f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Writing the Spirit: An Exercise in Bringing the Supernatural to Light

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Writing the Spirit: An Exercise in Bringing the Supernatural to Light

For the most part, we don’t know how to write, in fiction, about faith. What ends up coming out too often sounds like a Sunday sermon, or goes the other way and becomes muddled and meaningless, lost in obscurity. I think the reason for this is two-fold.

A. We don’t necessarily understand our own faiths and how we interact with God.
B. Writing about the supra-natural is simply difficult business.

In the books we discuss here, I’d like to present passages of the work, if it is in a place that won’t spoil the entire work, and see how other authors are managing it.

In Liars and Saints, family matriarch Yvette Santerre is convalescing at a convent, supposedly because she is pregnant. This, however, is a complicated lie (see the title) spun to protect a daughter. A Catholic, Yvette is laboring under the weight of her guilt for this lie and, after an afternoon of work, she returns to her room and tries to pray.

The prayer that follows is in narrative form. This is very important, I feel. Too often, writers feel compelled to put prayer into dialogue. It is spoken out loud or in the mind, but it comes out word for word. Personally, I feel this misses the point of prayer, which isn’t necessarily the words said, but what is truly meant. Narrative allows the meaning of the prayer, what God hears, to be shared with the reader. It’s a nice little trick and ends up sounding less stilted and more substantial than words that are spoken. See this portion from the book:

She began at the beginning. She prayed for forgiveness for defying her father in marrying Teddy. Her father loved her, that was all, and he hadn’t wanted her to move so far away. She had done it blithely, sure her father would come around, but he never had….

This is just a small example. Yvette continues praying, eventually getting to her guilt. Then, the supernatural:

She had just finished praying, still high from Maria-Jose’s Chesterfield, when she felt at once the heaviness of what she had undertaken to keep from Teddy, and a rushing upward in the top of her head. She caught her breath, and looked down, and saw her own kneeling figure at the window below. She could study the part in the dark hair on the top of her head: it was a little crooked. She no longer felt the aching in her knees—she no longer felt anything. She willed her body to look up, but it stayed in the attitude of prayer, while she floated above.

It’s a small moment, and precisely rendered. The detail of looking at the part in her hair, tells us all we need to know of her perspective. The whole thing lasts a few moments and then Yvette seeks out the Mother Superior to help her understand what happens. The nun’s response is to tell Yvette never to do that again, which confirms the mysticism of the moment, tingeing it with power and danger. Throughout her life Yvette returns to that moment as a true spiritual experience.

This also is important. We all have those inexplicable moments in our life where God seems near or we feel we have caught a glimpse of the divine. They may not change us as much as we hope, but they are important and we do not forget them.

In all, I think Liars and Saints succeeds in this spiritual moment, and it’s truly one of the few in the book. Catholicism is presented mostly as practical or mechanical and rarely touches the spirit. When it does, however, there is a bit of soaring.