Writerly Wednesdays

Writing That Transforms

This quote caught my attention when I was struggling with how to write a novel to reflect real love and friendship without explicitly saying it or preaching about it. This struck me as a good example of writing grace without being explicit:

“It doesn’t matter.”

I looked up at him. “It doesn’t?”

“No,” he said a little too fiercely.

“I don’t think I believe you.”

“So maybe I don’t believe it yet either, not completely, but it’s the truth.” He clutched my hands more tightly, holding them close to his heart. “…I love you, Alina, even the part of you that loved him.”

-Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone

I read that and thought, “Isn’t that what God does? We don’t have to become something other than we are in order for him to love us. While he may not leave us in our current state, he accepts us as we are when we come to him. And there is something about that acceptance that begins to change us.”

Then I thought, “How cool is that? The idea that acceptance, simple grace, is the first step in a transformation.” The implications of that idea are mind-blowing, and I love that reading one short passage in a YA fantasy novel could make me think those thoughts.

But then I remembered this quote, from an interview I did with a couple of ICW authors about the difference between writing male and female characters, about writing their hearts. In a conversation with each other, the authors I interviewed said this:

“Peter: …For example… a normal man will not keep coming back for more punishment for no particular reason. Here’s this female protagonist, she’s seriously damaged, and he falls in love with her for no reason and keeps coming back for more punishment. That’s not realistic.

Patrick: Men will only go to a certain point with that. And normally, in real life, at that point there’s no going back. When men turn off, they turn off completely. When a man abandons love, he abandons it completely. It seems like a lot of women never do.”

After fifty-plus years of living life and relationships, I don’t think the above is just these guys’ opinion. My experience says they’re right. When a man feels betrayed, when he’s fallen out of love, chances are there’s no going back.

Who was it that said, “Men forget but never forgive, women forgive but never forget?”

So if all this is true, the hero in my Shadow & Bone quote forgiving the woman for loving another man, really isn’t authentic. Probably 99.9% of the time, a man wouldn’t react this way. Which is what Peter and Patrick were talking about in the midst of this interview—that women write men the way they wish they were, not the way they really are.

But here’s a wrinkle: While I wouldn’t personally recommend Bardugo’s later novels, her writing in this series exhibits an understanding of love, the nuances of good and evil, mercy, and sacrifice that goes deeper than the normal angst you see in young adult fiction. While she’s writing fantasy, her characters seem “true” in many ways.

What if Bardugo isn’t writing the hero the way she wishes men were?

What if she’s writing the hero the way we all should be.

Which leads to this question: If we are trying to write truth in fiction that speaks life, is it inauthentic to also give people a vision of the way things ought to be? Isn’t that truth, too?

Someone else has said: “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” While I appreciate the sentiment, it’s an activist view of making art that I don’t think encompasses all art should do, and certainly not all that fiction can do.

I was talking to a fifteen-year-old relative who’s lived a sheltered life in some ways, but she’s a voracious reader, especially of fiction. She told me there was so much of life that she hadn’t experienced, that she never-the-less wants to write about, but she wasn’t sure if she could do it authentically.

I agreed with her that writing becomes deeper as life experience widens. But I hope I was able to comfort by assuring her that because she is a reader, she has already experienced more life on a certain level than many non-readers will actually experience in a life-time. Books have given her an understanding of life and human nature that is far beyond her years. It’s part of what makes her extraordinary.

That’s what good literature can do for us—the science is clear on this. Every story impacts us, changes us, makes us more than just the sum of our everyday experiences. Yes, we want what we write to change people so that they understand more about the human condition, so that they become more empathetic. But wouldn’t we also like our writing to give people a vision, not just for who we are, but for who we should be, what it’s possible to be?

Yes, as writers, we need to explode the myths of who we pretend to be, to cautionary-tale our readers around the pitfalls of a life of hypocrisy, small-mindedness and self-centeredness. We need to be honest about the fact that for most people in the world there are no easy answers, that most problems won’t be solved with a hug and a kiss, if they are ever solved at all.

But in addition, shouldn’t we who have the ability to imagine things we haven’t experienced, help others see that our longings for lives of love and belonging aren’t a by-product of some irrational hope, but a premonition of a possible future?

If we were made to be reflections of the grace, mercy, creativity, humility, salvation, truth, hope and love of our Creator, shouldn’t the people we writers create reflect those characteristics as well?

Beliefs represented by individual authors are not necessarily shared by all members of ICW.


  • Lisa Michelle Hess

    Lisa Michelle Hess has lived in every state on the Pacific Coast and loved the people in all of them. Over the years, she’s been a journalist, non-profit consultant, bookseller, and literature teacher, which were all her favorite jobs while she had them. Her current favorite career is Bookpusher at the Boise Public Library in Boise, Idaho, where she lives with one husband, one dog, and two turtles. You can find some of Lisa’s other stories in Passageways: A Short Story Collection. The Ghost of Gold Creek is her first full-length novel.

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