At Hutchmoot-most-recent I was delighted to join the company of N. D. Wilson and Helena Sorenson for a session on fictional world-building. More comfortable leaning on pre-thought thoughts than trying to formulate new ideas in public, I began by reading aloud a stream-of-consciousness poem penned in an attempt to describe what drives this restless desire to set characters loose in fictional worlds—to set them loose and then to hound and document their steps, searching for what fragments of eternity the turned stones of their passages might reveal.
“How to write about conversion if it is true that faith is an unmerited gift from God? How to describe, let alone explain it, if this is the case? When it comes to grace, I get writer’s block.” —Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays
I understand Percy’s lament about grace and writer’s block, and I’ve chewed on that conundrum for a couple of decades now. As best I can figure, the only viable way around that roadblock is to resist any impulse to give cheap and easy answers, even in our fiction, and to let the resulting unresolved tension build unbearably until it finally (hopefully) rushes violently into the story on its own steam and with its own agenda. But here I am, doing the very thing I preach so adamantly against: trying to explain an artistic expression in advance of letting others experience it. Self-chastened, I now recuse myself, and invite you to read on.
I have found fiction, the writing of it, to be an experiment in the suppression of the elements of wonder and of the fantastic, and of the fantastic
hunger that is the husk of the hope even when the hope is removed the hunger still retains the hollowed shape that hope might fill and hope being hope, it will, it will. I willed in writing to force the hand of God, His Spirit and His breath to the unseen outer edges of a story by banishing his unspeakable movements to the hinterlands to the places just off the edges of the yellowed maps by returning to the Old Covenants by forcing un-locatable Him to occupy the negative spaces around and beneath the story by making him a dweller in the dark soil a nourishment drawn up through the roots of the plants that these few characters would tread upon in the world that they inhabit, sensing in the dew that cools their feet perhaps that there is an author, and a story, and a flow to the days and seasons of their lives.
You—and by you I mean I, or at least one of us—You do this in the hope that by denying all temptation to easily—and by easily I mean cheaply— articulate the myriad graces of wonder or the myriad mysteries of the wonders of grace, you do this in the hope that by banishing and suppressing the divine presence by making the Almighty a rim-walker in your world’s weird places, by fixing his movements somewhere just over the horizon, just behind the clouds of storm, just beneath the distant, echoed laughter of a child, somewhere that the text is not currently focused, you do this in the hopes that there placed, there exiled, the divine presence will appear, if perceptible at all, as candles behind thick and clouded glass causing the whole landscape to glow softly so that your characters must sense as they plant and harvest their fields, must sense—whether they acknowledge it or no— that the ground they tread is Holy ground and that what they suffer and grieve is in itself somehow a gift that cannot yet be recognized, one of the holy things that have no carts one of the burdens that must be carried on their shoulders as if they were born to be Kohathites, because the burdens are too holy, are most holy and the holiest things are the things that must be borne for they are the presence of God bearing down upon us shaping the curve of our shoulders the bend of our backs from their long weight,
and the weights are the burdens, and the burdens are bait, the burdens are the bait in the trap in which you hope to catch God.
You write because you are hunting the incarnation like some magical white stag rumored but doubted and your trick is not to look directly at it, not even to look for it. Your trick is to consciously avoid it especially when you begin to feel its presence, to all but deny its existence in hopes that so denied, it will shatter the very walls of your story, unzipping the air, that it will leap out at you suddenly when and where you least expect it, fully formed, surprising, and terrible in that awful aspect of the majesty and of the love which is more furious and more lavish than the whirlwind of Job.
That is your hope that at a certain point you will lose control of the story you started so that it will go where it always needed to go
and in looking back now as your ship struggles free of the winter’s arctic ice floes you see that what you were really doing was writing a poem that set up rhymes that did not resolve, and you traveled trembling to the end of that last line and whispered into the void at the end of all you had done and waited to see if some word would come echoing back knowing all along that if it did, it must be a word that would somehow rhyme with everything.