Fragments, Faith, Doubt, an essay by Dawn Tripp

Author Dawn Tripp on faith and writing.

Posted Dec 05, 2010

Dawn Tripp is the author of Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water, which won the Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction for 2006. Her third novel, Game of Secrets, will be published by Random House in July, 2011. Here's her take on faith and writing:

Earlier this fall, I sent this message to a writer friend of mine:

I am either losing my mind or beginning to create a slightly breathtaking story, the scope of which leaves me rather dizzy, because I can't quite believe (with my rational mind, of course) that it is possible, that it could really all work, that I could execute it, and that it wouldn't fail, disastrously or gloriously, and maybe this is simply the other side of mad I am arriving at, and it is all rubbish, what I am chasing, but it hasn't let me rest all summer, whatever it is, and still won't.

To me, this message describes the essence of writing, at its best, and most necessary: a restless, exhilarating, at times harrowing, ride from vision to faith to doubt, and back into vision again.

The strongest work I have done has come from this place. There is a certain authentic intensity--an almost feverish rush of words and images, accompanied by an equally intense piercing doubt-there is the sense of being moved by a force that is at once inside me, and at the same time, beyond me. It's like being in love. It's like having the flu. And over the course of my career, I have come to have faith in this particular state, which is often beyond the reach of logic, or any concrete outline I could draft. Even if I can't see how the disparate pieces will fall into place in the end--if I can feel the story, glimmers of it, that way, in the body, I know I am on the right track.

I am a Quaker. On Sundays I teach First Day School at our Friend's Meeting-I talk to the children about leadings, about trusting their inner voice, that inner pull of the light inside them. I show them a quote of Martin Luther King Jr. that I have scribbled on the covers of several of my notebooks:

Take the first step in faith. You do not have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.

I go to my work every day-not because I always feel moved by some god-like rush of inspiration, but because I have learned that showing up is at least half of what this particular line of work demands. It is like showing up to Meeting-For-Worship. It's like showing up to pray. Sometimes the spirit moves into you, through you, and you go, and sometimes you just sit there in your own dark silence, and wait.

Sometimes I go to work at my desk. Sometimes in bed. Sometimes in a café. Sometimes I write on my laptop. But every first draft, every beginning of every novel, before I know--really know-what it is I am writing toward, starts longhand. In notebooks. With a pen. I have found that I need this. There is a certain kinesthetic joy in the act of writing-and for me that's a pen against a page-a certain tactile experience that engages the intellect, but ultimately serves a more primitive, more ancient and intuitive mind--what Mary Oliver has called ‘the dreams of the body.' I start always in fragments, on the page, for months. Things will come to me. Words, sentences, paragraphs even, bits of character and scene. They will fall through me sometimes while I am at my desk, but more often when I am out for a run, driving, or folding the laundry. I have learned that many of these ‘first thoughts' will ultimately be discarded, but what happens in these early stages is a kind of opening of mind, a willingness to dwell in possibility. When I begin a novel, I turn my back completely on that old adage ‘write what you know.' I write what moves me, what I fear most, crave most, what I dream, I write what I am impelled by.

Invariably, at a certain point-a kind of tipping point in this garnering of pieces-I begin to have glimpses of a larger order--a more cogent narrative and thematic structure. If I try to pin it down too soon, something closes and I lose it. But the glimpses grow more frequent, my sense of the larger vision of a story more complete. Oddly enough, these moments of clarity are often accompanied by an increasing sense of doubt, a nagging fear that the story will fail to cohere, or worse, die mid-stroke. I begin to question: will it really work? Can it really work? It feels too big, too ambitious, too unwieldy. And even if it could theoretically work, can I pull it off? Are my powers as a writer mature enough, wise enough, sharp enough, to execute this?

The further I move into a story, the more accentuated and intense my sense of uncertainty becomes. I experience a kind of dark and lonely pressure that, on some days, feels endless. I used to think I had to get rid of it. Get past it. That fear. I used to think that as I got older, that angst would pale. At work on my fourth novel now, I am learning finally, to put my faith in those times of uncertainty as much as in those moments of creative rush that are so much easier to adore. I am learning, finally, to trust that there is so much more to this process-movement beyond what I can see or grasp with my daylight mind-a kind of winter movement, that underground synthesis of life taking place.

I have realized, too, that the doubt itself, that questioning, is what propels me to dig deeper; in the end, it will drive a better story. Sometimes, when it feels unbearable, when it wakes me up in the middle of night, I write into it--that uncertainty--and when I enter it, really live there close to it for a while, without averting my eyes, it will almost always lead me to some crucial revelation-with regard to the story, with regard to the lives of my characters, with regard to my own.

That fear, I have begun to believe, is no more than the other side of that fire for a story that won't let me rest. It's intrinsic to the art. Just a different kind of moment that throws the heart open and keeps the work dynamic, supple and alive.