Every now and then someone will find out that I’m a writer and ask me what I’m working on. In response, I’ll describe some scenario of betrayal and human failure, and I’ll get this look that says, “Yuck, why did you choose such an ugly thing to write about?” On a few occasions, I’ve been asked directly: “Why do you write such sad stories?”
The standard response works pretty well to stifle my questioner. The world is a sad place, and the job of the artist is to hold up a mirror to humanity, so it is inevitable that we writers will end up telling sad stories.
Lately, though, I’ve started wondering if this is really a satisfactory answer. At the very least, I think it’s incomplete. Yes, the world can be terribly sad. Every day seems to unearth yet another story of violence and abuse, repeating the never-ending pattern of the powerful stealing from the disadvantaged their few remaining possessions (whether that’s their money, their health, or their dignity). But there is another side to that coin, and the truth is that you don’t have to do a lot of searching to find the beauty in this world. You just have to have your eyes open.
Increasingly, it seems to me that the choice of what a writer decides to write about is just that: it’s a choice. And while I would never argue that we should oversimplify the world or ignore its brutality, I also think it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of telling the sad stories, while ignoring the possibility of redemption.
The reason for this is pretty simple: the literary community is deeply skeptical of anything that possesses the least hint of sentimentality. The easiest way to dismiss an artist is to describe their work as saccharine. A friend of mine, who is a remarkable poet, chooses in her work to focus largely on the concept of beauty. Several years ago, she attended the workshop at Breadloaf and was told, repeatedly, by everyone, that she wasn’t writing the right kind of poetry. Her poetry was too nice. (She’s gone on to publish two fantastic collections since her stint at Breadloaf, while ignoring this advice.) And it’s the fear of this sort of rejection that holds most of us in line, keeping us centered on the wide road toward literary approval.
I’m not a person who responds well to peer pressure. The fact that I’ve written as many sad stories as I have is at least partially because I’ve been pushing back against the expectation that, as a pastor, I would write nice Christian stories with happy endings. Though I now find myself equally hostile toward the idea that my stories can’t be redemptive and still be truly literary.
I also think it’s vital that artists continue asserting themselves against norms and expectations, even when (perhaps especially when) those norms and expectations are created within the literary community. We are not here to please or conform, but to confront.
Still, I’m not really interested in a writing life that is reacting to one thing or another. I don’t want my writing to be shaped by others’ expectations. Ultimately, I want to be a writer who chooses to tell the stories I think are important and talk about the things that I believe in, even when those things are unpopular, or when I face the possibility that I won’t be taken seriously. No one worth their salt ever escaped criticism, so it’s a wonder we spend so much time and energy trying to avoid it.
As a person of faith, I see two main avenues for my writing. The first is telling stories that describe the nature of human sinfulness. By this I mean investigating the systematic nature of our human failings—the way our selfishness makes us blind to witnessing the humanity in the other. These are sad stories that feel entirely necessary to me. We are masters at disguising sin, wrapping it up in bright paper, and pretending it’s something else. And so the work of culling through the human experience, finding the bad boards and throwing them to the curb—this is important.
And then there’s redemption. People have a difficult time believing in redemption. We become so accustomed to watching things fall apart that it can be surreal when, somehow, broken parts are miraculously bonded together. The task of convincing our readers in the possibility of redemption is a difficult one, but this doesn’t make it less worthwhile. This is what writers are all about: finding the hard truth, the difficult truth.
Who, then, is going to take it on? Who is going to take the huge risk of writing books that rely on the idea that broken things can be repaired and broken relationships restored?
Count me in.
Kevin Fitton holds an MFA from Bennington College. He has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including Limestone and Jabberwock. His short story, “Crashums,” was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and was published in the Broad River Review. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Michigan, where he teaches writing, builds furniture, and is the music director at Sycamore Creek Church in Potterville.
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