Tuesday, February 08, 2011

a funny thing happened on the way to the pulitzer


When I first began writing stories at the age of eight or nine they were exclusively genre pieces. That was because I had an audience of one – my mother – and mom’s favorite TV show at the time was a legal drama called Perry Mason. So, tailoring my story to my market, I wrote Perry Mason stories on 5x3 index cards, stapled them together along with front and back covers and an author’s bio, and distributed free advance copies to my mother. This was on the understanding I could use her endorsements on the covers of my future books. The setup worked for years as I graduated to sea stories and adventure stories and historical fiction.

In my 20s I was heavily influenced by the poetry of Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Langston Hughes who filled my writing with simile, metaphor, and lyricism. American writers like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Chaim Potok also left their mark. I eschewed genre pieces and decided literary fiction was the way to go. Masterpieces like The Old Man and the Sea, Go Down Moses, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Chosen were buried inside me, waiting to be discovered by my imagination and brought to the light of day. No other kind of writing was so important, no other kind of fiction mattered as much. Along these lines I began to publish my first short stories and novels and received some recognition from the august literary circles where many felt as I did. The difference was clear – art like that of Norman Rockwell or Ronald Bateman paled in comparison to the works of Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci just as the stories of genre writers faded in the light of tales written by true literary masters.

Over time, I discovered that contemporary literary fiction is simply genre writing under a fancier name. Certain conventions must be observed: any expression of positive religious experience is frowned upon as are happy endings, happy characters, innocence, and bliss. Negative spiritual experience, tragic endings, dysfunctional characters, innocence lost, as well as agony and despair are welcome and praised as high art. I once complained that literary fiction had to be noir sur noir, black on black, to succeed, even though the same people who honored that approach mocked the “white on white” approach of the “feel good” genre writers. Nevertheless I persisted, trying to make a difference as a Christian writer in the turbulent realm of literary fiction.

Exactly two years ago I decided to write a genre piece for the first time since I’d been a boy. I’m not even sure now why I suddenly decided to do so – I think there was a challenge involved from someone who wanted to see if I could do it and do it well. It couldn’t be just any old genre piece, you see, it had to be a really good genre piece. So I set my literary fiction aside for several months and went to work. It was supposed to be a lark, a joke, a bit of whimsy, but as the story unfolded I took both plot and character development more and more seriously. Then, shock of shocks, it wasn’t a joke anymore: I was writing a story and I cared about it and the people caught up within it and I wanted to write the genre piece as well as I possibly could. One evening I realized I was enjoying myself and truly looking forward to my sessions with Word software and my Mac and my “genre specific” imagination. When I finished and passed the book on to my agent I felt a rush of loneliness – I missed the characters I’d created for the story, I hated to break off the relationship. Wouldn’t I ever be able to tell any of their stories again? It was like I’d lost living, breathing persons who had spent time in my kitchen, sat beside me at church, and gone on long walks along with me and my dogs.

I returned to my pastoral ministry and my literary fiction. A year later, in 2010, the book was picked up by a publishing house for release in 2012. I was gratified. So I still had the ability to write a decent genre piece! Well, that was wonderful, but I had to focus on doing the writing that really mattered, producing a book worthy of the Booker or the Nobel or even the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But then, just a few months ago, in October or November of 2010, an idea for another genre piece popped into my head. Except I didn’t call it a genre piece – I called it a story, a book, a novel. It was the real thing and it was insistent. Writers know what I’m talking about. It was one of those tales that bursts into your life and imagination and quite literally demands to be told. So I spent four months telling “the story that had to be told” and loving every minute of it. Really loving every minute of it. I wasn’t sitting in the garret agonizing over a finely tuned piece of literary fiction that resembled Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I was sitting by a fire and spinning a yarn. I felt like a Christian Louis L’Amour and it was a terrific experience.

Until I submitted the completed manuscript to my agent and then I felt that rush of loneliness I’d felt two years before when I’d handed over my first genre piece. I even felt a mild depression – would I never be able to talk about the lives of my new set of characters again? Wouldn’t someone let me do a series? Was I saying goodbye to these people forever? I realized these “genre piece characters” had become very real and very dear to me and that I was unwilling to let them go. Then I decided the only way to snap out of it was to do the obvious – keep writing. Not a genre piece even though others would considered it a genre piece. I would write a story, a good, decent, as big and beautiful as life story.

Which is what I’m doing now. Writing my third genre piece that I do not think of as a genre piece, but as another tale locked inside me that has to be let out and told as well as I can. In fact, I plan to write another couple after this one before the year is out. Hey, what’s going on, you ask? What happened to your passion for writing literary fiction? Well, I’m still doing that too. I spent most of 2010 writing a novel that is going to be published in another few weeks. Except I don’t think of it as a ”literary fiction piece” anymore. Like the book I just finished and the one I’m embarking on right now, it’s a story, and I tried to write that story a well as I could with all the fire and force and light within me, and I thanked God for it when I was done.

What writing pieces I no longer call “genre specific pieces for the industry” did for me was set me free and I mean that. I was totally at liberty to write about love and God and Jesus and prayer and spirituality and forgiveness and good old-fashioned adventure and romance without any fear of censure or disapproval or being warned I wasn’t producing “true art”. I’ve been having the time of my life, yet I’ve still been working hard at writing well and telling a story well. I’m a storyteller again like I was when I was a child and I’m writing my stories for my audience of one or a hundred and I’m writing my stories for Christ. How can it get any better than that? I have a million stories in me all waiting to get out and I intend to do what I can to let them walk and talk and breathe and praise God in the lives they live in readers’ hearts and minds and souls.

They say you can’t go home again. But you can.

I have.


Anonymous said...

:-) I love stories. . . I eat them up! I'm so excited!!

murray said...

Thank you - please pray my new book falls into the hands of the publisher God wants. Today my agent is in Denver for a writers/publishers conference and he will be giving out samples from the book I've blogged two chapters from (flight). God has chosen to work through prayer so it makes a difference. I'll be sharing about my new writing project next week. GBY.

EMP said...

"I’m a storyteller again like I was when I was a child and I’m writing my stories for my audience of one or a hundred and I’m writing my stories for Christ. How can it get any better than that?"

Amen, MP. (I'm still an 'audience of one' writer for now....)

"I have a million stories in me all waiting to get out and I intend to do what I can to let them walk and talk and breathe and praise God in the lives they live in readers’ hearts and minds and souls."

Yes, please!

Your blog posts are a tremendous blessing to me each week, Murray, as I struggle, word by word, to hone my craft. (And I'm merely a letter writer!)