There’s something really special about closing a really good book for the first time. Try to remember back to the first good book you finished. The book that sticks out in my mind is Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. The characters — Doug and Lil — are middle-schoolers from 1950s Marysville, New York. And yet they’re real — I feel for them, and more than that, feel with them. When I closed the book, I cried; I still read the book frequently, even with all the busyness of college.
Fictional characters, fictional events, fictional places implant pictures in our heads, or present pictures to our eyes and ears. Fictions can paint pictures of worlds that attract us, and if the attraction is strong enough those pictures evoke a desire to realize that world.
—Peter J. Leithart
Doug and Lil wormed their way into my brain. Their story stuck with me long after I’d put the book down. When I kept walking through life, there was their story right beside me. It was as if I’d lived a second lifetime inside that book — learning the things that they learned, and feeling the things that they felt. Because novels portray real lives in imaginary settings, they can affect our own lives.
Stories are so much more than “just stories.” They’re life-shards, distilled into a book that you will read and then put aside. Even so, the life-shards wriggle into your heart and bury themselves there. These worlds are more than real in our minds — they shape our actions. Narnia taught us to love truth. Tolkien taught us, among other things, that true love grows out of sacrifice.
This isn’t to say that every story has only one cheap moral, and that is all a reader will ever get from the story. Not in the slightest! Like the lives that they echo, novels are complex, varied, shadowed, ambiguous, exciting, provoking, and vigorous. There’s so much more to a good book than a moral that smacks the reader over the head at the end of the book. Good writers don’t smack, they echo.
So, as a writer, you will echo what drives you. All the books you have read, all the truth you have learned, the love you have had and lost — it will all spill over into your writing. Great writers bleed, and so much of the act of writing a story is pouring your own life into a fictional setting. A lot of times, this can be unconscious — done poorly, it can be overwhelming. But the fact of the matter is, no one will care about your writing if it doesn’t have human experience in it.
You will be a good writer when you reach into people’s hearts with your characters and pour your beating and gasping heart into theirs — not just so that people can say you have good characters, but so they can see the beauty of goodness or the terror of evil. This writing life matters — this is not just for fun or to sell a lot of paperbacks. We’ve been given a message of truth that we must speak (more on that next week).
Hone your craft. Sharpen your words. May they pierce hearts with a razor’s edge. Make every word count.