When I look back at my educational career, the grade that seemed to be the pinnacle of grades is third grade. It was the year we learned about electricity and built our own doll sized houses with working lights and fans; the year we studied frogs, crabs, and snails, learned about fractions (yes, I enjoy math class), and our essays were graded on a scale from crumbs to double stuffed Oreo cookie. The list could go on and on. But what impacted me the most that year was our reading and writing time. My teacher Mrs. Grabner (a very tall woman who was strict but kind) would read us Magic Tree House books and then gave us time to write in our My Thought’s Journal – a handmade journal that was unique to each student, and we could write whatever we wanted (assuming whatever we wanted to write wasn’t mean or offensive). One of the books Mrs. Grabner read to us was titled The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, a book about a classic fairy-tale with a twist. The story is told from the Wolf’s perspective.
My young mind lit with a creative fever. I had never known a story could be bent in such a way. The brilliance of it all inspired me to write down my own version of the Three Little Pigs which ended up being just a poorly written rewrite of the actual reinvented Three Little Pigs book. Regardless, I wrote it all down in my My Thoughts Journal. This was the first time I consciously saw myself as a writer.
I wrote constantly. Whenever there was a free second in class or I was in study hall I would pull out my notebook and write. Homework was overrated. I finished my first “novel” when I was in seventh grade. It was titled Shipwreck, was the first in a series, and was 41 pages long. Up until that point I had come up with a variety of novel ideas but I never came close to finishing them. I hardly made it past writing 15 pages. 41 was a huge number at the time. I continued to write and my page numbers only increased.
When I look back at all of the stories I wrote throughout the years, I can easily spot a pattern that is ever present in many popular stories. In fact, I discussed this very pattern in last week’s blog. Every single one of my stories contained the “saved by Jesus” trope at the end. One of my stories was called The Two Reasons and I wrote about 130 pages of it before tossing it. The plot is as follows – Libby, a young girl who has it all (loving parents, a loving older brother, an incredible church family) suddenly loses it all when her family is involved in a car accident and she is sent to an orphanage to live. Bitter about life, Libby still manages to keep Jesus in the back of her mind. She meets two girls at the orphanage named Keira and Katy. The three girls become friends and stay friends even when they are adopted and live in new homes. Keira and Katy ask many questions about Jesus and Libby answers them, constantly telling them to believe. Throughout the book Libby questions why this tragedy had to happen to her. Then at the end she realizes that there are two reasons – Keira and Katy. They needed her to help get them through their own trauma. If her family hadn’t died then she wouldn’t have met them.
Yep, that’s the story. I remember sitting at my sophomore lunch table and telling my friends the idea. None of them liked it. At the time I just shook off their comments and claimed they didn’t get great art. But no, they were SO right. I came to realize this after writing 130 pages. Luckily I jumped right back on a new horse.
It comes as no surprise that I included this trope starting with the first novel I ever finished back in seventh grade. At the point in time I was writing the book, I was wildly obsessed with a Christian pop music group called Jump5 and at one of their concerts I attended (and considered to be the best night of my life) my favorite member named Libby Hodges made a speech about accepting Jesus into your heart.
My motivations for asking Christ into my heart were flawed. I wanted to be like Libby and if Libby was a Christian then so was I. As I lay in bed after the concert, my mind spinning around everything that had happened in those glorious few concert hours, I had three major thoughts.
- This would always be the best night of my life no matter what
- Jump5 would always be my favorite singing group
- I asked Jesus to come into my heart
The whole thing was fresh in my mind and made me really excited. I was so pumped for Jesus that I wanted to send out letters to strangers telling them my story and how they too should ask Jesus into their hearts. Naturally, such a large event in my life would carry over into my writing. Most of my teenage years were centered around the night of the concert – the night I accepted Jesus into my heart. I imagine many authors writing Christian fiction have a similar approach. They too are excited about Jesus and so always want to point back to the awesomeness of accepting him as their savior. It is also great marketing because they know they have a Christian reading audience who won’t read anything but books that featured a character getting saved.
When I took a step back from my faith and anything labeled “Christian” in college, allowing me to see things a bit clearer, I realized what a flawed method of artistic expression and storytelling this was. In many ways I connect this realization with growing up. College changed me in such a complex fashion that would take another whole blog series to pick apart and understand (as I imagine college changed most who went). But it did it’s job – I left school as a changed person, a free thinker, and had a better grasp of the craft I came to study. Writing.
While I plan to go into more detail in the final blog of this series, I feel one central moment during college should close out this week. I may hate Christian books but that doesn’t mean I want things to stay this way. I still want to incorporate Christian themes in my writing and don’t want to discourage other writers from doing so. My only hope is that the execution of Christian books will grow stronger with time.
During my final semester I took a novel writing seminar with Professor Chris Merkner (read his short story Cabins featured in the 2015 O’Henry Prize Stories). We students were required to work on (what else?) a novel and have a good chunk written by the end of the semester. A first draft was required of us in which we would write the first 10 pages of our novel, submit it to our peers who would critique our work and have a discussion during class time, and then we would fix the issues pointed out to us and write another 30 pages (I forget the exact amount to be honest) to be submitted for a final grade. We were also required to meet with the Professor for one on one instruction.
When I met with Chris, he offered me some of the best writing advice I ever received. He knew about my faith and my desire to write a book with Christian themes without falling into the “Christian” genre pool. After hearing me out he said (this is not an exact quote and condenses what ended up being a long back and forth conversation between the two of us), When you look at what Christianity is centered around, Jesus dying brutally on the cross, it is a really grotesque and messy image. It isn’t a warm and fluffy concept but a vulgar one and it seems like most books in the Christian genre forget this.
Finally, I remember thinking, someone else gets it. Thank you for putting my feelings into words.