Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Thoughts on excellence

The discussion of how we (as Christians) should be writing continues. Mick's post from a few days ago continues to generate comments. Mark articulated very well his thoughts on the subject. I find myself nodding in agreement as I read them.

But I also see the point of those who caution against innovation or "edginess" for the sake of innovation or "edginess" alone. And I've enjoyed books that can only be described as fluff. (Janet Evanovich anyone?) I've always been cursed (yes, sometimes it's a curse) with seeing both sides of an issue. It takes me a while to decide where my opinion falls on the continuum of things.

Last night it was too hot to sleep well (air conditioning on the fritz) so I thought about this for a while. And here is what I believe.

I took a class in college that was about recognizing God's truth in all kinds of literature (or something like that -- I forget the exact name of the class). I think I took it partly because I knew I'd get to read The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia for class credit. We also looked at other writers and I came away from the class with an understanding that God's truth shows up in unexpected places. I also came to realize that our God is a God of excellence.

This isn't a new concept, but it was something of a revelation to me almost 30 years ago (yes it's been that long). I think I began to wonder why Christian artists so often seemed to be content with their average effort, instead of really pushing themselves to true excellence. (And I'm not saying that all Christian artists are mediocre.) Of course, this is true in the secular world as well. And it's certainly true of myself. I'm lazy and being pushed is often not very pleasant. The end result of being pushed, though, is worth the unpleasantness.

God made us to be creative beings. He also expects no less than our best for him. That whole first fruits business doesn't just apply to crops, you know. So whatever I write, I need to do my best. I need to be willing to accept constructive criticism, I need to make sure I've cleaned up spelling and punctuation and grammar, I need to be willing to be pushed to produce the best art I'm capable of. I need to be willing to try a different style or form if that's the best way to tell the story. I need to be willing to tell a story that makes people squirm a little, if that's the kind of story God wants me to tell.

What I am not saying is that everyone should produce the same kind of writing. Different readers have different tastes, different writers have different styles. That's what's so wonderful about books! I could no more write The Inside Job than Mark could write Secrets in Connors Grove. (Not that he'd want to.)

What I am saying is that we all need to aim for excellence -- whether it's in literary fiction or mysteries or romance or horror or whatever. We can't settle for being average or being like every other writer on the market.

I think Mark has a point about the need for true critical evaluation of Christian fiction (and non-fiction). Without some measure of accountability, we get lazy. When my mother or my friends tell me they like my writing, that's nice, but it doesn't push me to be a better writer. But if someone reads my writing and says this is what works and this is what doesn't, here are the strengths, here are the weaknesses -- then I have a better idea of how well I succeeded in telling my story. Of course there is some subjectivity in reviews, but there's also a measuring against an accepted standard. Lately the Atlantic Monthly has been running little sidebars with examples of good writing and bad writing (with explanations of why the examples are good or bad) in its book review section. That's a good idea.

Excellence doesn't exclude writers. It holds up a standard and says "Here, see if you can reach this. Try, you can do it. But if you can't, you're still a better writer than you were before." I'm trying.


Katy said...

Great post, Linda.

I often see both sides of an issue, too. Confusing, isn't it?

lindaruth said...

Single-minded people, who see things in black and white, often accomplish a lot. They don't have so spend so much time waffling over their decisions. But I'm just not comfortable trying to be that way. I aim for the middle a lot of the time -- I'm not sure that's always the best, but that's what I do.