And With My Childhood's Faith: The Artist's Investment in His Work

"There's nothing to writing...all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed."
~Ernest Hemingway

Jenna writes that her "inkpot adamantly refuses to give forth its contents unless a bit of my own flesh goes in"... but what comes out?

There could hardly be any matter more personal than the specifics of an author's self that come out in her own writings. I couldn't think of a good example that I dared share on the Internet.

To be fair, Masha—and Mr. Pond after her—ask and speak in generalities. They had some profound answers. From Masha:
In a way, writing people is a pursuit of understanding, an attempt to really know the people around us, to understand their motives. To love them simply for being. 
From Mr. Pond:
We do not write with flesh but with thoughts and images. And when we cross into that Unworldly, eternal, imagined space, we find no material to build what we have imagined unless we are willing, Horcrux like, to weave together the immortals with the torn and weary shreds of our souls.
Horcrux like? No, I won't go there. But before I get into my own answer, I'd like to clarify one thing: what we, what I at any rate, do not put in:

1) I do not cut and paste from Real Life. Truth is too often less believable than fiction, and that's only the first of many problems that may arise from an attempt to portray life or people as is.

2) I do not write fiction with an agenda. To be honest, I don't even quite buy that famous Lewis quote about the power of fantasy to take up the truths of Christianity and "steal past watchful dragons". That may work, so long as you retain the element of surprise. But then, it may not. You might get past a few dragons, but good luck when you meet the joker who simply applies the concept of ultimate good and evil to his favorite political battles. ("Republicans for Voldemort", anyone? It's funny—if you're a Democrat. It also entirely misses the point of the Potter books and unjustly demonizes half of American voters.) Anyhow, marketing of every sort drives constantly at everyone these days, and the slightest hint of agenda in entertainment can be enough to rouse ire. And most of us can be found out or at least suspected, thanks to Internet conversations.

The converse, of course, is that writers who hold passionately to any belief system—religious, political, social, etc.—will not be able to keep the spirit of it out of their books, and I am no exception. I would claim that a work organically grown from the author's own devotion is subtly but powerfully unlike a calculated effort to Win Friends and Influence People. But for readers who don't share the passionate belief, it can perhaps be hard to tell the difference.

So what does come out of the inkpot?

I posit that it's nothing more nor less than a long-simmered potion made up of our innermost thoughts and beliefs and emotions. The things we may keep off our blogs, sometimes off our lips, sometimes even out of our journals. The keen regrets, the unspeakable joys, the shames and heartbreaks, the silent paranoia, the ever-desperate struggle with ultimate questions.

It's what you'd see in the Mirror of Erised, and what a boggart would turn into if it saw you. It's what you whisper behind the confessional screen or send to PostSecret. It's what stirs in you when you look at your lover, your friend, your child—anyone you'd enslave yourself to for sheer adoration. It's usually stewed beyond recognition (OK, gross metaphor) by the time it turns into novels and stories, but it's there all the same. It turns into what we might call empathy. And it powers the works themselves.

"A character is never the author that created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously," says Camus. Yes—and his settings and themes and storylines as well. As Mr. Pond points out, "The profound skill of the author is the ability to balance an entire, imagined world, and all its inhabitants and their personalities." All these things grow from the author's soul and experiences and perspective on life.

And yet, the work is not the author. Masha expresses this well with a comment about a favorite of ours: "Levin isn't boring because he isn't idealized, and despite being almost Tolstoy, he isn't." Something changes in the act of creation; the storyline goes someplace unexpected and broadens the author's experience, and characters do things the author never could.

The work is more like our offspring than ourselves. But whatever matters most to us is what finally shapes our work from the formless and void of its origin. Our central beliefs and passions consider the darkness over the surface of the deep, and search for a way to let there be light.

The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.”
~Eleanor Roosevelt


  1. Great post Jenna, I really enjoyed reading that.

  2. Questioning a Lewis quote? Blasphemy!! :)

    Anyway, even Lewis' comment about slipping past sleeping dragons needs to be balanced with his other comments about definitely NOT writing with an agenda. Especially regarding Narnia he says he didn't start out to write about Christianity for children but started only with images. A faun in a wood, a queen on a sled, a great golden lion. The Christian elements pushed themselves in later. Or similarly with Tolkien who said The Lord of the Rings was a supremely Catholic work, unconsciously so at first but consciously so on revision.

    And the power of fantasy to slip by sleeping dragons isn't totally negated by the occasional joker or nincompoop who takes things too far or who takes things way out of context.

    So, although fantasy can be used as a vehicle to slip past sleeping dragons, the best & most powerful fantasy is, as you say, going to be that which grows organically out of the author rather than being a concerted attempt by the author to push an agenda. Which is why Lewis, Tolkien, & Rowling work so well while Pullman & perhaps Michael O'Brien do not.

    1. Haha! I totally felt blasphemous questioning a Lewis quote. Mostly, I think it's kind of overused. And I do strongly believe that the Christian ideas in Lewis' fiction were organically grown from his own love for God. I just couldn't seem to come up with a good--and short--way to include that disclaimer in the post.

    2. No problem. I would tend to suspect that even Lewis might find his quote to be overused. That is to say, that while he found fantasy to be a good vehicle for slipping past dragons, & even then I think he was just speculating it might be, he wouldn't have thought of the use of fantasy as part of an agenda. That is, oh, I'll write my story as a fantasy because then I can slip my agenda past the reader's filters. I think he would say, no, only write fantasy if it's the best genre for your story.


All comments are currently moderated. Friendly comments are welcomed with fairy music, magic wishes, and possible unicorn sightings. Troll comments will be Transfigured into decent-looking rocks or Vanished. Spam comments will be shot down with blasters.