Rhyming Between the Lines

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At Hutchmoot-most-recent I was delighted to join the company of N. D. Wilson and Helena Sorenson for a session on fictional world-building. More comfortable leaning on pre-thought thoughts than trying to formulate new ideas in public, I began by reading aloud a stream-of-consciousness poem penned in an attempt to describe what drives this restless desire to set characters loose in fictional worlds—to set them loose and then to hound and document their steps, searching for what fragments of eternity the turned stones of their passages might reveal.

“How to write about conversion if it is true that faith is an unmerited gift from God?
How to describe, let alone explain it, if this is the case?
When it comes to grace, I get writer’s block.”
—Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays

I understand Percy’s lament about grace and writer’s block, and I’ve chewed on that conundrum for a couple of decades now. As best I can figure, the only viable way around that roadblock is to resist any impulse to give cheap and easy answers, even in our fiction, and to let the resulting unresolved tension build unbearably until it finally (hopefully) rushes violently into the story on its own steam and with its own agenda. But here I am, doing the very thing I preach so adamantly against: trying to explain an artistic expression in advance of letting others experience it. Self-chastened, I now recuse myself, and invite you to read on.


I have found fiction, the writing of it,
to be an experiment in the suppression
of the elements of wonder and
of the fantastic, and of the fantastic

hunger that is the husk of the hope even
when the hope is removed the hunger still
retains the hollowed shape that hope might fill
and hope being hope,
it will, it will. I willed
in writing to force
the hand of God, His Spirit and His breath
to the unseen outer edges of a story
by banishing his unspeakable movements to the hinterlands to
the places just off the edges of the yellowed maps
by returning to the Old Covenants
by forcing un-locatable Him to occupy the negative spaces around
and beneath the story
by making him a dweller in the dark soil
a nourishment drawn up through the roots of the plants
that these few characters would tread upon in the world that they inhabit,
sensing in the dew that cools their feet perhaps that
there is an author, and a story, and a flow
to the days and seasons of their lives.

You—and by you I mean I, or at least one of us—You do this
in the hope that by denying all temptation
to easily—and by easily I mean cheaply—
articulate the myriad graces of wonder
or the myriad mysteries of the wonders of grace,
you do this in the hope that by banishing and suppressing the divine presence
by making the Almighty a rim-walker in your world’s weird places,
by fixing his movements somewhere
just over the horizon,
just behind the clouds of storm,
just beneath the distant, echoed laughter of a child,
somewhere that the text is not currently focused,
you do this in the hopes that there placed, there exiled, the divine presence will
appear, if perceptible at all, as candles behind thick and clouded glass
causing the whole landscape to glow softly
so that your characters must sense
as they plant and harvest their fields,
must sense—whether they acknowledge it or no—
that the ground they tread is Holy ground
and that what they suffer and grieve
is in itself somehow a gift that cannot yet be recognized,
one of the holy things that have no carts
one of the burdens that must be carried on their shoulders
as if they were born to be Kohathites, because
the burdens are too holy, are most holy
and the holiest things are the things that must be borne
for they are the presence of God
bearing down upon us
shaping the curve of our shoulders
the bend of our backs
from their long weight,

and the weights are the burdens,
and the burdens are bait,
the burdens are the bait in the trap in which you hope to catch God.

You write because you are hunting the incarnation
like some magical white stag
rumored but doubted
and your trick is not to look directly at it, not even to look for it.
Your trick is to consciously avoid it
especially when you begin to feel its presence,
to all but deny its existence in hopes
that so denied,
it will shatter the very walls of your story, unzipping the air,
that it will leap out at you suddenly
when and where you least expect it,
fully formed, surprising, and terrible in that awful aspect
of the majesty and of the love which is more furious
and more lavish
than the whirlwind of Job.

That is your hope
that at a certain point you will lose control of the story you started
so that it will go where it always needed to go

and in looking back now
as your ship struggles free of the winter’s arctic ice floes
you see that what you were really doing was
writing a poem
that set up rhymes
that did not resolve,
and you traveled trembling to the end of that last line
and whispered into the void at the end of all you had done
and waited to see
if some word would come echoing back
knowing all along
that if it did,
it must be a word that would somehow rhyme with everything.

 

Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).


6 Comments

  1. Miss Mary

    @missmary

    I don’t even write, but so often in LIFE this is what I am waiting for. This resonates so much because in my real walk with God I go through what the character does, where God’s presence does seem to be a dim general illumination… He is there, but hard to pin down anywhere, and something so indefinable that I wonder if it is my imagination (or desperate need) generating the whole thing, yet so grateful for the moments when I do sense something even vaguely.  And then every now and then He breaks in unexpected with floodlights instead of dimly hidden candles. Usually just about the time I recover enough that I am not covering my eyes on the floor things get a bit darker and it isn’t long before it gets back to candles, but I know it happened and it always matters. Someday (changing analogies) the final word will be heard and it will rhyme with everything and there will be nagging doubts and unanswered questions, and the final word will also be the beginning of the new story. So very encouraging.

    So all that to say, I think the reason this matters so much for writers, is because we live this. Even Christians who have some sense of God’s grace, and how amazing He is we frequently doubt or get caught up in other things. It takes a lot more grace and patience and faithful love than we think it will when we first start out to actually transform us, but God is THAT good.

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