This is the second in my series of posts reflecting upon recent conversations with others about their beliefs. And this question came up: Is faith about emotion or the will? Quite often you may hear people say, “It’s all very well for you. You have faith. I wish I had faith – but I don’t.”
So where does this mysterious thing called “faith” come from anyway? Using Christianity as an example: some find they can take it on board intellectually, but it has never touched their emotions. For others, that rush of joy in the knowledge of God’s love is very important.
I felt the presence of God on a mountain in Australia. But not everyone can have such experiences, wants to, or would even see mine in the same terms. Others might stand there and just think it’s a nice view. We’re all different. Some have even had similar experiences crossing London Bridge in the rush hour. In his poem “Upon Westminster Bridge”, Wordsworth says: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty. (Interestingly enough, whilst on a Poetry Walk along the South Bank to Westminster, I learned that Wordsworth wrote this poem several months after the experience, going back to recapture it and put it into words. It had happened to him ‘by chance’ as he was crossing the bridge unusually early one morning).
I believe it’s wrong to suggest a major experience of this type is necessary, in order to be a “proper Christian”. CS Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was not a sudden experience. He always claimed it was logical and rational, not emotional. His influences were, as always, books and a few close friends.
Thomas Merton, the most prolific spiritual writer of the 20th century, wrote to one of his many correspondents: Beside the Spirit there are also hard external facts and they too are ‘God’s will’ but… may mean one is bound to a certain mediocrity and futility; that there is waste, and ineffectual use of grace… and we are restricted and limited to this. He understood this despite the fact that he himself had had a dramatic conversion experience before he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to begin life as a Trappist monk.
Ideally intellect and emotions should have a perfect symbiotic relationship in a fully balanced human being. But few among us are perfectly balanced. And if God is God, He can come to us wherever we are, at any time, and however imperfect and unbalanced we are.
Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “archetypes”. An archetype may be defined as “a universally understood symbol or term or pattern of behaviour”. If you read Robert McKee’s Story, you will find that the key to writing a great novel lies in “building archetypal elements into the story.” So what exactly are these “archetypal elements”? And how exactly can they help creative writers?
I enjoy listening to people talking about their beliefs. This is a source of inspiration for me. So here are my insights from some recent conversations – and they’re about the Virgin Birth, the electric monk, and package deals of beliefs.
Many of us can fall prey to a certain mental habit: we believe what we want to believe, we pick out bits and pieces of a “beliefs package deal”. If there are bits we don’t like, or struggle with, we can easily hand them over to Douglas Adams’ “electric monk” (a hypothetical labour-saving device that believes things for you, as featured in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). The “electric monk” is a metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in when we want to cling on to a belief but have permanently ditched any effort to scrupulously examine it. It is an image created by someone who had discounted God and religious belief: although I write as one who loves the wit and brilliance of Douglas Adams’ novels.
When it comes to Christianity, I once heard a clergyman say this: “Don’t feel you have to believe everything in the package deal in order to be a Christian. There may be some things you struggle to believe. Sit lightly to them for the time being.” (a paraphrase of his remarks). I believe there was psychological insight in this advice. For “sitting lightly to” a belief for the time being, in the cause of a greater truth, knowing you must still wrestle with it later, does not constitute handing it over to the electric monk.
The Immaculate Conception / Virgin Birth is a very good example. I’m hazarding a guess that plenty of Christians struggle to believe it. And that’s perfectly understandable, because it runs counter to every law of nature we know. “Why couldn’t He have been conceived in the normal way?” we might ask. “What’s wrong with that? He can still be the son of God can’t He?”
The trouble is, picking and choosing bits of the story according to what you find easier to believe, and handing the awkward bits over to “the electric monk”, isn’t logically acceptable – either to a religious believer, or to an atheist.
The Athanasian Creed states that Jesus “came from Heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man… was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and arose again on the third day… ascended to Heaven.. and shall come again with glory.”
This is a very challenging package deal of beliefs. Pick and choose which ones you find comfortable, if you like, sit lightly to what you cannot believe for the time being, but some time you will have to wrestle with it.
The electric monk is capable of holding many impossible beliefs at the same time. In reality, who declares a belief “impossible”? That conclusion can only be reached by someone who has scrupulously examined it from every angle.
Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “synchronicity”. This may be defined as “the meaningful patterning of two or more psycho-physical events not otherwise causally connected”. I’ve known of this theory for several years, and have seen it operating not only in my life but in the lives of others. Now I realise how it can help creative writers too.Let me give you a few examples of synchronicity in my own experience.
Rob Parsons has beguiled,moved,and doubled me up in laughter several times on this subject, both in person as an inspirational speaker, and in writing. Now he has again written on a topic that should be closely studied by policy-makers. If you’re a parent, and you’d sooner your child achieved their critical acclaim and professional success in a couple of decades time by some other means than publishing their misery memoir, Rob Parsons sets it out in very simple,clear terms in “The Sixty Minute Family” (pub.Lion).
One of his answers is as simple as a father spending ordinary time with his child – just “being there”. And beyond that is a truth: “relationships matter more than money”. I expect many more books will be written in more complex terms, saying the same thing.
Within classic story structure, what is the one most familiar trope a writer can always rely on? It’s the Dysfunctional Parent/Child relationship. The Disney story writers trade on it, the psychiatrists and counsellors make their living from it; the radio interviewers and TV chat show hosts recognise it as their most fruitful area of analysis.
Reading what Parsons has to say now (the book was published in 2010)I feel his stance has toughened since I first heard him on this subject. This book gives strong clues to the powerful influence of physically and emotionally absent parents upon the society we live in. But to end on an uplifting note, it may be, as Parsons says, that “most of us are doing a much better job of parenting than we think – and it normally turns out better than we dared hope”.
Several years ago, I nearly signed on for Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” workshop in London – tempted by the testimonial from John Cleese, who attributed his success in creating the Fawlty Towers scripts to what he learned from this workshop. But I saw it was essentially for screenwriters, and chose to pass on it. I have since recognised that story structure is universal, and applies not only to screenwriters, but also novelists. When I recently found this book in Waterstones Piccadilly, the inner voice said “Buy it!” And I obeyed. Now I’ve absorbed all that McKee has to say about story, it will transform the way I work on the second draft of my new novel.
Story saturates our lives, through books, plays, the theatre, TV and radio drama, and movies; and we all respond to story instinctively. And yet if we were asked to explain why we respond as we do, and why something works or not, many of us would fall silent. But Robert McKee does explain. One thing that has long mystified me is: “How is it that we are satisfied by a story where the protagonist does not achieve his desire?” McKee replies that “the flood of insight that pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion, but in a way we could never have foreseen.” He illustrates his points with many references to famous movies. “Story” is a huge challenge; dense and even overwhelming, its author acknowledges this at the end: “You have pursued “Story” to its final chapter and, with this step, taken your career in a direction many writers fear… I know that when confronted with a rush of insights even the most experienced writer can be knocked off stride.” I hope that, having studied thoughtfully, as I “follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty,” I too may “write boldly” and produce stories that “will dazzle the world.”
Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I have in recent times found inspiration from two contemporary artists, Grayson Perry and Tracy Emin.
Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.
There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.
And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.
Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.
So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.
But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list – the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.
Perhaps the candle flame is there to remind me of that.
An effective fictional villain has, to my mind, one essential characteristic. The villain should build up in the reader a passionate desire for his or her comeuppance.
Creative writing starts with passion. Therefore, if you want to be a creative writer, the first thing to do is identify your passion.