I love nightly walks around my neighborhood, when the summer sky can’t go dark but holds out an aching blue note of twilight while the the moon glitters like a diamond. I am given to occasionally making these walks barefoot, relishing the cool of the ground in the dark beyond a blazing day. My feet will get black and scuffed from the road, but as I pad across the terra firma, overhung with the boughs of oak and elm, I am reminded that I am connected to this earth, that I am part of it, that it affects me and I it in the awkward grace of our dance. One of us wobbles and reels while the other staggers and shuffles. We each step on the other’s feet, but we keep cutting our seven-step rhythm, she gamboling about the heavens and I scribbling in little journals.
In the business of writing, I constantly try to convince myself that it isn’t worth the bother. Thankfully, in this regard, I’m not the best of the Devil’s advocates. Either that or there are few twelve-step programs to break an addiction to wordsmithing. Continually, though, I trip over the question, “Why?” Why do I do this? For me? Probably. For fame? Probably. For the service of Truth which is the source of and permeates all reality, superseding it with a Glory that would destroy us were it not veiled? Um. That’s a question I have to admit I’m not qualified to answer, although the previous two reasons have thus far proven rather unfruitful in some blessed measure. As a reader of fiction, though, this is a far easier survey to take. The more I read fiction, the more I know why I read it. Pure enjoyment and sometimes escapism give way to the interior magnitude of stories, lending scope to the cramped exterior of reality. In a culture of almost diabolical sunderedness between people who, via the internet and cell phones, trade digital summaries for actual personal encounters, fiction reminds us of the sheer unplumbed size of the created world. In that respect, odd as it may seem, fiction gives us truth. Immersed in it, it starts to characterize the way we view the world. It is a waking dream that eventually forces us to look again at the seemingly obvious in front of us.
Good fictional characters become a sort of hagiography of all the real characters in our lives. That girl who had a miscarriage in chapter nine is your sister when you blink a couple of times, though its not so much through empathy as through the suspension of disbelief. When we open ourselves to fiction, to the idea that anything could happen, people – dare I say, inevitably? – become more than the sum of their parts, their quirks, their jobs, and their political leanings. They literally thrum with possibility and hope. You can even hear it in tragic characters like Brett and Jake in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, rattling in between the lines of their dogged and pathetic semi-loyalty to each other and crackling pleasantly in Jake’s humor at his own injury. If there is hope and possibility singing in the lives of these ink-and-paper human sacrifices, these mortal ephemera, then the Puckish gleam of curiosity will quietly ask, “What about the guy across the hall from me?”
Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, “You have never met a mere mortal.”
Every marginal encounter on the street or in the cereal aisle is the brushing of shoulders between two souls robed in flesh, two immortals sashaying blithely through temporal possibility of Grace or otherwise. This is a role of fiction: to remind us of the unbearably imminent humanity – and the iconic Antecedent of the humanity – of our friends and cohorts, of our enemies and rulers. As Saint Paul put it, “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” You probably can’t write that kind of character intentionally. At least, I can’t, but in honest writing it seems to happen on its own. Because you probably can’t do it intentionally, this is not a practical reason to write fiction, though it may be a very good reason to write it. Even better, it’s a reason to read it. It is a joyous thought against the cynical backdrop of crying, “Lies,” though, and that’s reason enough to scribble and scuttle over paper every day.
Live against the stunted egotism of the denouncing of joy.