Serpent Blog

Groping Your Way in Faith - The Book Passage Blog Part 3 
How does a story form? Somehow, disparate words and images coalesce into something that resembles narrative thought. Stories are mysterious things. Stories that do not come directly from our actual lives are even more mysterious, they’re mystical.

Often I am asked how I, a New Yorker, wrote a story about a spiritually gifted Appalachian boy. I do not know the answer. The story was given to me as a gift. When you take a writing class you are often told to write what you know. I did not know the world depicted in Serpent Box. I did not know the good people of the hills and hollows of Tennessee. I did not know a Holiness sign follower or a snake handler. But what I did know, and do know, is what it feels like to not know. I know what it is to question one’s faith. I vividly recall the helplessness of being a child. I have clear memories of what it means to be shunned, ostracized and beaten, simply for how you look. I have never let go of that feeling of ignorance that seems to permeate your very existence when you are a boy up against a very large and confusing world. I knew my focal character, Jacob Flint, perhaps better than I knew myself.

Writing a story is a quest. You search, often blindly, for answers and direction. You seek out the next word, the next sentence. You build paragraphs and pages out of images – at least I do. I see a thing, then I record the thing. When the writing is going well it is not so much thinking as it is seeing. I will often close my eyes and try to squeeze an image out if the words themselves cease to flow. It is amazing that this actually works. It’s almost as if you can pry that tiny door between your conscious and unconscious mind open, for just a moment or two, to let the truth escape. It rarely stays open long. And then you are faced with the blankness that lies beyond your last completed sentence. That blankness, that null space, can feel as vast as the cosmos.

I wrote Serpent Box alone, having written nothing of significance before it, having not studied writing beyond a few night courses, having no background in English Literature or journalism. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. There were times I faltered and shut down. But I had angels watching over me, angels in human form, who gave me more than encouragement, they gave me keys and crutches.

My dear friend Andrew L. Wilson, who has written one of the best novel’s I’ve ever read (remarkably, as yet unpublished) would often give me the small bits of advice and love I needed to get through each day. He sent me this quote during a very dark time during the writing of Serpent Box when I was desperately searching for a path to send the story. You see, I made up Serpent Box in the moment. I had no plot, no vision, no clue as to what the story should be or where it might take me. I simply sat down each day and wrote intuitively, building on that which I had written the previous day. Often that would lead to dry spells and moments of blind panic. What would I do if the next piece of the story didn’t show itself? I learned the following lesson late in the game, but hold it now as one of the most important concepts I’ve ever ‘learned’ about the art of writing:

“To ask for the whole thing cut and dried at once is a great error. There is no use sitting down waiting for clarity, believing that your work will reveal itself in a flash and show you the roads to it free of charge. You have to grope your way in good faith and be content with little. In that way you keep your strength and courage alive. One frequently meets a type of very talented artist or poet lacking the capability for such slow, sinewy search, unwilling to put his hand to his work until he has got it as a kind of gift, and in some mysterious manner - with all difficulties and doubts blown away. Meantime, however, the strength seeps out of him simply because of lack of exercise, just like a muscle languishing away when it lies unused, and people with much less talent but with more contentment [desire] surpass him easily. Whoever believes himself wise and "a genius" once and for all, has closed all windows and doors to the truth, but whoever is aware of his weaknesses has opened them and will be rewarded.”

Vilhelm Ekelund

Once I accepted this, and I did so instantly, I soon realized that the missing ingredient in my ‘process’ was faith. The belief that the answers would come. The feeling that somehow a spark would reveal itself. A trust in the natural world and the random order of things, and that simply by living, observing, listening, moving through life and interacting with it, one would discover ways and means in which to push the story forward. Because I was pulling the story out of myself I needed faith in myself and in that amazing serendipity that always seems to deliver what you need when you humbly and earnestly ask for it, when you seek it, when you grope your way in good faith.

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