Without a Prayer?

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Faith and Fiction

Best-Selling Authors Tell What Keeps Them Writing

I often write - and talk, and think - about finding faith beyond religion, in everyday life and the worlds that we create as writers. Five years ago I took a leap of faith and went to Rwanda. My excuse was a magazine assignment, but I was privately propelled by a quest to find - and to feel - something more. Something I didn't fully understand and couldn't explain. During the brief three weeks I spent listening to haunting stories of loss and forgiveness, I discovered a place within myself where I wanted to spend more time. I took long afternoon walks up into the lush green hillsides, thinking about the resilience of the human spirit, the interconnected pieces of forgiveness, trust, and grace. Faith.

When I returned home to Seattle I started writing a novel that's still a work-in-progress. I'm used to writing to earn a steady paycheck, but the fiction has become my something more. It's not the giant leap that going to Rwanda was, but rather a daily ritual of sometimes very small steps. I love this new place within myself that I've discovered and the world I'm creating. And yet, some days I question my skills, my characters, my stubborn refusal to let this story go... everything.

I started asking other authors how they keep their faith and commitment alive. Here's a sample (with links that lead to full author Q&As).

Said Jane Smiley, author of Private Lives:

You just have a take it one step at a time and know that it's all right to keep going -you can always fix it. And I do believe that you can always bring a novel to its best self - but that best self is never perfect. It's in the nature of the Novel as a form to be missing something or other and you have to accept that.

From Jenna Blum, The Stormchasers:

When I'm writing something with the special IT factor, I just know. It's like hearing a song on the radio you know will be a hit. Then there are far more numerous times when I'm working and working on a story component that's necessary but stubbornly resistant. I just keep going until I find a solution or the writing's as technically lucid as it can be.

A story written on rocks
Said Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed:

On a good day, writing fiction feels liberating. On a bad day, it can feel imprisoning. Because I write in the first person as people other than myself, this allows me to move past the boundaries and limitations of my own life and better understand the un-me, the other. When I hear actors talk about their work, they seem to describe a similar phenomenon.

Via Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift:

I know a story rings true when I am excited to write the next sentence. It's a visceral feeling, really, almost like a vibration that wants to get out. When I lose faith, I turn to other writers for inspiration. I read until I reconnect with that hum and my next sentence sounds in my head.

From Dawn Tripp, author of Game of Secrets:

My heart broke for four years as I was writing Game of Secrets. That might seem a strange thing to say. It was a strange thing to feel. But it drove me. Writing is a dream of the body, not strictly of the mind, and even when I couldn't quite see how the strands of the story would all come together, I somehow knew that heartbreak was a feeling I could trust.

Said Jessica Anya Blau, author of Drinking Closer to Home:

When you can't listen to your head, listen to your stomach, it will never deceive you. Look at what you're working on, then decide that it's complete rubbish and should be abandoned like a flaming automobile. If your stomach relaxes at that thought, file the piece away to work on later (if ever). If your stomach roils at that thought, it's telling you that what you're doing is worth the time and you should carry on.

Said Debra Dean, author of The Madonnas of Lenningrad:

I follow the story that continues to haunt me, the one I wake up thinking about. It's purely instinctual and not based in considerations of marketing or potential audience. I chose my husband the same way; on paper, he wasn't the most practical choice, but he intrigued me. After that, marriage or novel, it's a question of sticking to it, working and revising, for better or worse. Doubts will come - and some of them may be borne out - but you have to play to the end of the game to find out.

Said Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky:

I am beginning to understand that I serve my writing best if I put my faith into my obsessions. When I first started writing The Girl Who Fell From the Sky which is inspired by real incident, I tried to write the truth of what I imagined was the girl's life. I got horribly stuck. It was only when I recognized I was obsessed with her story because it had something to do with my own life story that I was able to move forward with the work. When I have doubts about my work, I try to connect with the reasons I was initially enchanted with the idea and go from there.

Via Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You:

For me, a story is alive when I'm obsessed by it, when everything reminds me of it, even eating a donut on the subway. Of course I have doubts. I get nauseous and terrified, but usually that's because I'm looking outside myself, wondering if others will think I am crazy/stupid/career-killing for tackling this particular story. I try to live by John Irving's words: ‘If you don't feel you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, then what you're doing probably isn't very vital.'

Said Therese Fowler, author of Exposure:

Doubt is natural, and healthy-as long as you don't let it paralyze you. Get some space from the work (3-plus days), then re-read what you've written with these questions in mind: Why should a reader care about these characters, this situation? What's the take-away for the reader?

Said Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad:

Hang in there. If things don't go your way in this round, they may very well the next.

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