Truth and Presentation: A Theology and Spiritual Formation of Creative Writing

A quick throwback to, wow, a year and a half now. I am brainstorming for a lecture I’m giving this fall on gender and God (and its play in fiction, like I do), and I found myself returning to this essay I wrote in one of my theology and the arts classes. This was my theology of creative writing. It’s pretty pretentious–I knew that then–but I think I’m on to something. The more I’m asked to articulate this–what good is theology and literature–the closer I feel I get to the truth.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
. . . The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—”
–Emily Dickinson

Art, though writing in particular, deals primarily with the question of, “What is Truth?”[1] a profoundly theological conundrum. Even a fiction writer (or perhaps especially) is trying to convince her reader of something, whether that is that the world has meaning (Vonnegut), that Nature speaks the language of God (Dillard and the transcendentalists), or that life is full of chaos (the postmodernists). The only question second to the first—“What is Truth?”—is, “How do I present this Truth?” The role of the Christian writer, then, is to marry these two questions by creating in such a way that both honors Truth and brings beauty into the world; this is a transformative practice.[2]

George Orwell introduces this marriage in his essay, “Why I Write.” He states that there are four reasons why one writes—to furnish one’s ego, to bring beauty into the world, to collect histories, or to enact change.[3] With his own work, Orwell chose to combine the second and fourth reasons for writing—the aesthetic with what he broadly calls the “political.” Writing, like other art forms, should not just be about creating something that looks or sounds pleasing. Nor should writing just tell you what to think; rather, it’s through the medium of creative writing—a medium that preaches showing over telling—that change in a person is promoted. [4] Orwell writes,

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I want to write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.[5]

The Christian writer ought to have the same disposition; she should ask herself before and during the writing process: what Truth do I want to share with the world? And, what is the best vehicle for that Truth to be conveyed? What’s more: sometimes the Truths of writing aren’t discovered until after the author has finished her work. And sometimes those Truths are different for the reader than for the writer.

George MacDonald speaks of the written word a bit differently. Instead of separating the Truth from the style of a work, he equates them. For MacDonald, poetry is Truth. It is “the highest form of the utterance of man’s thoughts,” which exposes the Truth of she who writes. Poetry is what taught people how to write, to convey Truth at all. And prose itself “is but broken down poetry.”[6]

Truth

If these are the priorities of the Christian writer—Truth and its presentation (its Beauty)—then what is the theology of a Christian writer? First, the writer must believe there is a Truth to be known. And more, the writer must believe that that Truth can be known. The Truth that we’re speaking of here goes deeper than the “subject” of a piece.[7] Often the subject of a story or poem is not its Truth, but is connected more closely to its style. For instance, you would be remiss to call Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” a story about a man-turned-cockroach without talking about the universal plight of the modern man.[8] No, the Truth of a writing is often masked by the content of a piece, and its style (presentation).

The main task of the writer in regard to Truth, then, is to decide her position to it. As said earlier, a Christian writer must believe that Truth exists, and it can be known. This has its foundation in Scripture, particularly in Jesus’ statement in the Fourth Gospel: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”[9] The writer has other considerations regarding truth, though, that are tied to its presentation. All styles of writing interact with Truth differently. Without talking much about its presentation, the style of prose known as classic style deals with Truth that seems consistent with a Christian’s claim to it (that it can be known, particularly in Christ).[10]

In their book on classic style, Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner write that the author of this type of prose does not only believe that Truth can be known, but also that all readers have what it takes to understand that Truth.[11] The Truth, then, is not contingent on any person’s experience, but it’s eternal.[12] The Truth has always been there, prior to any person’s experience of it. In other words, the Truth of a writing is what’s already been created. It’s what Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water would call either the chaos (what needs re-creating) or the creation of God. Truth is also tacit, recognizable.[13] “We recognize truth when we see it,” write Thomas and Turner, “even though the encounter with truth is brief and difficult to sustain.”[14] The role of the writer is to make that Truth available and clear to her reader, through the style of writing she employs.

Presentation

There are many styles of writing that interact with Truth. Forms such as poetry and prose can then be separated into sub-styles—like free verse, blank verse, iambic trimeter, and sonnets for poetry; and plain, reflexive, practical, contemplative, and classic for prose.[15] For these styles of writing, especially with prose, the author must make decisions about the Truth she is exposing. Can it be understood by all readers or just some? Is it limited to a person’s individual experience? After those decisions, she decides how she is going to reveal Truth.

In classic prose, the presentation or style of writing serves the subject and the Truth wholly. It tries not to distract from what’s most important. Other forms of writing attempt to obscure the Truth; others embellish it. However the writer chooses to present the Truth, what remains the same in all styles of writing is the element of creation. Here the writer has “creative license” to do as she pleases. L’Engle calls this act “co-creating” with God the Creator. The writer is living into herself as the imago Dei, the image of God in her creative acts.[16]

Lauren’s Writing

In my own writing, I employ a style of barrenness. My love for minimalism in all areas of my life has led me to a writing style that feels empty. I intentionally leave out details and descriptions, letting the mind of my reader fill those in. How I do this is primarily through syntax (sentence structure) and the overall structure of a piece. Sentences themselves may feel full and interesting, though each “scene” of my often fragmented, non-chronological writing is sparse. I have exaggerated the advice of one writing professor: the key to writing good creative non-fiction (my primary form) is what you don’t leave in.[17] I purposely leave a lot out in order to avoid over-explaining or, a greater sin, over emotionalizing. What remains are the “tools” a reader needs to understand the Truth of my writing.

Faith and Trust: Transformed through Writing

All creating is a formational practice of faith and trust. In faith, the Christian writer believes there’s something worth writing about, a Truth that needs telling. John Updike, in a speech on religion and literature, said,

Fiction is rooted in an act of faith: a presumption of an inherent significance in human activity that makes daily life worth dramatizing and particularizing. There is even a shadowy cosmic presumption that the universe–the totality of what is, which includes our subjective impressions as well as objective data–composes a narrative and contains a poem, which our own stories and poems echo. . . . The writer’s most important asset is not wisdom or skill but an irrational, often joyous sense of importance attaching to what little he knows; and this is a religious sensation.[18]

If the theology of the writer is true, that it’s about presenting a Truth, then she must constantly be seeking the Truth, then translating that—grounding that—in the particular.[19] Therefore whatever the Christian writes—whether it’s about Mexican immigrants, small-town America, or mitochondria[20]—if she is faithful to her task, it will be Christian art, “whether she mentions Jesus or not.”[21] Good art is the product of good religion, writes L’Engle, and bad art, bad religion.[22]

In trust, the Christian writer submits to the Spirit of God who flows through her, to create something when the creative well dries up.[23] The Holy Spirit can be an Inspirer of creativity, the way She hovered over the waters of creation[24] and filled the artisans who crafted the tabernacle of YHWH.[25] The Spirit, when given the freedom to move, can transform the writer in more than just her craft.[26] The Spirit can transform a writer by leading her into darkness and into grace. By guiding her into darkness, the Spirit can use the artist to challenge and convict or comfort her and her readers. Art will lead a writer into the ugliness of the world; but the Spirit never makes her stay there. Because the Christian writer knows there’s hope. There are, at least, glimpses or motions of grace, even when her story is filled with doom and gloom.

A Caveat: Writing (and Reading) is a Moral Activity

T.S. Eliot, not long after his conversion to Anglican Christianity, wrote an essay on the moral task of the Christian reader. Eliot presupposes the notion of reading as a spiritually formative practice, and suggests that because of this, readers ought to be critical of what they read. He writes,

The fiction that we read affects our behaviour towards our fellow men, affecting our patterns of ourselves. When we read of human beings behaving in certain ways, with the approval of the author, who gives his benediction to this behaviour by his attitude toward the result of the behaviour arranged by himself, we can be influenced toward behaving in the same way.[27]

The reader may think that she can compartmentalize her moral/religious values from the aesthetics of what she reads, but she cannot. She cannot do this because the writer cannot. “The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not,” Eliot writes, “and we are affect by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not.”[28] Therefore, the Christian writer ought to be careful to present her Truth in such a way that, though it be disruptive, tends to her reader well. Eliot speaks of the naïve adolescent reader as taking in all that he reads, without critical thought; this is a kind of invasion of the author onto the reader. A Christian writer, being conscious of that, must write in such a way that speaks to the whole being of her reader but does not cause despair.[29]

Conclusion

Writing is more than just a set of grammar rules or practices—it is a spiritual act grounded in a theology.[30] The creative act of writing asks the author to make decisions regarding Truth—where does Truth come from? Who can know it? Then it asks, how can this Truth be brought into the world? What style, voice, tone, scene can best present it? If, then, the writer is faithful to the Truth and how she presents it and trusts the flow of the Spirit, the creative process can change her, can draw her closer to God and to the world around her.  The Christian writer has a responsibility to her reader to be faithful to the Spirit, and to what is true, good, and beautiful, as what she says can affect her reader wholly.

[1] It’s worth here distinguishing between truth (forensic fact) versus Truth (meaning, essence).

[2] The Truth of a piece of art is often referred to as the tenor, and the presentation its vehicle.

[3] George Orwell, “Why I Write” in Why I Write (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 4-5.

[4] It’s here Orwell is critical of journalism as the lowest-of-all-low forms of writing! Orwell, “Why I Write,” 9.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] “Robert Burns. Lecture by George MacDonald at Association Hall,” The New York Times, January 22, 1873.

[7] For it is tempting for the young writer to believe that there is nothing more to be said, especially nothing she could say. Flannery O’Connor laughs in the face of this, saying, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962), 84. Or to borrow language from Madeleine L’Engle, there is chaos to be made into cosmos. The Christian writer cannot begin writing without first believing she can say something True about her own life (memoir), humanity (fiction), or the goodness of God (poetry).

[8] Though at the same time there are written works that’s Truth is directly tied to the content, like Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow.” The imagist’s picture of a wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater is, indeed, just about a wheelbarrow.

[9] John 14:6, English Standard Version.

[10] Classic style was made popular by the 17th century French writers, such as Descartes. It’s a style used less in English, though parts of the Declaration of Independence are written in its form. Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[11] Ibid., 31.

[12] Thomas and Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth, 32-33.

[13] Similarly writes St. Paul to the Romans, “For [the Truth’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” Romans 1:20.

[14] Ibid., 34.

[15] These styles are listed in Thomas and Turner’s book as alternative styles of prose (though not discussed in as much detail as classic style).

[16] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 88.

[17] This is where personal essays and creative nonfiction really diverge, I think. It’s one thing to write a good, interesting story. But a creative nonfiction writer knows it’s more than just the story—or the “subject”—it’s about arranging (presentation) the content of a story in such a way that reveals a hidden Truth.

[18] John Updike, “Remarks on religion and contemporary American literature delivered at Indiana/Purdue University in Indianapolis, April 1994,” in More Matter: Essays and Criticism (New York: Fawcett Books, 1999), 850.

[19] The aesthetics theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes about this in his essay with Joseph Ratzinger. Art, such as creative writing, may be grounded in a specific time and place, but it “has a certain universal comprehensibility [that] discloses itself more profoundly and more truly to an individual,” he says. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Two Say Why (Search Press Ltd, 1972), 21-22.

[20] A nod to L’Engle, Walking on Water, 210.

[21] Ibid., 140.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Traditionally, the spirit that inspires an artist’s work is called the muse or genius, the one who “senses and reflects what is around” her and helps her “transform matter, time, and space” into art. Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1990), 36

[24] Genesis 1:2.

[25] Exodus 31:3.

[26] Though, writing itself is inherently formative—“writing is rewriting.”

[27] T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” in The Christian Imagination: Essay on Literature and the Arts, ed. Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker book House Company, 1981), 147.

[28] Ibid., 148.

[29] Eliot, a product of his time, is particularly concerned about the secularization of literature. He believes—in my opinion rather wrongly—that some writing is for Christians and others are for “pagans.” What he does present well in this essay, though, is that literature has a deep power to change behaviors and beliefs. Eliot places this burden on the reader, but it seems more appropriate in this context to place it on the author in her deciding what Truth to present and how to present it well.

[30] Nachomanovitch writes in his chapter “Practice” that while the techniques of an art can help an artist, it is not the summation of the artist’s work. Art is the actual doing, the practice.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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