My First Law of Writing

“Don’t be preachy.” Okay, maybe that isn’t my first law of writing, but it’s certainly up there, especially when I’m writing fiction. No one likes being told what to do and how to think. There are times, of course, that we attend lectures or sermons where someone instructs us on history, math, politics, chemistry, theology, and so on, but something about these settings creates a more open feel, a freer environment, in which we can take the information or leave it. The lecturer provides facts and counsel on how to process these facts, but when it comes down to it, it’s our choice whether we accept those things.

This isn’t always the case with one-on-one interactions. If I were to tell you, “This is a fact, and you must believe it,” even if that fact were something as true as “the sun is bright and the sky is blue,” you’d likely balk at my command. It wouldn’t be the fact about the sun and sky that would cause this reaction, though, but rather the imperative statement that follows it. In speaking this way, I would morph our conversation from one of mutual interest and equity to one of dictatorial demands, implying you must do my bidding. Certainly there are instances when such decrees are necessary, such as in parenting a child, but for the purpose of discussing ideas with a friend or peer, to take such an authoritative approach is off-putting.

I’ve found that writing, especially fiction-writing, is more like the second example, a conversation with an individual, than like the first example, a lecture. This might be counterintuitive, as we writers tend to think of our audience as broader than a single reader, but in truth, each reader interacts with our ideas in a sort of intimate solitude. There might be conversation about our writing afterward, but the first encounter a person has with our writing is very personal.

For this reason, we must respect our readers as we would a dear friend in dialogue. The last thing I want to do in my novels is sermonize and order the reader to agree with my viewpoints. Even in describing characters, I try to stick to facts and leave the commentary up to the other characters or to the reader. For example, I’d write, “the man wore a deep frown” rather than, “he was justifiably angry.” Who am I to say whether his anger was warranted? To him, of course, it was, but to his wife who’d been asking him for two weeks to mow the lawn, his displeasure at her repeated requests was his own fault and could have been easily solved by him listening and cutting the grass. The way I treat my characters and their viewpoints is with the same grace I feel we must show each other in life. I assume the best about their motives until they prove me wrong, and I seek to understand their actions and thought processes from a heart of true interest and caring. In writing, this translates, I hope, to a novel that doesn’t demand that the reader fall in line with my thinking but allows him or her to explore a different perspective for a moment and draw insights of his or her own.

I’ve understood the need for objectivity for a while, but just recently I discovered another piece of the puzzle. For a time, I confused this necessity for impartiality with a necessity for detachment. In all honesty, I felt a type of shame when my beliefs shone through in my novels. “Don’t dictate,” “don’t preach,” “Don’t pressure your readers,” I told myself. My characters have struggled with faith and relationships and truth, and in writing each of them, I’ve been making comments on those things. Even in the mythology of my world, a piece of my worldview peeks through. As I look back at my novels, I realize I can’t separate myself from my works. I cannot disguise the strange mixture of hope and cynicism within me, and my desire to be a part of something greater, something lasting, something beautiful, ruptures through my attempts at neutrality like a flower bursting from the bud.

How can this be? I just finished telling you how I aspire to write only facts, nothing so subjective as to pressure the reader into believing me. There is a secret I’ve found to writing and to life, though. Pride-filled orders for someone to accept what we’re saying, pathetic pleas for people to just trust us, coercive arguments to have others confess our truth, these things do little to convince anyone. Yet this doesn’t mean we should neglect the beliefs of ours that ought to be considered, the ideas of ours that ought to be contemplated, or the thoughts of ours that ought to be discussed. It’s just that the best way to present these things is by living them and weaving them into our stories so intricately that they’re no longer tenets or doctrine to be force-fed but rather animate convictions and breathing beliefs from which our lives naturally follow.

I hope never to oblige my readers to accept my beliefs as true based on the mere fact that I’ve stated them, and I imagine that many writers agree with me on this point. For this reason, we must take care not to “preach” at our audiences. Rather, we must focus on crafting our stories with an inner honesty and faithfulness to what we’re writing. In doing so, without an attachment to the convincing of the reader, we’ll find that what we write becomes more compelling and truth-filled. In letting go of the results and centering ourselves on sincerity, our works take on a life of their own and we’re simply along for the ride. I will end up revealing my soul before I’m finished. Yet with all genuineness and candor, I can share the hidden pieces of my heart in a way that doesn’t force a conclusion from others but instead invites them to explore the ideas I have presented. In confessing who I am, I hope that others, that is, my readers, might find a space in which they can do the same. My beliefs, the vantage point from which I see reality, will shine through, but if I’m careful to show respect and kindness, it just might be that we can all become a little more honest about the world and ourselves.

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