Faith, and the Loss Thereof

Okay, so I think I’m over my fit of temper from the last post.



I think I’m willing to work through it, anyway…and that’s almost as good, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I still think WordPress has achieved an entirely new level of moronicity* with their changes, but I’m going to try and struggle through.  And, yeah, some of that willingness to struggle is the ubercompetitive pride that I usually try to hide: I ain’t gonna let any other sonofabitchasswagon beat me! The less said about that side of my personality, the better.

*Why am I a sci-fi/fantasy writer?  Because I freaking LOVE to make up words!


So, where does that intro lead me?

Not into the following post, as a matter of a fact.

I, err…

Look, when the hell have I ever planned one of these posts?!  Yeah, yeah…I come in with an idea of what I want to talk about, but that original idea generally lasts about as long as a Twinkie at a table of 7th graders.  Once I start hitting the keys — once the words start to flow — that original plan is nothing more than a barely remembered aftertaste…

There’s been a conspiracy of late.  No, not THAT conspiracy!  No Satan-worshipping pedophile deep-state resistance for me, thank you very much.  No, this conspiracy is worse.  It’s a conspiracy of those I love, and those I read, and the world itself.  It is a conspiracy to remind of that which I no longer am; of that which I have left behind.

I just finished a new fantasy series that really put the capstone onto this “conspiracy.”  The first two books in the trilogy were good.  Good, but not Tolkien/Jordan/Martin good.  Just good.  They were also pretty basic, with not a lot of undercurrent and subtext to go with the plot and characters.  Then the third book…the third book went and pulled the rest of the clubs out of the bag.

Oh, the message wasn’t what you would call subtle…not even close, in fact.  This was CS Lewis-style allegorical fantasy, rather than Tolkien-style high fantasy.*

*If you don’t know the differing views and philosophies those two close friends brought to their respective works, you should probably go back and study more…

The backdrop for this is that I used to be a Christian.  I still consider something of a Christian, although I am far, far closer to a Deist than to any of the **intentionally skipping controversial comments here** flavors of “Christianity” that so dominate the US today.

So what got me to thinking about this?

That third book.  I copied out and emailed to myself several quotes from that book, but I’m only going to use here the first of those.  Mainly because it was the one that got me to thinking, but also because it is the one that I think has the most to say to modern US-style Christianity (note — I’m editing the quote here to be more general, but book details are at the end of this post):

“Because that’s not how it works. Faithful people suffer and evil people prosper all the time[…]you must know that is true. Besides, if our actions are driven only by reward or punishment—eternal or otherwise—then they are motivated by greed and selfishness, not faith or love. That is where so many people go wrong, even those who say they believe in [God]. They obey because they think it will make their lives better, rather than themselves. And that is very much the wrong reason.”

Why am I not a Christian?  Two reasons I’ll give you — and a third I will keep to myself, thank you very much.

The first, and primary, of those is that US-style Christianity is all about fear and punishment and force.  Do this or go to hell.  Live like this or go to hell.  Believe this or go to hell.

That there is some Kool-Aid-drinking, mind-control bullshit…especially when fed to children.  If a “god” loved me so much he would send me to Hell for even questioning, I’m quite happy to play for another team.

The second of the reasons is that Christians — mostly, but not exclusively, US-style — can’t leave well enough alone.  They can’t let anyone else get on with their life if that life conflicts with their own prejudices and intolerance.  And, yes, this second reason is basically a subset of the first…

But every so often my own prejudices and snap-judgments get challenged.  Every so often you talk to, or listen to, or read, that person who can iterate something different.  The best stories, by the way, can iterate something different.  Oh, it doesn’t have to be religion — arguable, shouldn’t be — but it has to be something meaningful.

Why do Joe Haldeman and Ursula LeGuin and Robert Heinlein and George Orwell still resonate as sci-fi writers?  Because they wrote far more than they wrote.  Their words were about more than plot and character, their words were about the freaking world…about life, and all the bullshit that goes with it.

I’m not going to hold James Islington up in that company — his books were good, but nothing near that good — but he gets all the credit in the world for making me think and question my usual knee-jerk dismissal of “message” writing.

My rule on this, by the way, is if the writer is someone with whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and talk through what they wrote. The list of such writers is pretty stinking small, but Islington (and his message) has made his way onto it.

Well done, sir.

**Note — The specific book in question is “The Light of All That Falls” from the Licanius Trilogy by James Islington.

Life Lessons

There’s always something to learn, always wisdom you have not yet acquired.  Wisdom that, over my life, includes things like: you’re never the toughest guy in the room, there’s always a catch, and — my personal favorite — tequila does not make you more attractive.

It’s always good when you can add to that accumulated wisdom.  That’s what growing and learning is all about, isn’t it?


Not so much, sometimes.  Not when you’re five miles into your hike … not when you’re four miles off the nearest trail … not when you’re in the most active grizzly habitat within 500 miles … not when you finally figure out that maybe having the extra-spicy curry last night wasn’t the best idea in the world…

Have you ever tried to keep your eyes and ears peeled for a wandering grizzly when your, err, “guard” is down?

Write what you know, they say.  That unfortunately is the kind of thing I know.


On a more cheerful — and totally unrelated! — note, a German court decided the other day that a hangover officially qualifies as an illness.  You gotta love the Germans!  Now if only that ruling had been around when I was young, I wouldn’t have had to lie to my bosses quite so often…

img_0011Not that I would ever do that.  Of course not.  I would never spend the night with friends drinking beer and scotch in the back of a brewery.  Just like I would never call in to work the next morning with “food poisoning.”  Just what kind of slacker do you think I am, anyway?!

There are, of course, plenty of writing-centered life lessons to learn, as well.  I’m not going to put together a big list of those for this post, mostly because I want to focus on one in particular: you can never make everyone happy.

If you try, by the way, you will ruin not just your story but yourself, too.

Now, I have to give that little writing lesson some context, I suppose.  You absolutely do have to keep your intended audience in mind when you write.  Back when I used to train and teach salespeople, one of the things I stressed was always remaining focused on who and what was your victim…err, client.  If you thought only about what you needed as a salesperson, you were guaranteed to fail.

You wouldn’t write about drugs and despair and nihilism if your intended audience was my father…  (Less Than Zero)

You wouldn’t write about violence and an unhealthy urge to belong if your intended audience was pre-schoolers…  (Fight Club)

You wouldn’t write about suffering and death and mass murder if your intended audience was middle and high schoolers…  (The Boy In The Striped Pajamas)


Here’s the thing, that little nugget of writing “wisdom” I mentioned above?  It applies to us writers…but only to an extent.  There was a great quote from S.E. Hinton a while back.  A high school girl at a Q&A event stood up and told her, “I got suspended for reading The Outsiders in class.”

Hinton looked back and gave her a smile, “I got the same thing for writing it in class.”

The Outsiders gets attacked — still! — on a regular basis for being “inappropriate” and “immoral” and for breaking all the then-current rules of convention and society.  It should never have worked, according to the experts of the day.  No one at the time thought kids were capable of reading something like that without turning into criminals and thugs.

It is also one of the greatest examples of a writer who truly did know her audience — far, far better than did the “experts” of the day.

Hinton didn’t worry about making everyone happy, she worried about making herself — and her audience, her real audience — happy.  And it kinda worked out okay…

On the other hand, when a writer crosses the fine — not to mention hard-to-detect — line between knowing their audience and pandering to them, they have abandoned all hope of creating a story that matters.  Worse still is when a writer panders not to their audience, but to the conventions and mores of, well, any of the closed, insular little worlds into which our society has split.

There are all kinds of “tests” out there for creative works; progressive tests, conservative tests, religious tests, secular tests, pacifist tests, violent tests…  Shit, there are even freaking vegan and omnivore tests!  When you are more worried about “passing” those tests than about writing your story, you have fallen into pandering.

Similarly, when you are more worried about keeping your audience “happy” than writing your story, you are equally pandering.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas didn’t seek to keep the audience happy, it sought to make them uncomfortable as hell.  It sought to bring education and enlightenment through tears.  Just as, with The Outsiders, Hinton didn’t worry about making anyone happy, she sought only to tell the story that was so clear in her mind.

F77E4C05-C9E1-4393-A7E1-E4B670582209One of my all-time favorite movies is Au Revoir, Les Enfants.  Malle didn’t worry about his audience, or his producers, or the studios…he told his story, his coming-of-age autobiography.  And its last scene, the one people thought was “too sad” and “too depressing”, is what will truly stick with you.  It is that final image — that final, screw-you-I’m-doing-it-my-way image — that moves the film from “very good” to “truly great”.

*By the way, I once mentioned the concept of “story creep”…of the impulse to bring in thoughts and ideas that have nothing to do with the actual story at hand.  The same 72FFF94E-A47B-4DF8-8201-6C1D0B25C56Bproblem applies to this blog.  Thinking about the end of “Au Revoir” starts my squirrel-driven mind going down just all kinds of rabbit trails, especially about how to end a story or film with a truly impactful moment.  Without going too far off-point, or too deeply into the weeds, all I will say is if you want to know how to end a story, watch the brilliant “Ivan’s Childhood.”  Tarkovsky was a freaking genius.

I wish that lesson were easier for us writers to learn, not to mention to hold to.  Hell, I wish the industry itself were at all friendly to the concept.  But we struggle with it, and the industry is not.  All of the dynamics, in fact, push us to write our stories for others…to try to make everyone happy, except for ourselves.

We are not actors, to tell someone else’s story.

We are not pop singers, to perform someone else’s music.

We are writers, dammit.  If you can’t tell your own story — the story you want to create — what’s the freaking point?

Climbing The Second Mountain

I’ve mentioned before that my news and opinion reading is pretty dang broad.  I do my best to take in info and viewpoints from all across the spectrum, then run all of them through my own perspective (and BS filter) in an effort to come up with something approaching the “whole picture.”

You come up with some surprising results that way, by the way.  You come up with writers that you like — that you take quite seriously — even though you may not agree with the policies and positions and opinions they express (I’m looking at you, Richard Cohen).

That’s rare, however.  More commonly you find those writers who simply make you shrug, who are there just to read in the moment.  Every once in a while, however, one of those “blah” people surprises you…every once in a while you find a column or an essay that makes you sit up and take real notice of someone you had dismissed for years…

I ran across one of those this past weekend.

Maybe it was because the piece had nothing really to do with politics, but rather was about life itself…about life, and second chances.  Given that I, in the essay’s terms, am on my “second mountain,” this piece really resonated.

I cannot for copyright reasons quote the entire thing here, but I am going to put a pull-quote to give you an idea of what he has to say, along with a link to the piece itself.  It is…erm…a terrible title for the piece, by the way.  The headline has nothing whatsoever to do with what is actually written, but that’s not the author’s fault…blame the editors for that one.  Ignore the title and just read the essay, it’s worth it.

David Brooks, “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy”

“Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces.”