July 11 marks the 90th Birthday
of one of my favorite writers,
In honor of the occasion,
here’s an Excerpt from
“Faith and Fiction.”
If someone were to come up and ask me to talk about my faith, it is exactly that journey that I would eventually have to talk about—the ups and downs of the years, the dreams, the odd moments, the intuitions. I would have to talk about the occasional sense I have that life is not just a series of events causing other events as haphazardly as a break shot in pool causes the billiard balls to careen off in all directions but that life has a plot the way a novel has a plot, that events are somehow or other leading somewhere. Whatever your faith may be or my faith may be, it seems to me inseparable from the story of what has happened to us, and that is why I believe that no literary form is better adapted to the subject than the form of fiction.
Faith and fiction both journey forward in time and space and draw their life from the journey, are in fact the journey. Faith and fiction both involve the concrete, the earthen, the particular more than they do the abstract and cerebral. In both, the people you meet along the way, the things that happen, the places—the airport bar, the room where you have your last supper with a friend—count for more than ideas do. Fiction can hold opposites together simultaneously like love and hate, laughter and tears, despair and hope, and so of course does faith, which by its very nature both sees and does not see and whose most characteristic utterance, perhaps, is “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief ” (Mark 9:24, KJV). Faith and fiction both start once upon a time and are continually changing and growing in mood, intensity, and direction. When faith stops changing and growing, it dies on its feet. So does fiction. And they have more in common than that.
They both start with a leap in the dark, for one. How can Noah, Abraham, Sarah, or anyone else know for sure that the promise they die without receiving will ever be kept and that their journey in search of a homeland will ever get them there? How can anybody writing a novel or a story know for sure where it will lead and just how and with what effect it will end or even if it is a story worth telling? Let writers beware who from the start know too much about what they are doing and keep too heavy a hand on the reins. They leave too little room for luck as they tell their stories, just the way Abraham and Sarah, if they know too much about what they are doing as they live their stories, leave too little room for grace.
The word fiction comes from a Latin verb meaning “to shape, fashion, feign.” That is what fiction does, and in many ways it is what faith does too. You fashion your story, as you fashion your faith, out of the great hodgepodge of your life—the things that have happened to you and the things you have dreamed of happening. They are the raw material of both. Then, if you’re a writer like me, you try less to impose a shape on the hodgepodge than to see what shape emerges from it, is hidden in it. You try to sense what direction it is moving in. You listen to it. You avoid forcing your characters to march too steadily to the drumbeat of your artistic purpose, but leave them some measure of real freedom to be themselves. If minor characters show signs of becoming major characters, you at least give them a shot at it because in the world of fiction it may take many pages before you find out who the major characters really are just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to for half an hour once in a railway station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your closest friend or your psychiatrist.
As a writer I use such craft as I have at my command, of course. I figure out what scenes to put in and, just as important, what scenes to leave out. I decide when to use dialogue and spend hours trying to make it sound like human beings talking to each other instead of just me talking to myself. I labor to find the right tone of voice to tell my story in, which is to say the right style, ultimately the right word, which is the most demanding part of it all—sentence after sentence, page after page, looking for the word that has freshness and power and life in it. But I try not to let my own voice be the dominant one. The limitation of the great stylists, of course—of a James, say, or a Hemingway—is that it is their voices you remember long after you have forgotten the voices of any of their characters. “Be still, and know that I am God,” is the advice of the psalmist (46:10), and I’ve always taken it to be good literary advice too. Be still the way Tolstoy is still, or Anthony Trollope is still, so your characters can speak for themselves and come alive in their own way.
In faith and fiction both you fashion out of the raw stuff of your experience. If you want to remain open to the luck and grace of things anyway, you shape that stuff in the sense less of imposing a shape on it than of discovering the shape. And in both you feign—feigning as imagining, as making visible images for invisible things. Fiction can’t be true the way a photograph is true, but at its best it can feign truth the way a good portrait does, inward and invisible truth. Fiction at its best can be true to the experience of being a human in this world, and the fiction you write depends, needless to say, on the part of that experience you choose. The part that has always most interested me is best illustrated by such incidents as the three I described at the outset. The moment that unaccountably brings tears to your eyes, that takes you by crazy surprise, that sends a shiver down your spine, that haunts you with what is just possibly a glimpse of something far beyond or deep within itself. That is the part of the human experience I choose to write about in my fiction. It is the part I am most concerned to feign, that is, make images for. In that sense I can live with the label of religious novelist. In any other sense, it is a label that makes my flesh crawl.
“Faith and Fiction” from The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction by Frederick Buechner, copyright © 1992 by Frederick Buechner, and later included in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner, copyright © 2006 by Frederick Buechner. Courtesy of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Featured in Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner (Frederick Buechner Center), available in paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon.com.