Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Writing Is Not For the Faith of Heart

Guest post by Patti Hill

People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won't survive the ordeal.
~ Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners.

This is my favorite quote about novel writing. There's a touch of hyperbole in O'Connor's words (I still have my teeth!) but not much. A story owns the writer, not just for the hours set aside for tapping on computer keys, but while we sort lights from darks and wander down grocery aisles. We forget to eat, and yes, personal hygiene suffers. What's more, to write authentic fiction, we are forced to wrestle with God, dig deeper into what we believe about him and how he interacts with us and the world, and hopefully see him with fresh eyes.

Novel writing is not for the faint of heart!

But a deeper truth in O'Connor's words shakes me: Novelists plunge into reality. In our stories, we can rearrange topography, give an alien extra arms, or allow mythical characters into the landscape, but we cannot, must not, rescue our characters from their fallen natures or transfer them to a fall-less society, or save them from meaningful struggle. They will fail, not in a contrived, acceptable-to-Christian-culture way, but in a way that makes our own skin itch. That's when grace shows up.

Does this mean every novel should portray the underbelly of society?

No, but we disrespect our readers if we mishandle the human condition, both its nobility and frailty. After all, the Bible is wrought with counterexamples. Think of David; he committed adultery and sent the husband to certain death, and yet, he is the apple of God's eye. Peter denied Jesus. Judas betrayed him. Thomas forgot. Even Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. The faith life is messy!

Now, it's your turn. Have you read a novel lately where the author plunges into reality and does it well? Tell us about it.

Author Patti Hill
 Patti Hill is the author of five published novels—Like a Watered Garden, Always Green, In Every Flower, The Queen of Sleepy Eye, and Seeing Things (see below). She just completed her first historical novel, Goodness & Mercy, set during World War II. Patti writes stories to reveal how faith looks in working clothes, what faith feels like in a crisis, and how faith acts toward others who are hurting. She’s been married to Mr. Wonderful, Dennis, for 34 years. Her grown sons are handsome and brilliant, of course. When not writing, she works part-time as a librarian—pure indulgence—and acts as sous chef for her husband, a dedicated foodie. She has been a finalist in both the Christy Awards in the New Author category and for Best Book of the Year in “ForeWord” magazine.

 Birdie’s hallucinations add color and detail to vision smudged by macular degeneration, but the line between reality and whimsy turns brittle when Huck Finn appears to her. The literary character gains voice and substance over the course of his visits. And trouble follows. Birdie relies on faith, friends, and a pudgy Romeo to chart a course back to normal—or something like it. Seeing Things is a story about family, reconciliation, and hearing from God in unexpected ways.


  1. Good morning, everyone! I am thrilled to have Patti visiting us today. I was privileged to meet her at a seminar last year. She's funny, warm, encouraging, and a terrific writer!

    When you ask about books where the author pulls us into reality, I think of the books that stick with me as if they were one of my own memories or experiences. "Black Beauty" comes to mind. Sewell made a horse's life both accessible and emotional to the reader.

  2. Hi Patti! Thanks for visiting us today. I love the quote, and totally agree (except for the teeth part). I feel like I've wasted my time when the Christian characters are too perfect. It comes off as phony, and I usually tune-out and don't finish the book. Life is too short to read phony boring books. Give me depth, give me struggles, give me real conflict and resolution.

    I love Lisa Bergren's books. In spite of being historical, she makes everything so real that I can totally immerse myself in them and feel like I'm right there. She doesn't spare her characters by prettying things up for them either. They literally go through #&** and come out a new person.

    Thanks Patti! I'll be checking out your books.

  3. Hi Patti, thanks for hanging out with us today!

    I'm reading Maureen Lang's Whisper on the Wind right now and it has the sense of being immersed in another reality.

    I do have to say that sometimes I love that reality, other times I just want something light. I really admire those authors who make you think and stretch while still feeling fun and light. That takes talent!

  4. Good morning to all of you! It's good to be here. My thanks to Niki for the gracious invitation to join you. Niki and I both live in Colorado, but there are too many mountains between us for many face-to-face chats. For that reason, I'm so thankful for the Internet.

    I have to agree Niki, Suzie, and Lisa. Grace shows up most powerfully in the lives of honest people who just happen to be flawed. That's my experience, anyway. I've laid books down if the characters didn't grow or change.

    I'm also looking for hope in a story. Not the syrupy-everything's-going-to-be-dandy kind of hope, but the kind of hope that redeems suffering.

    I really like Lisa Samson's books for that, especially The Passion of Mary-Margaret.

  5. Hi Patti, I enjoy your posts on Novel Matters. Love the Flannery O'Connor quote. I used her stories when I taught college literature. Always a great way to bring in Christian concepts to the class.

    Some books I read recently that felt like they plunged me deep into reality were Embrace Me by Lisa Samson and She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell. I prefer books that take a hard look at reality over pure escapist books. Embrace Me was very real and yet oddly bizarro at the same time. Siri's was great because I get tired of historical fiction about "the good old days." This one took a hard look at the abuses of the Victorian time period while still managing to provide a satisfying romance.

  6. Great to see you here, Patti! I love that quote. If you're not sustained by the hope of something as you write, you're pretty much a goner. So true!

  7. Hey there, Dina and Jennifer, thanks for joining the conversation. I'm going to check out that Siri Mitchell book. You're not the first one to recommend it. Most true-to-the-period history books make me very happy to be living now, not that we're free of life's harsh realities, but we have comfortable undergarments AND air conditioning. I also love waste treatment plants and flushing toilets. Oh my, you've gotten me started. And my laptop!

  8. LOL. Agreed. The best historical fiction makes me forget all the amenities they lacked.
    The Healer's Apprentice is one of the more recent historicals I've read that had that "real" factor and combined a presentation of Christ and the spirit realm in a believable way.

  9. Hey Patti, welcome to the Inkwell. Good quote!

    Books I've read lately with touch on realism are Karen Witemeyer's To Win Her Heart, and Rhythm of Secrets by Patti Lacey.

    Your books sounds very interesting. Wherever did you get the idea?

  10. Anita: Thanks for asking! I have a podcast on my website: on that very topic. I didn't even know there was such a thing as Macular Degeneration before I listened to a science podcast and I asked, "What if?"

    Thanks for having me!

  11. Flannery O'Connor was the lady of the day yesterday. Mike Duran had a post on his blog about her, and whether she was a Christian writer or a writer who was a Christian. Interesting.

    Patti, thank you SO MUCH for visiting with us and sharing your thoughts. We were blessed, and hope you were, too!

  12. There was just a nice strong conversation about this subject recently--online--and I find I can't get enough of it. I think we want to decide our target audience for each piece of fiction when in fact we just can't. Many Christian authors don't want to see anything that they feel will distract them or make them stumble, so they are adamant against edgy fiction. But not everyone is 'preaching to the choir'.

    I also just read an interesting interview with Linda Windsor and found out that she wrote Healer, and the second book Thief with the idea of it being a tool to reach New Age readers, Obviously there's a market for a wide variety of Christian Fiction or the whole market would have stalled years ago when all Christian characters were sweet and flawless...

    Thank you so much for visiting with us Patti! I'm sorry to be late to the party.


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