This is going to be a long post. This “artist’s statement” was supposed to be a lot shorter, but you know how that goes. I even tried to abridge it and then found too many gaps in the argument that way. It is about 3,300 words, so if you haven’t got time, go and come back later. Maybe it’s nothing you haven’t already read here, but it’ll be more complete, and hopefully the thread of the argument is pulled tight.
Feel free to poke holes in it, though. It was written for an audience which I already knew disagreed with me, but that doesn’t mean any of you are obligated to pat me on the back. Or if I wrote a sentence so winding you still can’t figure out what it means, you can ask.
What is the value of Story? Why do I devote so much time and effort to putting words together in exchange for loss of sleep, skipped or forgotten meals, fear of rejection or failure; when my only (immediate) reward is the complete devolution of my reputation for stability, replaced by terms like “insane” or the euphemism “not all there” (or perhaps the pitying “Well, she hears voices from upstairs”)? What makes all this worth it?
In a world of wars and rumours of wars, nuclear bombs, humans destroying the places they have the greatest duty to protect, splintered families, depression and anxiety as common as the flu, and other great overwhelming evils making life so difficult for so many of our race, why do I choose to give my life to pursuing the art of yarn-spinning when I could be doing something useful as, say, a social worker, instead — not withdrawn from the real world, but descending into the very darkest depths of it to try to pull people out? Would not a practical career like this be much more good than spending my days and nights with various combinations of letters in the English alphabet?
What people believe or think affects how they act and choose to live. Humans communicate ideas to one another most clearly by means of words in one language or another. It is not the gun in the soldier’s hand which is most directly responsible for killing the enemy he shoots, nor even the bullet: it is the man himself, acting based on an idea in his mind, which he may express according to his situation perhaps as “I’ve got to do this for the sake of keeping my family alive” if he was forced into the war, or perhaps as “The other guys are all evil and I’m doing humanity a service by getting rid of them”. Without these words he would never have picked up the gun in the first place. Words are, in the end, the most powerful weapons we have. In the words of Amy Lowell, “All books are either dreams or swords: / You can cut, or you can drug, with words”.
As those who know how to wield a sword have a responsibility to do so properly, we whose weapons are words must not be lax about our duty to know how to use them. This doesn’t mean only the mechanism of our art, the ropes and pulleys behind the scenery on our stage, which the audience will never actually “see”: it means also thinking through the implications of what we write, and how it is likely to come across, and whether we are advancing the cause of ideas we should be advancing, and so on. Stories matter as more than simply a temporary escape from our dreary or painful lives. (N. b. I can’t go into enough depth here to do justice to any of the ideas I bring up. The best I can do is point you to Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” and his poem Mythopoeia as much more masterful elucidations of what Christianity does for art, and the art of Story in particular. Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker is very good too.)
I started writing when I was about eight or nine, without having yet connected the facts that people who write stories are writers, and people who are alive today are writing the stories which get published every year. I had a hard time getting to sleep at night when I was small, and started making up stories in my head to tell myself in the time between being put to bed and dropping off. Eventually I came up with one I thought was good enough to write down, so I didn’t forget it (objectively considered it is no good, but we all start somewhere). I found I liked doing that, so I kept writing stories (awful pastiches of fairy tales with attempts at Tolkien’s style) and not showing them to anybody. Not knowing others like me existed, I didn’t seek them out or think I could pursue writing to the extent I am now.
I did try a few times to stop writing, but that never lasted long. When I was fifteen, in my very first semester of college (at another school) a professor told us to make a list of certain things we liked to do, and put a checkmark by them if certain statements were true — as that we did them regularly, over time had to do them more than when we’d started, thought about them when we weren’t doing them, and tried to stop but couldn’t. Afterward he revealed these as the symptoms of addiction according to the APA’s website (it was the basis for an assignment of some sort). I stared at my sheet of paper, seeing the checkmarks for every statement next to the word Writing, and tried to come to terms with the meaning of the sentence “I am addicted to writing”. I eventually decided it didn’t change anything. It did, however, tell me this was serious and I had better think about how it fit in the rest of my life. I started taking the craft more seriously and actively trying to learn how to write well. (It was in the same class I heard, for the first time, the injunction to “Show, don’t tell”, which was and remains the most important thing I learned there.)
Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever, as the catechism says, but each particular instance of the universal Man, being an unique variation on the theme, will have a different way of doing that. As Dorothy Sayers says, in the second chapter of The Mind of the Maker: “In the beginning God created. He made this and He made that and He saw that it was good. And He created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. Thus far the authour of Genesis. The expression “In His own image” has occasioned a good deal of controversy” (Sayers, p. 20). She goes on to say it isn’t a physical likeness, though she adds later in the book that if this God were ever to reveal himself to any part of his creation, it must be under such conditions as to be recognizable and comprehensible: in other words, incarnation as one of the members of the species to which he appears, whether that is in complete and perfect clamhood, if appearing to clams, or complete and perfect manhood, when appearing to men (p. 90). Here, while asking what it is in man which the authour of Genesis might mean by “the image of God”, she says, “It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the ‘image’ of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, ‘God created’. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things” (22). Our word “poem” comes from the Greek poiea (as in Mythopoeia), which is a making. Man, as God’s handwork, could be said to be God’s poem.
I have come to realize writing is my vocation, as marriage is for some, teaching for others, or music or some other art. Telling stories is my main, though not sole, way of fulfilling my chief end. People rarely have only a single means of making art. In the words of Anton Rubenstein, “The grape, that is nature. The wine, that is art.” So could we draw from that analogy, “The baby, that is nature. The good human being, that is art”? If that’s the case, then who makes that work of art — who takes the raw materials (baby) and transforms it into the finished work of art? Whoever they are, they are artists. So a teacher or parent can be an artist, as well as a musician or writer. The good human being, choosing to align his life to a set of principles, might be in some measure (others having laid the foundation) the artist of his life. So living can be an art and a means of making art: your interactions with the cloak-room clerk, to take an example from Chesterton, can be just as much art, with all the power of it, as sitting at home and drawing up a masterpiece.
Sometimes my sub-creation (to take Tolkien’s word for a very similar idea) takes the form of historical fiction, in which I delve into past times and the lives of those now long dead, and explore our similarities and differences and try to bring to life the people of Then so that those Now won’t be short-sighted, and the way they lived Then so we can consider whether what we have Now is actually better, and what is the good life after all. Historical fiction can teach its readers about the past, but it is not (and shouldn’t be) like a textbook, giving names and dates and dry facts: it should make the battles and treaties and voyages spring to life, and make us love the learning to be found (I enjoy the challenge of researching obscure periods, at any rate, and it will be enough if I can keep something worth remembrance from being entirely forgotten).
People do tend to pay more attention when their affections are involved, than when we’re appealing solely to the head. This goes for all stories, not only historical fiction: stories are not the place for a sermon. “Christian Fiction”, which sets out to teach a lesson mainly, pushing aside considerations of what the art calls for because its authours are more concerned with being “inspirational” and “safe”, never reaches the heights of stories like Dante’s Commedia, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Suzannah Rowntree’s Pendragon’s Heir; those authours know, what “Christian Fiction” authours almost never do, that good art will reflect God anyway, and aren’t too concerned about making sure everyone gets the point; neither were the great authours afraid of showing evil for what it is, in order that the good may show through all the brighter for having the strength to defeat so fearsome an enemy.
At other times I write contemporary non-fiction, as the firm belief that “real life” is just as much a story as anything we could make up translates easily from the historical genre to this. (The main difference seems to be that in the latter, the characters are still living; which is sometimes a snag when it comes to getting permission.) At other times I dip into fantasy or another genre, and occasionally add a little magic to history to get historical fantasy, which takes a lot of work but often has the best of both sides.
I try to avoid the formulae so common to genre fiction because that is an inaccurate representation of reality: life is not a problem with a tidy solution ascertainable from the facts. Humans are not the stock characters whose lines push the plot along but who have not “come alive”, being constantly bent to serve the authour’s will. For, as G. K. Chesterton said, “With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery, and be certain that we are finishing it right. But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right. That is because a story has behind it, not merely intellect which is partly mechanical, but will, which is in its essence divine. The narrative writer can send his hero to the gallows if he likes in the last chapter but one. He can do it by the same divine caprice whereby he, the authour, can go to the gallows himself, and to hell afterwards if he chooses. And the same civilization, the chivalric European civilization which asserted freewill in the thirteenth century, produced the thing called ‘fiction’ in the eighteenth. When Thomas Aquinas asserted the spiritual liberty of man, he created all the bad novels in the circulating libraries.”
I try to write literary rather than genre fiction also because I want to create something dealing with universal themes, and in noble language, which will (barring future incidents like that of the Library of Alexandria and the little monasteries’ libraries which fell to the Vikings) last through time. Fiction mass-produced and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator hardly ever has a chance at these qualities; further, modern fiction has a shortage of proper portrayals of the good, the true, and the beautiful, as so many modern writers either define the Absolutes incorrectly, or devalue them.
Joy Clarkson, a writer and student of theology at St Andrew’s University in Edinburgh, told the story of one of the raided monasteries. She said in the introduction to a podcast on the film The Secret of Kells, “What do you do when the worst happens seventeen times in fifteen years? You can build a wall, or you can make a book.” You can erect plain practical material defences against the invaders to protect the physical lives of your monks, which in itself is not a bad thing. But do not focus too much on merely preserving lives: remember that which makes life worth living. Give the monks something to do other than huddling behind the stone wall and waiting for death to break through. I choose to make a book.
Hope can come from many things, as (for example) confidence in one’s own strength, or the love of family or friends. Ultimately, I would content, the only constant and sure ground for hope is God, specifically the Trinity. Hope does not mean closing our eyes to the evil in the world, but affirming the evils to be only half the picture. Hope does not deny the pain, but denies defeat. Hope means not becoming jaded on account of litter and skyscrapers and the deplorable condition of modern art and education, but resisting that temptation. To cultivate and draw attention to beauty is not to say naively “The world is a perfectly happy place” but to be making it better. Stories remind us of these important things so easy to lose sight of otherwise. The best stories tell us the darkness exists and is formidable, but that others have held on and won through it to see the sun rise, and we also may see the dawn.
I try to sub-create after this manner and according to this view of reality. I can do so only very imperfectly as yet. But I hold with Tolkien that my efforts are not entirely in vain: not nearly as vain as surrendering to the modern notion that “realistic fiction” with its emphasis on the reality of horrible things and the vanity of dwelling on good ones, under the mistaken assumption that evil is winning and good (however worthy) a lost cause (if not redefined entirely).
To use Tolkien’s own words, an excerpt from Mythopoeia:
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
Yes! `wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem ?
All wishes are not idle, not in vain
fulfilment we devise – for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.
The Christian Myth, itself a story, hallows Story as Christ, in taking on human flesh, hallowed it. Tolkien might truly have written of the writers of the Gospels “They have seen Death and ultimate defeat” on Golgotha (and lost hope for a time). But, like the other writers of whom he is speaking, in the end they too “would not in despair retreat, / but oft to victory have tuned the lyre / and kindled hearts with legendary fire” (Mythopoeia). The victory of the Resurrection would hardly mean anything if it did not come after the Messiah’s death.
As Tolkien says of the requirements of fairy-stories in general: “But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairystory. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” (On Fairy-Stories, 22).
The Resurrection changed everything, including all subsequent stories. Tolkien says of the Christian Myth: “But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men — and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending’.”
I can’t discuss all sides of anything here, or go into all the implications of this belief concerning art (though I probably will elsewhere). It is how I look at the art of story-writing, though, and I am trying to write stories which, without being preachy or watered-down “Christian Fiction” (you won’t find any prohibition against magic in my stories), are soaked through with this way of looking at the world. I love writing, I’m reasonably good at it, I can’t stop doing it, and it needs doing. People who write well about the good true and beautiful are rare these days, though fortunately for us the quantity of good books from before our time is so vast it would be difficult (I’m leaning toward impossible) for one person to read them all. It is hard to say “This is the final cause of my writing, this is the ‘that for the sake of which’ I work and strive and grieve over lost documents”, but I think this comes as close as I presently can. In the words of Chesterton once more, this time from Orthodoxy, “Fairy-tales are more than true, not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Tolkien said of Eucatastrophe, “It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”