Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 #13: Going on Faith-Writing as a Spiritual Quest

Going on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual QuestGoing on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual Quest by William Zinsser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trust William Zinsser to bring together four novelists (David Bradley, Frederick Buechner, Mary Gordon, and Hugh Nissenson), a poet (Allen Ginsberg), and a religious historian (Jaroslav Pelikan) -- "men and women from various points of God's compass"-- for a lecture series that was originally published in 1988 as Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing (now out of print). Ten years later, he broadened the book by adding three more writers to the pool: Diane Ackerman, Patricia Hampl and Hillel Levine. For those who have read Zinsser's books on memoir writing and his wonderful chapter on interviewing in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, his influence is felt in each of these three essays, without compromising the voice of the author. Zinsser wanted to "preserve the oral integrity of the book as a collection of talks" so he recorded each of the three authors and then "edited the transcript[s] into narrative."

What is striking is how many of the authors are quick to challenge the idea of being "religious writers" or even "spiritual" writers. For some, they set out on a different path altogether, and the process became spirit. My favorite moments included Hillel Levine's description of meeting the history of Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who was responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives in the summer of 1940. Hillel found that "what was heroic about Sugihara was his ordinariness...the power of his moral leadership was so great that he was able to evoke goodness in other people" (81). Frederick Buechner opens with a story of a strand of blue thread, a tie clip, and the evocation of his own name that soon blossoms into an excellent essay on faith and fiction. He says, "In both faith and fiction the people you meet along the way, the things that happen to happen, the places--the airport bar, the room where you have a last supper with some friend--count for much more than ideas do. Fiction can hold opposites together in a story simultaneously...and so can faith, which by its very nature both sees and does not see" (51).

All of the lecture-essays are excellent, and I do recommend reading all of them in order. Together they form a narrative as a whole, as provide a thoughtful sustenance for those who write and read.

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