“There Is Continual Joy in Plotting”
A conversation with Diane Glancy and Daniel Taylor about faith, writing, community, solitude, and the unfathomable ways of God.
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John: A wonderful start to our conversation. I think that you read a bit from When Everett Was Still Dancing at one of our Chrysostom gatherings a few years back. On to you, Dan.
Daniel: The question is timely because I am working this morning on the third draft of the last book in a four-novel series. The first was Death Comes for the Deconstructionist and this final one will be titled The Mystery of Iniquity. In each book, Jon Mote, the troubled narrator, is accompanied by his cognitively disabled older sister, Judy. Over the three drafts I have made significant changes and choices at every level: plot, characterization, scenes, word choices. Whole chapters have moved around or disappeared altogether (self-labeled “tedious”), while others have been newly created. Old events have disappeared and new ones have been born (a dance with residents from Judy’s group home for the mentally disabled replaced by their trip to the Minnesota State Fair). What I once thought was an effective word or phrase has been replaced by a different one.
One of my main concerns at this stage is didacticism. I allow it in early drafts in my fiction, but, as with many writers of faith, worry about it as I get closer to a final product. I think it one of the bigger issues for any writer of fiction, religious or secular. I am haunted by the words of Dostoevsky: “At least say it indirectly, that’s what you have style for.” Though I have at least one actual sermon in each of the novels (because I think religious life too absent in contemporary writing), no one wants a novel that reads like a sermon. I don’t fully trust my own judgment on this.
Diane: I like what Dan said and can agree on the upheaval that writing is—meaning the many turns and returns and upsets a novel takes. I also am especially aware of the absence of Christianity in contemporary literature. And in other places also. I feel that Christian faith is becoming more marginalized. I noticed that “under God” was left out twice in the pledge of allegiance in a political arena.
I was contacted recently by two young women about being on an AWP panel on faith in writing. Neither panel was on the acceptance list I saw today. I have proposed panels to them in the past along the lines of faith, and none were accepted. Academia is especially hostile. I have the same quandary as Dan. If I write about Christianity and am too blatant, I pull back. Soften it in other words. Or like Dostoevsky, say it indirectly; then I am sorry I took a side-step. Christianity is a hard message to deal with. Christ died for my sins. It sounds so easy, but one takes a lot of guff for making that simple statement. I do remember Samuel in the Old Testament (I Samuel 8:7) complaining to God that no one listens to him. God answers, it is me they don’t like, not you.
John: Yes. And to complicate matters, many of the prominent people in our country who describe themselves as Christians seem to be promoting a version of the faith that’s only very selectively Christian! Of course it’s always easier for us to see those contradictions in others than it is in ourselves. But that leads me to another question. Dan, how is your work as a writer connected with your Christian community—your church, your friends, the networks of Christian institutions with which you’ve been connected throughout your life? I’m wondering in particular whether you—and Diane—have a sense that to some extent the writing distances you from your Christian community, while perhaps in other ways you are contributing to that community.
Daniel: This question calls for a big, fat, book-length answer, but I’ll just offer a few thoughts.
In response to the oft-asked “Who is your audience?” question, I always answer, “Kindred spirits—and I don’t necessarily know who or where they are.” I write with the assumption that at least some other people in the world are interested in what I’m interested in, value what I value, want to defend what I want to defend, and are attracted enough to how I think and write about such things to read my work. (My book sales would indicate this is not a massive group of folks. So be it.)
I find I live in multiple communities, and they do not always get along. But since many of my basic commitments in life are shaped by the story faith, explicitly Christian, I find that most of the kindred spirits in my life and audience are members in or on the edge of that community, perhaps especially on the edge—where I often find myself.
It’s important to me that my sense of my community stretches over time and place. It is as old as the history of God’s interaction with his creation and includes in its cloud of witnesses figures as varied as the biblical writers, the early church fathers and mothers, Columba, Julian of Norwich, Thomas More, and modern writers such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Melville, Dickinson, Eliot, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, O’Connor, King, and Wiesel. They and many others are my kindred spirits.
No work of art is created alone. Communities, mediated through individuals, create works of art. And each work of art defines its own community. Even if I sometimes feel like a midwestern anchorite typing away in my cell, the fact is that anything I write is shaped in great part by my various communities. Without Pascal and Kierkegaard, there is no Myth of Certainty. Without Wise Blood there is perhaps no Do We Not Bleed?
Do my communities shower me with praise and royalties? No. One Christian evaluator of Myth said it was worthless and that anyone with doubts about faith should simply read a good book of apologetics. My own mother’s response: “Well son, you didn’t write that book for me.” And she was right.
On the other hand, I get a small but steady stream of letters and emails from folks who say my work has kept them in or brought them to the community of faith. Or that my depiction of cognitively disabled folks in my novels “hits the nail on the head.” I always thank such folks for the encouragement and take their response as reason enough to keep plugging away. What’s the alternative, playing golf?
Diane: I am a loner at heart. I work in my study by myself and I travel by myself. Or if it’s Sunday I go to church by myself. Or if I’m in Texas, I pass the time with my grandson Ray until school opens again. We walk down to the creek. We go to the Red River and throw stones into the current. In Texas I go to a small non-denominational Pentecostal church. In Kansas I have a Sunday school class that keeps me going to the large denominational church I attend. We discuss books. They are not literary, but books on how to be a better Christian. They would never read any of my books.
The pastor in the small church in Texas online saw one of my presentations. He knows I write. In Kansas, one of the members of the Sunday school class online saw that I write. She actually ordered one of my books and told the class I wrote. They didn’t know what to say. One woman said she wished she had gone to college. They would not be interested in the somewhat experimental, genre-mixing work I do. And the literary group that is interested in that kind of writing is usually not interested in Christianity, which most of my books address.
By travel, I mean the 482 miles between Kansas and Texas, where I drive back and forth. By travel I mean driving Ray 50 miles to Lewisville, where he plays in a basketball league. It is important to him. It is where he feels he belongs. The tournaments are on the weekends, usually at least an hour away. My son’s family lives in the country, and there is not much for Ray to do. I’m glad to be his driver.
I belong to the Chrysostom Society, a group of Christian writers, where there is community. Once a year we meet to talk about writing and to read our work to one another. There is the Calvin University Festival of Faith and Writing. Mary-Hardin Baylor has a writer’s conference. There are others.
To add to the separation, I am in a Fundamental Bible Church. I believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. That does not go over well. We are in a world now where all faiths matter. All are viable. And the Fundamental Pentecostal Christians consider creative writing abiding close to sin. I can agree with that. It preoccupies one. I feel bad that I am not helping others. There is much need. I would rather sit with my computer following the trail of a thought. Loneliness, which is more aloneness, helps my writing. It helps my faith because I have nowhere else to turn. It is what the disciples answered when Jesus asked if they would leave him in John 6:68.