by Gar Anthony Haywood

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post here describing how reluctant I’ve always been to write about my own real life experiences.  The reasons I gave were, a) I don’t think those experiences are all that fascinating; and b) I don’t think they’re anybody’s business but my own.  That’s a rather selfish attitude, I admit, but then, I’ve never been a subscriber to the idea that nothing great ever comes of art that doesn’t require one to open up a vein.

This isn’t to say I don’t believe a writer’s best work has to involve some measure of self-reflection.  I do.  I just don’t think a reader needs to know the intimate details of a writer’s life in order to fully connect with his work.  If a writer’s done his job right, a reader should get the benefit of his life experiences without the writer having to spell those experiences out.  Whether I choose to write about specific events in my life or not, the world view those events have left me with can be found in everything I write, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Narcissistic exhibitionism is the point of all this writing-for-publication business, after all.

And yet, for all our desire to share our unique world perspective with perfect strangers, to reveal our true selves by way of literary expression, there is a limit to what most of us will lay bare.  We set these limits for all kinds of reasons, both personal and commercial:

This is humiliating.

This won’t sell in Middle America.

My agent will want me to cut this.

My (brother/father/cousin Bill) will know this is about him and will never forgive me for writing about it.

Whatever our reasons for the omission, we all withhold something from the reader, and sometimes this is to the benefit of our writing and sometimes it’s to the detriment of it.  I think what determines which of the two it is is how central what we choose to omit is to the person we really are.  Trying to write around ideas and principles we hold dear is like trying to paint around the proverbial elephant in the room; it can create an artificiality the reader can’t help but sense.

I don’t know if I’ve been guilty of such artificiality myself, but I have come to realize over the last several weeks that there’s a part of me I’ve never allowed to color my writing in any substantial way, and not simply because the opportunity to do so hasn’t presented itself.  No, this is something I’ve deliberately shied away from, something I’ve convinced myself has no proper place in the kinds of stories I write.  In my personal life, I make no bones about it, but in my professional one, I’ve treated it like a small physical defect best turned away from the light.

Here it is:  I’m an unrepentant Catholic.

Whoa.  Where’d everybody go?

Well, anyway, for the benefit of those still here, the word “unrepentant” in the confession above can best be defined as follows: “Content to remain a card-carrying member while reserving the right to be guided by conscience and not the Vatican.”

Whether that makes me a good Catholic or no Catholic at all is a discussion for another day — and another blog.  My personal belief system is only germane to this post as an example of something that defines me as an individual, yet has never been given much of a voice in my writing.  Religion is such a divisive subject, I’ve made it a non-issue in my work so as to avoid turning anybody off.

But what kind of bullshit is that?  I’ve gone on record many times decrying self-censorship where profanity is concerned; I think writers who try to pass “friggin'” off as a perfectly acceptable synonym for “motherfucker,” just to keep all those book-buying cozy readers from fleeing the room screaming, are calculating, disingenuous weenies.  And yet, here I’ve been, dodging matters of faith with equal intent, and with the same commercial considerations in mind.

Well, not anymore.

Writers are always trying to find their “truth,” the specific story or stories they alone were put on this earth to tell.  And it’s finally occurred to me that, if I ever intend to find my truth, I’m going to have to empty the larder and throw everything I’ve got into the pot.  Writing with restraint is no longer going to cut it.

Anybody expecting me to suddenly become the Tim Tebow of noir is going to be sorely disappointed, however.  I have no interest in writing Sunday sermons disguised as crime fiction, nor in saving anybody’s soul.  I don’t like to read religious screeds, no matter how subliminal, and I sure as hell don’t want to write them.  But neither do I intend to go on treating my core beliefs like a dirty secret, while writing to be loved by everyone and despised by no one.  The time has come for me to find out what kind of work I can produce when I’m no longer worrying about revealing too much of the man behind the curtain.

They say the truth will set you free.

We’ll see.

Questions for the Class: Does your writing reflect everything and every one you are?  Or are there things about yourself you choose to keep separate from your work?  Readers, what writers, if any, have you read who handle matters of faith with the right balance of heft and subtlety?

19 thoughts on “THE THINGS WE DON’T PUT IN

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Interesting post, Gar, not least because you feel at home enough here to share such information with us. My own religious views are, I'm afraid, very much my own business. But I do feel that religion brings an enormous amount of hope and comfort in a world torn apart by … religion.

    In my writing I share what I need to in order to push my characters to the edge. Pointing out the join between what's drawn from life and what isn't is not for me to say.

  2. Pari Noskin

    This is a very thought-provoking post, one I'm grateful for. I think, because I've wanted to write "funny" in the past, I've skirted around some of my deeper inclinations. I always explore profound themes in my work, but they've often been cloaked in bravado or a kind of shyness. I haven't shied away from religion, religiosity vs spirituality (BELEN), intolerance (SOCORRO) and family dysfunction (CLOVIS) — but what I'm exploring now is how to be more honest in my writing without concern for the audience.

    I know that sounds odd coming from an inveterate marketing pro, but with everything I've gone through — and am going through — my writing journey has changed from striving to meet others' needs/desires to trying to really tell my own truths.

    I hope my readers stick with my on the trip.

  3. Barbie

    I'm not a religious person at all — but I'm very passionate about my beliefs and I've never been mature enough to write characters (that I love) that venture out too far from my beliefs… toward the religious aspect of it. I pride myself of not believing in organized religion, and I shout it to the world. I do believe in God, deeply, but I'm very anti-Church, even more deeply. It's funny, I have no problem writing characters who are Atheists, who have no religion or are confused about the existence of God, or even, those who attend church every week looking for redemption. But I'm not sure I could write a character so different from as to them attending church every Sunday and teaching Sunday school and going to Bible study. To be honest, I don't think I'm this religiously tolerant (mind you, I *accept* others' religions and won't criticize, I just think it's nonsense in my head), so, I don't think I'd be as tolerant with my characters. But, like I said, maybe I just neednto grow up.

  4. Allison Davis

    Gar, Gar, Gar, such a good post. No, everybody didn't run away because we all have something around that we don't talk about. Religion is always a difficult topic and in my family, the conflict is generational that began with a prenuptial agreement in the 1800's. But I was brought up Catholic, and it's the Church I feel most at home in, but I don't subscribe to all the frufru because it's made up by old whilte men who profess to have never had sex. I like Buddhism but it feels like wearing a costume sometimes. I've been to many Epsicopal churches and they don't just feel right. Like having your own dyfunction is better somehow.

    Anyway, I was thinking that I have such a phobia about doctors that I should just write it up like a short story or essay or something and get it out me instead of just being pissed off about it and take that stinky thing out and look at it. So good or bad, stuff is lurking in there that could be a part of. Or at least written about.

    You're right, you know. You don't have to tell everything. But not exploring it is doing yourself a disservice, not just your readers.

  5. Lisa Alber

    Thought-provoking for sure. I'm sitting here asking myself two questions:

    Why am I surprised when someone admits to be a practising Catholic, but I'm not surprised by practising Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, or anything else? Answer: my own lapsed Catholic background. End result: fascination with Catholicism. Just yesterday I bought the latest National Geographic because of its cover: "The King James Bible, Making a Masterpiece." Some of this interest does leak out in my stories.

    As long as what's leaking out of me goes to character, I don't censor myself.

    However, second question: Do I NOT write certain types of stories because of an unconscious decision to keep aspects of myself to myself? Or to avoid certain topics I don't want to deal with?

    A novel comes to mind–so well done. Interestingly, it's science fiction and a "literary" novel (I know, we can debate the use of that term). The main character is a Jesuit priest. THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell.

  6. Ed Foster

    First I should tell you that I am just tickled that through Murderati I have found you and your books. While maybe not your biggest fan (how can I compete with Mom?), and lets pray I stay a few steps short of crazed stalker, I really appreciate your writing, and your books are always on my watch list.
    Faith may become one of the growth area’s in literature. Not as an end to itself, but the acknowledgement of the faith life of characters and how that affects, drives, modifies their behavior in ways both good and not is frighteningly absent in most literature. It seems to me that people of faith, what ever faith, are only allowed to be caricatures anymore – evil, hateful, sign waving, bomb throwing, abortion clinic bombing, airline hijacking, monsters. Surely those people exist in numbers even most people of faith find frightening, but most people (again I can only say I believe this and point to a few studies that would confirm it) do have a spiritual life of some kind. How hard we try to portray real people, but we can only make this part of their lives cartoonish?
    Thanks for what you do, and thanks for bringing this up as a topic.
    Looking for the next great Gar Harwood novel.

  7. Ed Foster

    Criminy, post praise on a blog and spell the man’s name wrong. Mr. Haywood please accept my apologies!

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Bravo, motherfucker! Bravo!
    Great blog and I can't wait to see what you uncover when you tackle some of these issues head-on. I agree that it ain't necessary for authors to throw their personal lives into the manuscript, and yet, I think most of my favorite authors do. To me, it's not just about telling good stories, it's about exploring what this life thing is all about, and I personally don't know a better way to do it than to put a whole lot of me out there.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Catholicism casts a long shadow!!! My parent both grew up HALF Catholic. They turned into the most agnostic people I know. Yet I, a non-Christian, non-anything else except a very lazy yogi, am more drawn to Mass than any other religious thing. Except yoga.

    What I hold back in my work would fill a book. Which I will never write.

  10. Reine

    Lisa, interesting too that the King James version was not a new translation of the source but was simply a translation of the Catholic Bible.

  11. Reine

    Gar! Catholic Unrepentance is my family's sport!

    Lovely anyway for you to be an unrepentant Catholic. Most nuns I knew in div school are committed unrepentant Catholics. I know a group of Catholic nuns in Bakersfield who say the Mass with sacrament every week – underground, of course – and totally unrepentant!

    So this must be why your prayer went through. Santa arrived early with my new brilliantly accessible iMac and periphs, all blue-toothy and cuddly.

    I say anything when I write, whether literal truth or fictional as it must be genuine, or I am uninspired. It then becomes false if I force the disjunction. Even fantasy, I find, moves better out of the truthful mind – for me. I'm too old to give a shit.

    What purpose is served by criticizing religion?

  12. PD Martin

    I think the line of what we divulge and what we keep private is shifting too, especially with social network sites. Sometimes I feel that my readers want and expect to know quite a lot about me and my life. It can be a tricky one. It's one of the reasons I have a Phillipa Martin profile and a PD Martin page on Facebook – to try to keep the two separate at some level.

    But you're not talking about the promo side of things, more the actual writing. It's a tough one but I think it depends on what you're writing too. I'm in the process of moving genres and if I stick with this new genre the style of writing is inherently more personal, more issues-based. And in the book I'm working on one of the characters is going through something I went through eight years ago and I've already thought about the fact that assuming this book gets published it will be a topic of conversation for any media interviews. The publisher will love it as a 'hook' but I will be divulging a large part of my private life to the general public. I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but it seems right for the book.

    I think ultimately you have to write what feels right for you, your character and your genre. And if that is personal, go for it!

  13. Lisa Alber

    Pari, one of mine, too! I decided not to wax on about it here, but THE SPARROW is one of the few books I always, and I mean always, remember to recommend when asked.

    Reine, I've always been curious about why the King James translation ended up being the one that stuck. I'm sure I heard somewhere (from my dad who was partial to the gnostic gospels?) that as a translation it kind of sucks and in places in contradicts the original versions.

  14. David Corbett

    Unrepetant Catholic — oh yeah? Prove it.

    1. What are the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost?

    2. The three conditions of a mortal sin?

    3. Is a feeling of sorrow necessary for true contrition?

    (Answers below)

    Now that you've opened up this ciborium of Lubricis terrestris, Mr. H, I can't help but wonder — how exactly would your Catholic faith enter the picture?

    A Chestertonian confidence in reason?

    An Augustinian contempt for the flesh?

    A Fighting Irish devotion to Touchdown Jesus?

    Can we henceforth (love that word) expect oblique references to the Little Flower, the Shroud of Turin, or (my personal favorite) the Diet of Worms? (bleecccch)

    Since your inclination toward conscience rather than the papacy suggests a greater inclination toward the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutierrez than the reactionary tendencies of Opus Dei, may we expect an embrace of social justice rather than doctrinal purity? Or just a fondness for the folk mass?

    And what is your position on plaid jumpers?

    Okay, to the answers:

    1. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

    2. The sin must be a grievous offense, the sinner must know it is a grievous offense, and the act must be committed with full consent of the will. (Basically, the three conditions for a felony.)

    3. A feeling of sorrow is not necessary for true contrition, for contrition is an act of the will, not of the feelings.

    If you got 2 out of 3, proceed to Thanksgiving. Try to avoid committing gluttony. (Which is one of the seven …)

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I was waiting for Corbet to chime in.
    I think I'll stick to whatever-the-fuck religion I am. Assimilated something-or-other.

  16. Gar Haywood

    My apologies to all for being so absent. Had to play landlord today during a plumbing emergency and didn't get back on-line until late.

    Very happy to see the post generated so much great conversation. Though the only thing I can think of to say in response to Corbett's message is a question: "Is there an exorcist in the house?" I think the man is either possessed, or has read one too many catechism books.

    Ed: Many, many thanks for the kind words.

    Alex: Aren't you afraid NOT to write that book? What if that's the book, more than any other, you and you alone were meant to write?

  17. Reine

    Yes– Corbett, our very own catechist. My cousin, the canon lawyer, said it all boils down to conscience, no matter what.  He might have been mIstaken, but he was a professor of canon law at Catholic University,

    I'm unconventional in my churchiness. Next month I am planning a mid-week  service of  cake and live music . . .  no, not folk.


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