Previously Published on Blogetary 1.0 July 2012.
(I decided I wanted a title with all “Ps”, but trust me it will all make sense in the end.)
When I was a kid in Wenatchee we went to a small Southern Baptist church. We were there for Sunday School, church, picnics, weddings, and vacation bible school. Mom volunteered for visitation on Thursdays, went to prayer meetings on Wednesdays, and helped with the church bus on Sundays. My sister and I spent a lot of time at church in empty Sunday School rooms doing homework or practicing (me violin and she piano and cello). And on Saturday afternoons after I’d cleaned my part of the bedroom and done my chores I would sit down with my Sunday School lesson book to read the lesson for Sunday.
Now, I was and am still, a big reader. Once I get started reading something, and I enjoy it, I don’t want to put it down. Believe it or not, this can get you into trouble. Because, I would read the two or three verses in the lesson book (usually from the Old Testament unless it was around Easter or Christmas), and be completely drawn in by the story.
If you haven’t spent much time in the Old Testament and are looking for drama and high adventure, check it out: Best friends, love gained, lost and then regained, evil queens, depressed kings, shepherds who became rulers and kings, betrayal, lust, murder and sex. It’s all in there.
I would be so completely immersed in the story, I would forget about answering the questions in the pamphlet. And then in Sunday School, I was the one asking a question about something that no one else was going to read about for at least a month, if not more. (“Why didn’t Saul like David anymore?” “Interesting question, we’ll be discussing that next month.” And of course, I’d just given away to the other Sunday Schoolers that the same Saul who hired David to play the harp for him would sometime down the road not like him anymore…)
It was a little better in church. We’d sing a hymn, there’d be the choir, there’d be a responsive reading and announcements, and then the sermon. Brother Buddy would stand up behind that podium, get his bible out and ask us to turn to book thus and so, chapter whatever, verses here to there (all in a Southern accent of course, most of those attending being from Oklahoma, Arkansas or Texas). Or, we’d refer to our program. I would be bored usually by this time, trying to pay attention, but really wanting to go home and finish reading my current book or change out of my church clothes and go play in the backyard or bike riding. And my first thought would be when the pastor got up there: “Oh goody, I get to read.” And of course, I would read along with our pastor, but instead of putting my bible away and listening to his sermon, I would just keep reading. I found it was much more interesting than whatever he said up there. And it kept me from fidgeting, as long as I remembered to put the bible down at the end of sermon and stand and sing when I was supposed to (Oh, the day I discovered the Song of Solomon! Tsk!).
The reason I’m describing all this is to illustrate how these stories are true to the human experience. Some people believe they are true stories and history. Others believe they are myths, legends and fiction. I’m not going to debate either way. What I do know is that I responded to these, just as generations upon generations of people have, because they are true to the human experience. It’s also one of the reasons people respond at visceral levels to other stories, both “true” and “fiction.” Whether it’s Harry Potter, or chick lit, or a true crime story, or a blog post, the reader responds to the truth of the tale. And by truth of the tale, I mean how much it resonates with them and feels true to them.
What readers don’t respond to is when the writer (or writers) have not written what they know and are not true to the human experience. And I’m not talking vampires or giants or werewolves or anything (But for all we know 100 years from now we’ll have vampires and werewolves coming out of the closet – hey – it could happen). I’m talking about being true to the tale.
What this means is writing the story that’s there, going where it’s difficult to go and allowing the characters to be who they are, without apology or second guessing whether or not it’s the “right thing” to write.
When I was in college, I took a writing course and naively thought I could be a “Christian writer.” I thought I couldn’t be a proper Christian and a writer unless I used my writing for “God’s will” and at that time I thought that meant inserting my belief system into all my stories and poetry (I’m not saying that Christian writers are naive, just that I didn’t understand the full creative process here.) I tried to write a short story and assign my belief system to the story. I tried to use my story to push my belief system.That is not storytelling; that is not writing.
Luckily, I had a writing instructor who was patient and was able to quietly point that out to me and I began to learn then how to tap the truth of what I was trying to write and go there without it becoming propaganda.
And no, I’m not calling an entire genre of music, books and film propaganda. But when someone creates something and then tries to insert a POV in there that doesn’t belong, but just wants to use the book, song or movie as a vehicle to push their belief system or point of view, then that is propaganda. Go on, find that last book you read that didn’t feel quite right. Try to pinpoint where it went wrong. Most of the time it will be because you could feel that the author was trying to insert or impose something on the story that didn’t belong there.
If, however, your story or song or movie is a natural expression and outpouring of you, then your POV or belief system (or nonbelief system) will inevitably be part of that piece of work. Hymns and psalms, would be an example. Other examples could be the Screwtape Letters or Waiting for Godot. Or maybe you want to write something that will illustrate a teaching lesson. This would be called a parable. Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim’s Regress, zen koans, or some of the many fairy tales, myths and legends from around the world etc. could be seen as examples of this type of writing.
There is nothing inherently wrong with propaganda or parables. They both have their uses, however, in my opinion, using your creativity to create propaganda IS wrong. If you want to actively push a belief system, you should write an essay. Be upfront and forward about it. But don’t ever give into the pressure of using your art as a vehicle for some political or religious or philosophical POV or belief system. You are shortchanging your art when you do this. Maybe your friends don’t understand or your parents don’t understand. Your church or your political group doesn’t understand. It doesn’t matter. You’re true to the art first, and everything else follows.
I remember when Amy Grant came out with her Straight Ahead album. It was big while a bunch of us were on this retreat. I was living in Bellingham by then and the retreat was up at Mt. Baker, I think. Someone brought this album and was playing it in the main room of the lodge where we were staying. I had never been a huge Amy Grant fan, but this one song, “It’s Not a Song,” just resonated with me. It was all about her creative process. And it felt true to me and real to me. And one of the guys in the room (who is now a pastor, I believe) said, “This isn’t a Christian song! Why are we listening to it?”
(Same guy also walked out on Phil Keaggy cuz he wasn’t “Christian enough” – too rock and roll – he just wanted to see Michael W. Smith and leave. Okay, if you haven’t heard of him, check out Phil Keaggy. Jimi Hendrix used to look up to Phil Keaggy.)
I was devastated. I knew then, I think, that neither he nor anyone else at that retreat would ever understand creating for its own sake, because you have to, because it’s an impulse and a gift and to not create would be a waste of your life. His remark expressed an inherent legalism that I knew that the more I was forced to deal with, the worse off I would be. In this type of perspective, for example, you accept ALL of the bible or none of it. If you hear a song or album and find a part of it objectionable, then it is ALL objectionable. If you disagree with part of a book, or essay, or politician, then it’s ALL bad. Rotten to the core. It’s either ALL good or ALL bad. And I do believe that was one of the many chinks that eventually drove me away from that church and those people.
The reason I’m writing about this is that lately I’ve seen a whole lot of discussions that I realized that as a writer I need to stay away from because they also contain some of that same legalistic perspective, though not from the same belief system. Yet, still a perspective that thinks that if a movie or book or essay is even partially off of what they agree with then it’s ALL bad. If an author or actor or dancer makes one misstep in the portrayal of a character, then the entire book/performance/dance is flawed. And like your parents or your church or whomever, they would also like it if you inserted a more correct POV into your work of art, not realizing that at that point they are asking you to create propaganda.
People are flawed. We are faulty, failing, buggy, stained, weak, warty, full of defects and vices. We fart, piss, shit, eat, burp, drink, fuck, swear, scream, lust and hate. That is who we are. That is the truth of who we are. We are also loving, kind, considerate, tactful, graceful, merciful and generous to a fault. That is another part of who we are.
A writer, artist, musician tries to tap into that truth and express it so other people can experience the heights and the depths of being human. We dig deep to be authentic and be truthful to the human experience. Sometimes we get something wrong. We aren’t politically correct or we say or do something that doesn’t agree with your belief system or POV. In the editing process, after the creating has been done, we’ll try to fix our obvious prejudices and shortcomings. That’s what the editing process is about. Sometimes things get missed. But sometimes the reader will just not like what they read.
But it is NOT up to the writer or creator to second guess everything they write just to please a specific POV or belief system. Again, that is not writing a story, that is creating propaganda. It is not only wrong for the writer to try to insert their own POV into a story where it doesn’t belong, but it’s also wrong for other people to try to force a writer or creator to insert a POV or belief system into a story where it doesn’t belong.
So, potboiler, parable, propaganda or prevarication? Personally, I’d rather write a potboiler or a prevarication than get anywhere near propaganda. There’s more truth to it.