(Note: This is adapted from my portion of the "Perfected in Weakness" session at Hutchmoot 2010.) It's popular in our culture to think that we are defined by our strengths. If you go to a job interview, what do they ask you? They want to know what your strengths are, right? If someone wants to describe who they are or what they do, what do they say? They rattle off a list of strengths. I graduated from MIT. I work for NASA. I've been married for 12 years and have four kids. I hold the world record at Donkey Kong. We play up the things we're proud of or those things we think make us valuable in the eyes of others.
We don't mention our weaknesses. We downplay them. We hide them. I think we're trained to hide them for most of our lives. And in some measure, it's rightly so. It would be a depressing world if we described one another by our weaknesses, wouldn't it? Hi, my name is Pete Peterson and I'm lazy. I can't do math. I judge people before I know them. I secretly think I'm better than everyone else and my love of sweet tea and sandwiches is probably killing me.
If we played up our weaknesses like that, chances are that no one would want to know us, and we wouldn't be interested in knowing anyone else either. But our weaknesses are important. And while I don't want to suggest that our weaknesses define us, they do define our struggle. Both our individual struggles and our collective ones. And struggle—conflict—is the genesis of story. Without it, there's no story to tell.
Has anyone ever heard this before? Hi, my name is Bob, and I'm an alcoholic.
Of course we have. And we know what that statement means, don't we. It means that Bob is involved in a struggle. It means that Bob's got a weakness and he's telling us what it is because in the confession of that weakness, in the acceptance of it, he's opening up his story to the possibility of transformation.
A good story hinges on its moments of transformation. A story might have a plot hole a mile wide, it might be filled with stilted dialogue and old cliches, but if the author manages to sell us the moment of transformation then he's won. If Tolkien can make us believe that two hobbits really have saved the world, then nothing else really matters and we don’t even care to wonder why the eagles didn't just fly the ring to Mount Doom in the first place—okay, so we do wonder, but we forgive. We forgive because we've seen something miraculous and we believed it. We saw something that's true, and even though we might not be able to explain what or why, we recognize the mystery of it and it moves something inside us.
I'm not suggesting that plot holes and bad dialogue are acceptable and shouldn't concern us as storytellers. The fact is that those kinds of things get in the way of selling that transformational moment to the audience. If there are too many of them, the audience checks out. They're snapped out of the story and when the big moment comes, we don't believe it. We groan and roll our eyes. And no writer wants that.
But we're hungry for the moment when the miraculous suddenly seems like the most rational thing in the world. Tolkien called it the "eucatastrophe", the sudden joyous turn, and I think that on some level that's what nearly all storytellers are chasing. They're looking for ways to tell us that the world totters on the edge of a miracle.
But the key to finding that golden moment and making our audience believe it is that we've first got to admit weakness. If we want to get at the truth, at the heart of who we are, of who the characters in our stories are, we have to admit that we are dealing with a weak, broken, and unlikely cast of characters. Like Bob the alcoholic, our characters have to shuffle up to the podium and admit that they've failed—because it's when everything is lost that the stage is set for that beautiful moment of eucatastrophe.
It's been said that when you write a book, you chase your main character up a tree and then you start throwing rocks at him. I think that's a good start. As an author it's my job to find good sharp stones and aim them well, to spot my characters' weaknesses and put them in my crosshairs. And I'm not out to scare my characters or even just hurt them. I want to knock them out of the tree. Is it because I'm cruel? Is it because I hate them? No. It's because as the creator of the story, I have faith that if I can apply enough pressure, if I choose the right stones and hurl them true, if I knock my character out of the safety of that tree, I know that I can make them fly. And that breathtaking instant of flight is the thing we're after, isn't it?
When a character comes face to face with weakness, the strength of the story, the strength of the author, is perfected. It all hinges right here. On this moment. Will they fall, or will they fly. A good story will make you believe that they can soar.
The Book of Sorrows, by Walt Wangerin, Jr., is one of the most painful books I've ever read. Think about that for a minute. It's a book about farm animals. It's about chickens, and a weasel, and a couple of coyotes. And it hurts. It tears your heart out. At times it's hard to keep reading because it's so painful. It's clear that when Wangerin wrote it, he chose his stones well, and he knew exactly where aim them. He throws them at Chauntecleer's pride, and at Ferric Coyote's fear, and at a poor nameless bird and her deep need to be loved. And when the stones hit, they hurt, and because the characters are strong, they hold tight to the tree and the stones keep coming, and they keep coming, and they hurt, and they even kill. But when the moment of catharsis comes at last, it's huge. It's been earned. We believe it. Sudden. Joyous. Transformational. The strength of the storyteller is perfected.
This idea of perfection in weakness goes beyond the structure of the story, though. It applies directly to the act of writing itself. Madeleine L'Engle nails it in the following excerpt:
It seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own. It is interesting to note how many artists have had physical problems to overcome, deformities, lameness, terrible loneliness. Could Beethoven have written that glorious paean of praise in the Ninth Symphony if he had not to endure the dark closing in of deafness? As I look through his work chronologically, there’s no denying that it deepens and strengthens along with the deafness. Could Milton have seen all that he sees in Paradise Lost if he had not been blind? It is chastening to realize that those who have no physical flaw, who move through life in step with their peers, who are bright and beautiful, seldom become artists. The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain. Pain is not always creative; received wrongly, it can lead to alcoholism and madness and suicide. Nevertheless, without it we do not grow. Part of my job as a writer is to admit my own pain, my own fears and weaknesses. A few years ago I went through a period of severe loneliness and depression and a lot of that made its way into my writing here on the Rabbit Room in the form of some very personal essays. In other ways, though, my admissions are more indirect. During that same time I was in the middle of writing and revising The Fiddler's Gun. It's no real mystery to me where the character of Fin Button came from. She's an orphan who's doesn't fit in, who's separated from the people she loves. She's awkward and misunderstood and often finds herself acting in ways that she despises. These are all facets of my own weaknesses.
But the important part, I think, is to remember that even in the act of writing itself, I'm weak. I have nothing to say on my own. Nothing except that it's given to me by a strength greater than my myself, and I thank God for every word that I write. I'm not smart enough to write a novel. Trust me, I'm not. But I've written two. And I hope to go on writing them as long as I can.
Last year I posted a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert in which she discusses the history of artistic inspiration. She points out that in the ancient world, artists claimed their works were given to them by a muse, by some entity outside of the artist himself. The original word for this muse was "genius". So when someone created a brilliant work of art, people began to say that it was a work of genius, meaning not that the artist himself was a genius but that he had effectively channeled the work from a muse, from the genius outside of himself.
That might sound a little hokey, but stay with me.
Sometime during the renaissance, there was a shift. When a work of art was created, people began to say that the artist was a genius. See the difference? The understanding of the creative source shifted. It was no longer some outside inspiration. Now the artist had it all within him. The artist was taking all responsibility and all the credit. And with this change we begin to see artists who are self-destructive. Suicides, mental instability, alcoholism, that sort of thing. The suggestion is that once artists began to consider themselves as the sole creative source of their work, it became an overwhelming emotional and mental strain. I think there's a spiritual truth there, and a warning.
We, as creators, need to acknowledge that we are ourselves created, that we are characters in a bigger story. And when we empty ourselves of the responsibility for striking the creative spark, when we understand our "gift" as something given to us, something we don't deserve and can't earn, when we open ourselves up and confess our weakness in our own sub-creation, we are open to the perfection of a strength far greater than our own.
I know that when I sit down to write, that's what I want, that's what I pray for. That God, through me, and despite my weakness, my pride, my faulty punctuation, my tense shifting, my penchant for purple prose, my lack of discipline, that somehow in all this, in some small way, I'm hoping that my story will become his story. That I'll be knocked from the tree at last and by some miraculous transformation I'll fly.
I want you to read an excerpt from the ending of Saint Julian, by Walt Wangerin, Jr. In the book, Julian is a hunter. He's gifted with the ability to kill. He excels at it, revels in it, and eventually comes to hate himself for it. He murders an innocent shepherd, shooting him through the neck with an arrow, and in horror Julian retreats from the world until at the end of the story he's become a hermit living at the edge of a river where he's sworn to ferry anyone across no matter the circumstance.
One winter night, when he's an old man, he hears a traveler on the far side of the river calling to him. The traveler is calling for Julian to ferry him across. And though the wind is icy and the river is raging in a flood, Julian goes out. He crosses the river and takes the man onto his ferry. He sees that the traveler is a leper and an Arab, and though he's disgusted, Julian ferries him across. The leper asks for shelter and though there's scarcely room, Julian suffers him to share his tiny hut.
Read the rest of the passage and pay special attention to what happens when the well-aimed stones are thrown and Julian, in a moment of absolute humility, is knocked from his tree, once and for all.
The Saracen speaks: "Julian, I am thirsty. For the love of God, give me something to drink." There is a skin of water hanging from a hook. Julian slings it down and bites out the plug and spits that aside. He leans forward and lifts the neck of the waterskin to the leper's lips. Greedily the sick man drinks, water squirting from chew-holes in his cheeks. He drinks the entire bottle gone. There is none left in the hut. But the water that ran from his cheeks: it has landed crimson in the dust, and Julian would swear that it smells like wine. How quiet the night is now! How completely solitary is the house in all the universe. Has the storm exhausted itself? Will the morning come clear and blue? "I know you," Julian murmurs most softly. "You are a shepherd." "Julian, I am hungry. Give me something to eat." Aye, and this is possible. For Julian has one loaf of barley bread left to his home. This he pulls from warming in the ashes. His own poor stomach lurches at the crackling brown crust. At the bare sight of this food his mouth is flooded. But he hands it to his companion, who takes the loaf between his mittenish hands and stuffs it whole into his mouth and chews, and must cover his cheeks in order to swallow. But the mash that breaks through: to Julian's nostrils it has the savor of meat. "Julian, I am so weary. Grant me thy pallet for sleeping on." "Ah." And Julian presses himself as hard as he can against the wall, so that the pallet lies free. Tremblingly the leper crawls to it. He falls sideways, crying out for the pain, then rolls over onto his back and the robe falls like two curtains open on either side of him. He lifts his ruined arms and says unto Julian, "Come. Help me over. Lay thy body here on mine." Julian moves to comply. He approaches the leper on his hands and his knees. He starts to straddle the ruptured body of his guest, then notices at the base of his throat a little wound the size of a button. "Oh, Shepherd!" Julian groans in a sudden anguish: "Forgive me, for I think that I murdered you once." "Nay, not once," the Moor responds. "Thou hast murdered me often, hast slain me again and again and a thousand times again. Come, now: lay thy face upon my face, thy limbs upon my limbs, and skin on skin till all is touching. Come." Julian does. There is authority in the command. Therefore Julian does not think to argue or refuse, but obeys. He places the whole of himself as a blanket and a mirror and a comfort upon his dying guest, for he has warmth to give this coldness, and muscle to give this desiccation, and a fine northern flesh to give this diseased, this dark and slippery skin. Suddenly the leper throws Julian's rich robe around them both and embraces the ferryman's torso in arms of increasing strength. "What?" Julian cries in surprise. "You wish to hold me hard to the ground?" "Nay, but to take you from it!" The leper's embrace grows tighter and tighter, until it feels to Julian that iron bands are crushing his ribs and driving the life from his lungs. He cannot breathe. Christ! No—he cannot even keep the breath within himself. The Saracen's pressure drives out all his air and all his thought. Prayer alone is left within him: Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me! Immediately upon this supplication, the leper's hair shoots out like a bright bristle of arrows from his skull. Every hair is a beam of light, and all together are such a radiance that Julian's hut is flooded with sunlight. And now they—the two of them wrapped in that robe together—are rising from the pallet. No longer do they lie on the earth. But Julian's companion is the engine now. He is lifting them upright, though their feet do not touch ground. Nay, they are breaking through the thatch of the hut. Julian gasps. He returns the embrace for safety and affection and a wild delight. For everything is changing. The flesh of his guest is suddenly smooth. His spine is true and strong. His breath has expanded to reap the wind as does the eagle's. For he is no leper now, but a man of unspeakable beauty, a blaze of ascendant light. And the sky is a scoured blue to receive them. For Julian has found his ferryman, who takes them airborne, soaring past the treetops and the ashy castle and the river, arising higher than the fields and the countryside and the forests and this kingdom and all the kingdoms of the earth. There is a middle moment when Julian sees the bones of his body, his flesh gone wraithlike, so to be borne by the sun of morning. And in the light Julian, glancing down, is able to see all the places where once he walked the earth, and this he knows in an instant of mortal relief: all his life's laboring was only wrestling. He burned out his little time in wrestling—first with God, and second with himself. But the fight he is leaving behind. Pure Julian: he is flying now, borne up on eagles' wings. And then, approaching the round empyrean, the golden man, the very flight of the flying Julian, begins to sing. He is the clapper, while all the cosmos is his silver bell. He tolls a death and a birth in the universe of his authority, and all his song is Julian! Julian is his glorious chorus. And Julian's soul is laughing now, as booming and boisterous as the thunder. And the Lord's embrace is his golden rope. . ." Perfected. Transformation. That's why I wrestle the words. Both as a storyteller and as a story-told, that's the moment I'm chasing.
"There was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 12:7