A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But, first of all, stop a moment.
Let’s be sure we’re pointed in the right direction.
If you’re like me, you love our Catholic Faith. And you are equally passionate about imaginative writing, whether for modern fiction, historical spellbinders, or fantasy and science fiction.
But sometimes we grapple with which comes first: our creed or our craft?
I did for years. Ever since I was a kid, I filled notebooks with my own bestiaries, plotted adventures, and outlined endless series.
And then a pang of regret would remind me that I had created it all without a single nod to God, or doctrine, or the Faith.
But that’s the wrong way to go about it.
That’s assuming that God competes with his creation.
Imagine an attic, or a cave, filled with dimly lit objects, barely discernable in the musty gloom.
Striking through the middle spears a shaft of sunlight, picking out the silent waltz of dust motes, tracking a yellow path across the floor.
The author-who-is-Catholic will stare at the shaft of light, and enter into it. It is a great and bright truth. We will want to write about it, why it’s important, why light is the illuminator of the world.
The Catholic-author sits and observes it, and everything. We realize that light doesn’t exist purely on its own. Light exists through our ability to perceive it. It glows off all things, from ground to dust to rock to timbers and skin.
Light irradiates environments. It creates shadow and darkness, much needed and beautiful truths. It communicates the presence of others. It presents to us everything that is, and hints at what is not. Or what is yet to come.
We love the light.
But we also revel in everything the light reveals.
“No matter how much his character may be improved by the Church, if he is a novelist, he has to remain true to his nature as one. The Church should make the novelist a better novelist.” Flannery O’Connor, ‘Catholic Novelists and Their Readers’
“The religious elements aren’t obnoxiously grafted onto the narrative but emerge intrinsically from the circumstances of the characters.” William Giraldi, ‘Confessions of a Catholic Novelist’
If we are trying to fit our Faith into the holes we’ve already punched for our stories, moved by a sense of guilt that we’re enjoying our creation too much and haven’t included enough hat-tips toward God, or if our friends and parish community expect us to write a certain kind of content filled with priests and nuns in an ‘Its a Wonderful Live’ theme, take a break.
First and foremost, we are authors.
We tell stories. That is our responsibility, to tell a tale that will captivate and spellbind for an hour. Perhaps more.
Our call is to inspire a reader to hide themselves away in their inner room, shut the door and be drawn into a story.
We aren’t evangelists. Not in the same way.
Some evangelize through hospitality. Through dance. Through food. The medium we use matters as much as the message.
We are novelists.
Our first and foremost mission is paying close attention to crafting the ‘fictive dream’. This is the ability to guide a reader to easily and quickly believe that what the story is real. To inspire them to suspend disbelief to be entertained by purpose, people, and moment.
Of course you can write ‘evangelistic literature’. Plenty of people do.
That’s not the kind of Catholic author we are. We are fiction authors.
Imagine a painter who is thoroughly sincere, and paints a poor painting of the Incarnation.
It is a sublime theme, but their lack of talent or discipline with the brush blocks us from appreciating the message.
The hasty sweeps of the colors, the imbalanced use of tone and shade, and the lack of proportion impels us to think more critically of the painting techniques itself – rather than the vision.
In the moment that we (the audience) become critical of a piece of art, rather than being transported by it, the art has failed – if the intent was to enchant us and pull us in.
You have to be a good artist.
The same holds true with a novelist.
Your first job is to be a good one. If you can’t tell a compelling story with vivid description and believable characters, the reader will simply close the pages or switch off the app.
It doesn’t matter how amazing your message is.
If the ride isn’t worth it, they’ll never find out.
So our first responsibility: be a good author.
“The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” Flannery O’Connor, ‘Catholic Novelists and Their Readers’
“We need to be tellers of dark stories, for we live in a dark and sorrowful world. Now I’m certainly not arguing against the place of light and happiness. After all, we proclaim a great story where redemption is the ultimate reality. Yet if we neglect the place of darkness, sin, and evil in our stories, the weight of human moral action, the tragedy of the Fall, if any of these things are missing from our stories, we are failing in our art.” John Carswell, ‘Tolkien and the Evangelical Power of Beauty’
“The tensions of being a Catholic novelist are probably never balanced for the writer until the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her—in the same sense that when he writes, he forgets about himself.” Flannery O’Connor, ‘Catholic Novelists and Their Readers’