f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of Lying Awake - The Unexpected

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Day 3 of Lying Awake - The Unexpected

I don’t know if it’s a rule or not, but it’s not the worst idea, when starting a book, to look at your genre or type of novel, think about expectations readers might have for the book and then try to confound those expectations, at least a little. This shouldn’t be such astounding advice, it’s essentially avoiding cliché, but I think I’m trying to suggest that you take it one step further.

Whether it’s giving a character an unusual hobby or flaw, writing in a unexpected foil to your main character, or writing small scenes that allow you counterpoint to your main themes or tropes, it’s all about shading and depth in your story.

Let’s take an example everybody knows. Indiana Jones. Not content to make him a superman, Spielberg/Lucas saddled him with a phobia that played out wonderfully over the three films. “Snakes. I hate snakes.”

In Lying Awake, the most unexpected thing in the novel was the humor. Ask me to name start naming adjectives that describe a monastery and I don’t think “funny” or “mirthful” would crack the top fifty. Same thing for nuns in general.

And yet.

We have Mother Mary Joseph and Sister John shaking with noiseless laughter when Sister John forgot to remove the napkin from her habit when leaving the scriptorium. We have Sister Bernadette warning Sister John that if she didn’t bring menus back after a trip to Italy she’d be sprayed with a water hose. We have the whole section talking about the place of humor in the world of a cloistered nun.

Compare this with the solemnity of tone and characterization in Mariette in Ecstasy. Salzman’s world comes off as more believable to me somehow. Humor is so engrained in our humanity that it must be a part—in some form—of such a close-knit group of people and that expression would be, as Salzman notes, the pressure valve helping them survive the “urgency, difficulty, and seriousness” of their mission.

Was writing humorous scenes Salzman’s main focus? Certainly not, but he offered them as waystations of humanity for us to identify more fully with his characters. For me at least, the life of any nun or monk, particularly a cloistered life, is practically off the charts in my ability to connect to it. We need those touchstones that draw us close to the characters. It could’ve been a lot of things, but the one that worked for me was Salzman’s sprinkling of humor. Like spice to a recipe, it is meant to enhance and support the meal, not become the flavor itself.

Go to Day 4 of Lying Awake.