the writer of faith

Some time ago a friend who is of my faith said to me, without any sort of prompting, “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow your books in my home.” She did not elaborate. We both knew what she was talking about.

Some of my students who love their religion have asked me how I, as a writer, cope with the expectations of people in a faith community. These young writers have no desire to rebel, and yet in an effort to portray the truth, sometimes fiction offends.

When I am writing, it is between me and God. I don’t allow anything, not my parents or my religious leaders or my children or my neighbor whom I am obligated to love, to interfere with what happens when I am putting pen to paper. I find that every book I write demands that I wander in the wilderness for a time. I’ve needed not to be afraid of deserts. You cannot find the promised story without the desert part.

I have found the structure provided by my definition of morality to be as inspiring as a poet finds the structure of a sonnet. However, I must write honestly and truthfully about characters who do not know or understand my faith. They will not live by or be judged by its precepts. I am telling the truth of that character, that homeless boy, that medieval peasant girl, that prostitute. I believe in truth wherever I find it – in scripture or in the chapel at VCFA or in science or in story. I believe every human being searches for her own truth, and I respect and try my best to record that journey.

It is the first skill of the writer, and the life’s work of the faithful, to learn how to live imaginatively in the body of another being and celebrate the beauty and variety found in human souls.

I read a book some time ago called Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic. It was hard slogging at times because she is way too brilliant for the ordinary mind. But I found some beautiful quotes that express things I believe to be true.

“When people have told me that because I am Catholic I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”

“It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life…”

“If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

Thank you, Ms. O’Connor.


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35 responses to “the writer of faith

  1. I’m quite often wowed by you, Martine. Wow has sort of become your middle name, by now, at least in my address book. As you know, I have trouble with religion but I don’t have any trouble whatsoever with faith. And my faith in you as a writer of huge moral integrity shines bright. Thanks for this.

  2. Reblogged this on Jackie Lea Sommers and commented:
    As a Christian writer, this blog post fascinated me. It is something I worry about: how will the faith community react to the “savagery” in my writing? But, in the end (and beginning and middle), it is between me and God.

    Also, I too recommend Mystery & Manners!

  3. Martine, you are so wise. And not only will I allow your books in my home, I think I own all of them! Thanks for your thoughts on a sometimes murky subject.

    • Martine Leavitt

      The subject does get murky, and possibly because it’s such a personal thing, and everyone will have his or her own take on things.

  4. susanfletcher2012

    Hey, Martine. Thank you for speaking your truth–here, and in your books. I am still scared of deserts, and some people don’t care for my work. So be it! You are an example of courage; you give me heart.

  5. Reblogged this on Musings from a Wardrobe and commented:
    I would love to stop worrying about how people of my faith will accept my writing. I wish I didn’t think about how many faces will cringe if they read a curse, a traumatic scene, or a wrong decision. But writing isn’t about characters who are perfect; it’s about characters who are real, so that we can learn about reality through a story. This post is absolutely beautiful. I also had a hard time making it through Mystery and Manners, but it was worthwhile all the same.

  6. Martine Leavitt

    Thank you, writer4G!

  7. Heather Duncan

    Thank you, Martine, for capturing my own thoughts on this topic, but so much more eloquently than I would have done. It’s affirming to know of the struggles that other artists – writers – have gone through regarding their faith and their commitment to their art, and to truth.

    • Martine Leavitt

      I’m glad, Heather, that the struggle was evident in my post. Sometimes I sound very certain, but usually that is after the fact.

  8. This is something I struggle with, because if I ever publish a book, I will have people from my faith community maybe turning away from it and me. This post gives me courage! I love your books and would never keep them from my shelves or, as one mother from community did for (to?) her kids, take a Sharpie and censor all the tough, truthful scenes within them.
    –Laura Melchor

  9. I have found repeatedly that those of the deepest faith of my acquaintance, who coincidentally also seem to have the most integrity (including you), are the ones asking the most interesting and honest questions both in their art and in their personal lives. I think the world needs as many of this ilk as it can get. Whether others on either side of the faith question like it or not. So thank you, once again, for being you Martine.

  10. Hmm. There’s no question as to Martine’s integrity but Pam, my dear friend, I’d have to question what you mean by people with “the most integrity.” There are those of us on the Humanist side of all this who feel very strongly about the morality of the books we write and write them with a profound concern for the integrity of what it is to be human in the world. If you believe God gives you the moral courage to write honestly and with integrity, that’s fine — great. One must respect another person’s faith, but it’s also important to recognize that some of us who do not adhere to a faith system in the form of a religion, ask important and honest questions in our work, as well. It comes down to empathy in the end. Being true to what you hold to be morally correct.

    • Martine Leavitt

      I’m sure Pam would agree (right, Pam?). Thank you for sharing this important insight, Tim.

      • I do agree, Tim. I did not mean to denigrate anyone. I merely meant that I have always had a few friends of deep faith who are exceptionally good people and they have always asked questions that are both interesting and not what you might stereotypically think that “someone of faith” might be asking. I’ve been on the “humanist” side of the question for most of my life. I’m certainly not knocking it.

      • I didn’t real think you were, Pam — in fact I kind of knew you weren’t but I can’t let something like that go by without making the point. The worst kind of religious people are the ones who really don’t think a person can have any morality without being guided by a set of rigid tenets. They don’t seem to get the idea that life is about becoming moral and then acting on it. It’s a lot harder to do it this way, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m jealous of the “giving up so God can give down” way of approaching things. But I can’t give up. You’re also right, however, that the worst kind of non-believers are the ones who refuse to give a faith believer the credit for asking big questions.

        Hey, and good to hear from you! Where are you — still out west?



  11. Although I am not a Christian (and, in fact, am Jewish by heritage), I too often cringe when I write a scene that is perfect for the character and painful for my family- but I find that the following quote – from Pinterest- helps me greatly: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott

  12. Hey Martine, Among the many things I enjoyed about your piece, I was struck by this: “I have found the structure provided by my definition of morality to be as inspiring as a poet finds the structure of a sonnet.” What an interesting way of thinking about moral structure. I don’t think you’re implying this, but I was wondering if there is an aesthetic dimension, as there is in the sonnet, in the structure of morality. I don’t know. It’s a big question. Maybe I should think about it and refine my question.


  13. I remember a distinct moment in high school when I wrote something that didn’t “theologically jive” with the faith in which I was raised. When my mother stumbled upon it, she was deeply upset. “How could you write something that doesn’t glorify God?” she asked.

    It put me off writing for years. I felt literally damned for my words.

    It wasn’t until after college when I started exploring humanism that I really began writing again, without the fear of a disapproving parent or equally disapproving God.

    Whether you’re a person of faith or not, this post hits the nail on the head. When we write, we have to tell the truth of human experience at it is. Not merely what we wish could be. Thanks for this, Martine. Good stuff.

  14. This piece is so thoughtful and beautifully rendered. Thank you.

  15. louisehawes

    For some reason this past month has brought a great many people my way asking why contemporary YA writers don’t feel a greater “responsibility” to convey moral fabric and contentment to our young readers. Your heart’s mandate feels much more real and crucial: “I find that every book I write demands that I wander in the wilderness for a time. I’ve needed not to be afraid of deserts.” Those are words, not only to write, but to live, by. Deep thanks, my friend.

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