Guest Post by Heather Shaw, Author
I was privileged recently to be a Think Write Publish Science & Religion fellow. I spent a year writing my own story about harmonies between science and religion, mentored by an encouraging group of professional writers and editors.
At one point in the process, I was paired with a new mentor to receive fresh feedback on my story-in-progress. I was writing about my father’s death, and my struggle to let go of my old ideas about God so I could embrace something new. The story flowed from the simple certainties of my childhood faith to the uncertainty of my faith crisis, and then…it sort of floundered.
I thought the essay was documenting my change of perspective, but it’s more accurate to say it was facilitating that change: the very process of writing had helped me to learn things about myself that I couldn’t have otherwise known. I was writing to find out what I believed, and I didn’t have a conclusion because I hadn’t made up my mind. I was as unfinished as my draft.
My new mentor’s feedback was mostly positive, with a few pointed recommendations. I was feeling really good about the conversation. Then he leaned back in his swivel chair with his hands behind his head. “I feel like you were manipulated once,” he said, “and now you’re going to allow yourself to be manipulated again, and try to pass it off as an epiphany.”
If he’d had a mic, he could’ve dropped it. It stung.
I looked around, trying to gauge the expressions of the other writers at the table. Is this guy wrong, or am I a fool? Or something in between? And close on the heels of that thought came another: Why does this hurt so much? My mentor had pulled no punches, but for that I should have been grateful. He was telling me the truth about what he took from the words that I wrote, and that is gold to a writer, whether it hurts or not. Moreso if it hurts.
So a better question might be: why was he so put off?
Words are a tricky business. The words “I’m a Christian,” for example, both tell you something true about me and place a kind of wall between us. The wall has a picture on it of a Christian as you understand the word, and it will take some work on my part to tear down that wall and show you myself. Things are going to get messy.
This is true of all kinds of writing, but no more so than when writing about faith. Our religious jargon is so burdened by preconceived notions that it’s difficult to say anything meaningful with it. For example, because I’m a Christian, I often hear sentences that begin “I just feel like God is telling me to” (leave my job, move to Wisconsin, break up with you). It’s just shorthand, of course, from one Christian to another. I nod knowingly across the table, but I don’t really know, and no one has to do the work of explaining that rather hard-to-explain experience of divine guidance.
If I use this shorthand in my writing, I immediately lose every reader who doesn’t buy it. To say to an atheist “God spoke to me” has an implicit hubris, a kind of insider privilege that implies my reader would know if they only shared my faith. At best, they stop reading. At worst, they interpret that shorthand in their own way, so “God spoke” becomes “I did what I wished in God’s name” or “I am a fool.” Either way, it fortifies the wall between us.
People of faith may be confident in their beliefs, but faith itself presupposes a lack of certainty: we believe because we cannot know. It’s amazing to me how the simple act of acknowledging that uncertainty has the power to tear down the wall between reader and writer, believer and unbeliever. Faith is a choice we make about how we will live and act in the world based on our limited knowledge, and that choice is something that any human of any background can relate to. It’s what we all share–a fundamental not-knowing and a choice. How will we live?
I could have brushed off my mentor’s comment. I could’ve excused myself by saying that this particular reader simply couldn’t identify with a faith he didn’t share. Instead, I scoured my draft. I evaluated the writing (Had I misconstrued my experience?) and the story (Was I being manipulated?). I found places where I had used religious shorthand to gloss over difficult truths, and I cut them. I let my reader see me struggle. I stopped trying to find a tidy conclusion, and I found a messy one, and honest one, instead.
The writer and theologian Henri Nouwen said, “What is most personal is most universal.” The more willing I am to show you my messy faith and lack thereof, my private doubts, my secret longings, the more you, reader, will be able to see yourself. That’s an act of faith all on its own. Whether or not we share the same beliefs, by sharing my story I can help you live yours–not in spite of my faith but because of it.
About the Author
Heather Sinclair Shaw lives, writes, and grows stuff on an old family farm in Newark, Ohio. Most recently she was a Think Write Publish Science & Religion Fellow through Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2014 and Best of Ohio Short Stories Volume 1.