f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Holy Complexity, Bookman! a post by Nicole Phinney Lowell

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

Monday, August 30, 2004

Holy Complexity, Bookman! a post by Nicole Phinney Lowell

The past few weeks I’ve been trying to work on a novel and been feeling pretty stuck. To help loosen up the mental sludge, I picked up a recent Christy nominee, one with a plot loosely similar to mine. I couldn't read it for long. Frankly, the book annoyed me. It wasn't that the writing was bad. In fact, individual sentences and specific images were really very strong. But that was the problem—I noticed them, and the rest of story seemed beside the point. The parts had been brought together on the pages, but they didn’t move beyond there; they didn’t enter my life the way my favorite novels have.

In an essay called “Landscape and Narrative,” writer Berry Lopez suggests that when a story is told honestly, accurately, it does more than entertain or teach. It has the power to "nurture and heal, to repair a spirit in disarray.” I can’t think of any work that sounds more holy or more difficult, and I realize it’s precisely why I read fiction.

Stories have this power to restore us, Lopez says, not because they solve problems or end evil, but because stories invoke the truth as “something alive and unpronounceable. Story creates an atmosphere in which [truth] becomes discernable as a pattern.” And when we recognize this pattern, the truth puts our hearts back together.

Jesus engaged in this kind of truth-telling when he taught in parables. To an even larger and longer extent, faith in God has always been based on the wide, deep, continually confounding stories in the Bible. These stories have endured because they enter our hearts and resonate on their own. This resonance, Lopez would argue, comes from an “irreducible, holy complexity,” he says, “and I think intimacy is indispensable.”

This was what the Christy nominee was missing, I realized, “holy complexity,” and its handmaiden intimacy. Without these two things, well-turned phrases didn’t become a story. The book lost its potential to “nurture and heal.” It left me lonely.

In his beautiful collection Grace is Where I Live, John Leax writes of his calling to poetry. He says writing "leads to involvement—a lived and living relationship with the world. It is an immersion, a baptism, a dying to self." This is as good a definition of intimacy as I've ever heard. Far from sitting in a room alone with a computer, narrative should immerse a writer in the holy complexities of a lived and living creation.

But this involvement doesn’t come cheap or easy. Leax, I think, is right when he calls it dying to self. And I realize, this is where I fail most often in my writing. I want to stay on the surface of a plot and quibble over my words. Meanwhile, I watch my characters do things, but I resist getting involved in an intimate relationship with them.

If I ever want my stories to be better than the sum of their parts, I’ll have to muster the courage to just sit with the people in my book, love them as they are, tell their stories as truthfully as I can. I’ll have to immerse myself in holy complexity, sweat and strain working at my craft. The stories won't always be pretty. They won't always have endings I understand, but healing and grace can flow from them nevertheless. I’ll have the chance to sit close to my characters and my readers, and where two or three are gathered, God is there.

Nicole lives in Denver with her husband where she's occupied teaching college freshmen what a complete sentence looks like and freelancing publicity and marketing copy for a CBA publisher. She's currently pre-occupied with writing short and longer fiction.