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Craving a Roofless Place
Christian-living books and letting oneself be made
Almost every day another envelope arrives. I sheepishly open it and pull out another book. This one on seeds, this one on moss, that one a memoir from a forest ranger, and that one a deep dive on fungi. Another one on the theology of land and another on the question of to whom the land belongs. I say to Nate, “It’s for research,” and he says to me, “You don’t need to defend yourself.” “I know,” I say, '“I just feel guilty for all the book-buying,” “But it’s tax-deductable,” I add.
The past two books I’ve written were filed in the Christian-living genre. I suppose that’s where they belonged. It’s certainly the mold I was trying to fit as I wrote. I don’t know where this one will be categorized but I hope it’s not in the Christian-living section. If a book talks about God, does it automatically get shelved in the religion section? I don’t know. These are the things I think about when I’m not writing or researching these days. This book is not about God, not really. I’m not ready to tell you what it is about. But I will tell you what it is not about.
It is not about how to do something better or even differently. It’s not a book about how to think differently or some treatise on how to live differently. It’s not a book about how to do anything at all.
And yet it is (so far) a book I have loved writing. The kind of book I wake up in the middle of the night and creep downstairs to type out another 1400 words before they slip away in my slumber. It is the kind of book that is making me more curious, not less. The sort of book I’m writing my way through instead of adhering to an outline I promised I’d write. It is a book that is discovering who it is as it gets written. It is a book that is asking me to have courage and also to have faith. It is also a book that feels the most me.
If you’re a writer in the Christian trade-book world, you know there’s a fairly specific type of book editors and readers expect. And most Christians who are also writers feel that in order to make it in the writing field with their integrity intact, they have to hug that type closely. But can I let you in on a little secret?
If you’re a real writer, as in it’s the vocation you’re called to and the craft you’ve given yourself to, and you’re not finding joy and life writing Christian living books, towing that line in order to make it will kill you. It will suffocate and stifle you until you’re limp and gone. Sorry for the violent picture, but I’m just trying to tell you the truth now. It has been for me and most other artists I know who try to make it in this field and wonder why, a few years later, we feel washed up and weak, fed up with the books we’re writing and more. Why does this happen?
Because when we start telling art what it must be instead of letting art tell us what we must do, it stops being art and starts becoming something else. Not necessarily something bad—I’m not giving moral value to the books I and others have written—they contain good and necessary content that glorifies God and are faithful to who we want to be in the world. But are they art? I’m not sure. At least in my understanding of art.
Near the beginning of this year, in the still infant stages of this manuscript, I reread Chaim Potok’s most brilliant My Name is Asher Lev. Nearing the end, the artist Asher comes to this realization, “I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. . . Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts the people he loves.”
Mary Oliver, in her book Upstream, writes,
“No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn't that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Of this there can be no question—creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilder mess of creation who does not know this—who does not swallow this—is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.”
Read this again: “Creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity,” and also this, “Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts the people he loves.”
To be an artist is to be loyal to the division within oneself and the world. It is to be honest about what is both good and beautiful, as well as what is grievous and terrible. It is to not look away from complexity because it makes one uncomfortable, but to stare into it and ask, “What do you want to make of me with this?”
I know I haven’t done that like I wanted to in my first two books. I, in Oliver’s words, “live[d] with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.” I’m not ashamed of that because, after all, I’m still learning. But I know I don’t want to repeat it. I’m not sure artists are ever completely happy or content with their work at the end, but within my gut I know what it feels like to say, “This is something that made me” instead of “This is something I made.” I made those two other books, but this book is making me.
Maybe you’re not a writer and you’re just thinking, “Goodness, gracious, why does it all have to be so complicated, Lo, just write.” But maybe you are (I know a lot of you are), and I guess this is just your older sister or your younger one, your peer or your counterpart, saying to do whatever it takes to let the work make you. I’m grateful for Christian living books, some of them have helped make me who I am, but in my gut, I’m not a Christian living writer. I’m a writer who loves Jesus and nature and cooking and hiking and making a home and good tea and my husband and my dog and wool blankets and reading books by heathens and leaning into all of life and letting it make of me what it will. I crave that “roofless place eternity.” I think God made me that way and I’m endeavoring to honor it.
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