Writing Advice: On Facebook Waterfalls, The Dark is Rising, and Realistic vs. Aspirational Art

This weekend my family spent some time at a local state park. We had beautiful weather and the park afforded us a rare chance to wade and splash near a terrific waterfall. Like most Americans these days, I had a camera along to record our visit. And like many Americans, a selection of those pictures—the most interesting and best—found their way to Facebook. And soon other local friends wanted to know more. Where exactly was the park? Was it as much fun as it looked?

It was brilliant fun, but the photos had done almost too good a job capturing that feeling. Because not only was every picture sparkling with light and water, and not only was every face smiling, but—because of how I framed the shots—it looked like we and we alone owned the entire waterfall. In shot after shot—sometimes at fairly wide-angle, even—our family is the only one shown. And that was certainly not the case. Dozens of families enjoyed the falls that day, after all it was a warm Labor Day weekend.

So in the comments came the caveats. “You’ll like the falls if you go, but these pictures don’t tell the full story. You’ll need to hike in and the trail is crazy steep. Bringing your infant may be tougher. There may be a pony-tailed dude drinking Coors Light and smoking cigarillos lounging about in embarrassing lobster swim trunks. He was there for us, he was just out of frame.”

My pictures, these little bits of “art” captured the true feeling of the day, but the didn’t fully reflect every aspect of the day. They weren’t a mirror; they were a photoshopped version of a Saturday in Wisconsin.

It’s one of my favorite question: What is art’s purpose?

Should it be a mirror, rendering objectively all it sees, laying bear your beauty marks and your warts? Or should be something higher? A fun-house mirror that stretches you slim? Is art’s purpose aspirational—to help show a better way?

This past spring I had a chance to guide a book club for my daughter and some of her fifth grade friends. They were reading Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, which is a fun and exciting saga, but it is also steeped in symbols and Arthurian legend.

The entire series sets up an eternal and “spiritual” battle between light and dark. And in the final book, Silver on the Tree, two of the main characters—stand-ins for Merlin and Arthur—end up travelling to another realm to find an object of power, a sword, to help them in the battle. Their guide is a figure named Gwion, a bard, and the realm is one of song and poetry and story. Of craft and creating. Of “Art”. It is a realm ruled by a broken king, a metal craftsman who once forged a sword  so perfect, so beautiful, that he been incapable of crafting anything since.

The themes and symbols got pretty lofty for the girls, but the essence Gwion’s explanation of the realm was that they had entered a place outside of the battle between Good and Evil. Art exists for its own sake and must stand apart, or it simply becomes a device, a tool, no different from a mallet or a gun. Only, when faced with choosing, perhaps it’s not so simple to stand apart. And so I tried to get these girls to ask themselves what they wanted from art. Honestly, it didn’t go over that effectively as a question. Fifth graders, apparently ,aren’t overly eager to offer philosophical analysis on the nature of art on a gorgeous spring day two weeks before the end of school.

But I’ll ask you: “What is the job of art?”

CBA fiction, I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone to hear, offers mostly aspirational stories, using narrative to show the “better way.” Part of it is market-driven, (a great percentage of our fiction is romance and romance, as a genre, is aspirational), but the biggest chunk comes simply from being “Christian fiction.”

We show our hand with the label. After all, we can’t claim to be objective and yet write from a definably and demonstrably Christian worldview. Certainly books can be more or less overt, more or less interested in “realism,” but I don’t think any can claim objectivity as their aim.

Yet while we lean away from objectivity, I do believe we’re honest and straight-forward in the direction of our leaning. The argument that only general market fiction is authentic  seems demonstrably false. Nobody’s mirror on this side of heaven is clear. We’re all seeing through a glass darkly. And contemporary writing reflects all kinds of distortions in their vision of “real life.”

One of your jobs as a writer is to discover where in the spectrum between “authentic” and “aspirational” you feel your voice falls. And perhaps it changes from book to book. Or perhaps in subplots and minor characters, there are ways to add complexity and shading to stories so that your world isn’t simply Light vs Dark.

4 responses to “Writing Advice: On Facebook Waterfalls, The Dark is Rising, and Realistic vs. Aspirational Art

  1. I think you have a point that voice can vary between manuscripts, between being more aspirational vs. authentic. In one of my MSes, for instance, the setting and storyline are darker (escaping persecution and being pursued) that my voice leans into the aspirational to compensate, yet the gravity of the character’s situation requires authenticity as well. In my current MS, setting and tone are much lighter yet the high concept demands a modicum of levity. Thanks for the insightful post!

  2. Good post, Dave. I’ve looked at this subject from the side of truth. I postulate that some writers write truth–a reflection or exploration of life as we know it. Other writers write Truth–a reflection or exploration of life, including that which we know from revelation.

    As I see it stories of truth are oblivious to the greater spiritual realities, so they are no different from photoshopped vacation pictures, but with images of the inner city painted into the margins, or close ups of tourist trash.

    On the other hand, stories of Truth can be much like the pictures you posted–implying that there IS no tourist trash, or that the inner city has faded from existence. Those stories might have Truth, but they may lack truth.

    So the in-between place seems to me to be a story that includes both truth and Truth.

    Becky

  3. Wow, thank you. I think you’ve managed to shed some light on a feeling I’ve been aware of but unable to articulate for a while.
    My stories have often been described as “authentic”, which I’ve taken as a compliment, and although I recognised some big differences between my work and certain other Christian books I’ve read (especially those dealing with a similar subject matter) I’ve been at a loss to explain what that difference is. This has helped enormously, and will help me focus better on future stories as welll. Thank you! That’s no small thing.

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