I am an Episcopal priest and a writer. For many years I’ve wondered how these two things fit together. There is a moral danger in writing fiction when a large part of your life involves listening to the private confessions and life stories of parishioners. The fear is that part of what you’re told will bleed into your fiction, sometimes without you realizing it. At first I thought that this meant that I should only write genre fiction, something set on some remote world where the correspondences between my life and the thing I was writing would be minimized. But I’m not interested in fantasy worlds. Or rather, I think that every world that an author writes about is essentially a fantasy world, even if that author is writing realist fiction. To write is to arrange and rethink the reality that we see every day. Ascalon, Ohio is a fantasy world, although it’s based on places I’ve lived in or visited.
I’m not interested in fantasy worlds, but I am interested in God, which means that the fantastic must slip into my fiction at an alarming rate. God is both in the world but also beyond the world and mysterious, and when we come to see the world as God-filled we look beyond the every day and into the fantastic. Another way of putting it is to say that religious experience allows one to look past the veil of the ordinary and see a deeper reality that is penetrating all things. I want to write, both in my fiction and nonfiction, about that deeper reality.
I try very hard not to fill my fiction writing with people I know. But I know that it’s inevitable that I might borrow a gesture or a shade of hair or a way of speaking. I can only apologize. I am aware that my fiction also sometimes touches on subjects that may seem surprising coming from a priest. But if I was interested in only being pietistic, I wouldn’t write fiction at all, and if I tried, the fiction I wrote would be terrible. For fiction to work, there must be challenges to our piety and grace, just as there are in our lives. The most religious people in the world probably know about partying and sex and drugs. If they didn’t, if they sat in complacent ignorance of the things that happen to their fellow human beings and what their fellow human beings choose to do, I would worry about them. True innocence is a lovely thing, and I wouldn’t try to shatter it. But we grow closer to God through struggle, through encountering pain and confusion in the world and knowing that God’s presence always hovers near us, even when we are in darkness. To write about characters who are in darkness allows me to write about the touch of grace, when it comes, in a way that I hope is authentically redemptive.
Writing fiction in this way has changed the way in which I am a priest. I don’t think that people are helped by my pretending to be a model of uprightness and moral rectitude. I do want to be upright and moral, but I learn how to be that way from other people, not by pretending that I’m already perfect. It’s okay to struggle with God, with oneself, with the world. It’s through those struggles that we are refined, that we become better people over time. I learn a great deal about that process, and about God’s will for the world, when my friends share their struggles with me. Who am I to withhold my own struggles out of some vain hope of seeming godly?
In both my fiction and my nonfiction, my main hope is that I’ll be honest. I love ideas, but I’m not a deep scholar of anything in particular. I get excited over particular illustrations and thoughts, and I try to share them in a way that will illustrate God’s love for the world and our individual hopes for ourselves. My prayer is that what I write will be useful to people in some way.
February 24, 2012