three and a half hours until I realized I needed to get ready to meet my hubby for a social gathering we had planned. At which time I stripped, showered, and re-dressed myself in what I hoped was casual chic before leaving the house, never having written, or worked out, at all.

 So. Today we went to the public library, my demographer-hubby and me.

I will sing the praises of my local library, whatever local library that happens to be, until my dying breath. I am a believer in libraries. I am, you might say, an enthusiast. Scratch that: I am an unapologetic evangelist.

Just not today.

Today the library was so crowded that I could not think. There was no room for my precious characters, only the obnoxious sounds and rhythms of real, live people doing real, live things—like making video calls from public computers (is this a thing now?) in supposedly sacrosanct places like the library.

The librarian directs me to the Quiet Room. Oh, I must be mistaken, I want to say, I thought the library was the Quiet Room. Like, of the universe.

I feel defeated. I return to my table, where my hubby is writing, silently and dutifully, his gorgeous ass in the chair at the shared table we’ve managed to stake out in the bustling common room. 

I’ll be right back, I tell him. He raises an eyebrow but says nothing.

I find the aisle where they keep the books about writers. Then I find the aisle where they keep the books about everything else. I come back to the table with an armful of books. My hubby looks up at me. “I thought you were going to write,” he says.

“I am,” I say. “This is writing.” Except we both know better.

So I sit down. I sigh. I flip through my books. I untie and tie my shoelace. I open my laptop. I think less than charitable thoughts at the woman behind me, who is gabbing at someone in a different time zone, the on-screen image fuzzy and frozen but still, apparently, close enough to the actual likeness of the person to merit the call. I go to the bathroom. I sit back down.

I whine about the state of the modern library to my hubby, who nods sympathetically and listens politely but then returns to his work because he is, in all ways, a better person than I am. 

I stare at the blinking cursor on my screen. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and promptly begin to fret in silence about the state of my misanthropic, curmudgeonly soul.

And this, it turns out, is the perfect condition for writing.

So there, in that quiet room of the universe, I write.