Writing is both a significant and intimate activity. Acclaimed novelist Bret Lott reflects on his life through five essays exploring everything from the importance of literary fiction to the pain of personal loss.
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About the Author
Bret Lott (MFA, University of Massachusetts) is the New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books including Jewel, an Oprah Book Club selection. From 1986 to 2004 he was writer-in-residence and professor of English at the College of Charleston, leaving to take the position of editor and director of the journal The Southern Review at Louisiana State University. In 2007, he returned to the College of Charleston, where he currently teaches. He serves as nonfiction editor of Crazyhorse, and is a member of the National Council on the Arts.
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Why Have We Given Up the Ghost?
Notes on Reclaiming Literary Fiction
My name is Bret Lott, and I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our LORD; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.
So that's where I'll start this book.
I'd also like to start by saying that neither the title of this particular essay nor the book itself will be a sermon. Rather, it will be, as far as I can tell at this beginning of actually writing down what I think I want to say, an examination of my own story as a writer, and why this is a question that haunts me, no matter how many books I have written.
And what really is "literary fiction"? What I've always known it to be is fiction that doesn't sell very well. But when my students ask me point blank what the difference between popular and literary fiction is — and they ask this question a lot — I tell them that literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and that popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition. Henry James said that it wasn't "the rare accident" — the plot — that made a story worth our attention but the "human attestation" to that plot: how people deal with their histories rather than those histories in and of themselves.
At least I think that's what is meant by literary fiction, and what I'll take it to mean here today.
All of which is to say, I'm still trying to figure this topic out, after all these years as a writer. How, I want to know, is it so very difficult to give God, in my work as a writer of literary fiction, his due?
I started this with the Apostles' Creed because I do believe in Christ's divinity, in his resurrection, in his being precisely who he claimed to be. That is, I believe in a supernatural God, one who loves us and who cares intimately and deeply for us, so deeply that he gave his only begotten son to die for us. And I believe in a supernatural God whose wrath, as my life's reference book — the Bible — tells me, will be inflicted upon this world so fully that John saw in his revelation "the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, [hide] themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and to rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'" (Rev. 6:15–17).
That, folks, is the God I believe in. The loving God who loves us on his terms, and his only.
And now begins the rub of this all: despite the fact I get the feeling I may very well be preaching to the literary choir if you have begun reading this book, I feel pretty certain some of you out there must be asking yourselves right now, Does he really believe in the supernatural? Does he really believe that God asserts himself outside of our hands, outside of our control, outside of our concepts of time and space, to actually show himself to us?
Yes. I believe in a God who works outside of us all.
Let me tell a story now. Or two. Maybe three.
A few years ago I worked my way through the book Experiencing God by Blackaby and King — and already I can bet I have fallen in the eyes of many out there: he did that book, the one everybody and his brother was carrying around back then? Next thing you know, he'll tell us he's read The Purpose Driven Life. But I'm afraid it's even worse than that: I am an adult Sunday school teacher at East Cooper Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and I taught our class The Purpose Driven Life.
The fact is, I am about the squarest person you will meet. I was a cub-master for seven years, assistant scoutmaster for three; I was an assistant soccer coach for eight years too. I play baritone sax in my church orchestra — not in the hip and cool praise band but in the orchestra. For several years my wife, Melanie, and I ran our church's Wednesday night supper. To reach even further back, and to see perhaps how really mundane my faith story might appear, I was born again after a Josh McDowell rally when I was eighteen years old and a freshman at Northern Arizona University, and I met Melanie — we've been married for over thirty years now — in the college and career Sunday school class at First Baptist Church of Huntington Beach/Fountain Valley in Orange County, California.
We are talking square here.
But to Experiencing God — one day the book instructed me to pray for an opportunity to share Christ in some way. I was told to pray specifically for an opportunity, and then instructed as well to keep my eyes and ears open, to look for that opportunity, rather than simply to pray it and forget it.
Later that day I was in my office at the college where I teach, and I received a phone call. It was from one of my students, a genuine slacker who hadn't shown up for class that day, a kid I had written off weeks ago. And of course you know already how this story will end.
But I want to underscore what a slacker this kid was and the attitude I had toward him. I don't dislike any of my students — I love them. Really. But there are certain kids who show up in your classes and you know by their actions how much they want to be in the class, and so you begin to adjust your own views of them to reflect theirs of you. That is, this wasn't a kid with whom I would have gone out of my way to build a relationship. He was simply marking time in my class, and so I was simply marking time with this phone call.
He was calling to say he was sorry for missing class and had some lame excuse for not having been there. I remember leaning back in my chair and putting my feet up on my desk, listening to the story and, the phone to my ear, rolling my eyes. I really remember rolling my eyes at this kid.
And then he said it: "Mr. Lott," he said, "if I were to read a book from the Bible, which one would it be?"
Just like that. Out of the bluest blue you can imagine, me already shining this kid on, rolling my eyes, marking time with him.
And I sat up, then stood at my desk, me hit square over the head with the two-by-four of God's answer to my prayer that morning: to receive an opportunity and to watch for it. Sadly, I had just about dozed off at the wheel but was blessed enough to have been awakened in time to recover myself and begin to talk about the Gospel of John but also about the book of Acts, my favorite. Oh, and James, too. But John. The Gospel of John.
And I saw, because I had been caught unawares, that this prayer wasn't about my giving the message of grace to someone I had signed off, but about my having signed him off: it is the being ready that mattered, I saw. The message of salvation saves in and of itself; opportunities abound every minute we are awake to share.
But it is being ready to do so that matters.
Of course, the enlightened among us will chalk up the outcome of that story to chance, to coincidence. Maybe even to a conniving kid who, knowing as most every kid on my campus does that I am a Christian, thinks he has found a way to appeal to my forgiving side if he intones inquiry into the Bible while asking to be excused from a class he has missed. Don't think this all hasn't occurred to me.
But I see, finally, that none of that matters. What matters is that that morning I prayed for something — an opportunity, and an awareness — and was provided with both when I was least expecting it. That kid had no idea, I saw, that I was praying for this, and though I have to this day no idea if he really read John or not, he was given by a willing messenger — me — an opportunity.
That is all God asks, I saw. That willingness from us.
And this opportunity given was a supernatural act, God's answer to prayer.
But here are the other two stories. A little more dramatic, I think, than the possibility of coincidence.
I have been on church missions trips to the Eastern European country of Moldova twice now, the first trip with my older son, Zeb, to help build an orphanage for kids in the town of Telenesti, the second time to help run a Bible camp for kids in the same town. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe — the average income there is $30 a month, this in what had been an industrialized Soviet bloc country.
My job this last visit — Melanie and both our boys came this time — was to be the activities director for the Bible camp. Here was my Cub Scout expertise, come back to haunt me: my job, given me by acclamation, was to herd 140 children ranging in age from four to eighteen into four groups and then to entertain them for four one-and-a-half-hour blocks each day for a week — all in translation, either to Romanian or Russian, depending on the age of the kids. I and my team organized games and sports for them all. The last day we did wacky relays — silly games such as standing directly over an empty soup can on the ground and dropping a clothespin into the can from your forehead, or skipping rope ten times, or kicking your unlaced shoe off your foot to see who could launch it the farthest. We'd brought our own supplies — those clothespins, empty cans, all sorts of arts and crafts supplies — everything from Polaroid film for pictures of the kids to T-shirts (140 of them) for the children to tie-dye one afternoon. The mission group — there were sixteen of us, all from East Cooper Baptist — spent an entire afternoon a week before we left parceling out all these supplies evenly so that no one was overburdened. There were even entire sets of Old and New Testament flannel graphs, too, for the nationals to use once we got to the camp in Moldova, all parceled out.
One of the relay games was a goofy thing in which a kid runs to a paper bag, next to which are two garden gloves. The kid has to put on the garden gloves, then reach into the bag and pull out the pack of chewing gum inside it, and then extricate a stick of gum from the pack with these garden gloves on, put the stick in his mouth, take off the gloves and run back to tag the next person on his team, until everyone is done.
The problem we were facing all week, though, was the kind of problem we all wish for: there were simply more kids than we had been told would be allowed to participate. Simply too many kids. The first day we opened up, in a ruined school that in America would have been featured on national news for the scandalous fact that its broken and filthy shell still housed kids for classes, we had 170 kids show up.
And I'd packed only enough gum for 160 kids, thinking that twenty extra pieces — we were told there would only be 140, remember — was in fact planning ahead. So on that last day, going into the relays, I knew we didn't have enough gum. I knew it. But there had been no place to buy more, and so we simply went ahead with the game.
Zeb and Jake, my younger son, served as monitors, helpers of a sort for the smaller kids once they were down at the bags and trying to put on those gloves. And late in the day, once we were working through the last batch of kids, Zeb hollered out to me, "Dad, we're going to run out of gum!"
I hollered back to him the only thing I knew to do: "Pray!" I said, and prayed myself, that somehow there might be more gum, that this would work out.
Zeb prayed, too. As did Jacob, and Skip McQuillan, the other dad along, and his two sons, Sam and Mac. We all prayed there, on the spot, that somehow there would be more gum, enough for all of them.
And there was enough gum. To the person: precisely enough pieces of gum, at the end of a frantic day of wacky relays, just a crazy day spent doing crazy games as a means to entertain kids who were being brought the gospel message elsewhere in the school by the nationals for whom we were helping with this camp.
It is with a kind of wonder and joy that I tell this story, no matter the cynic in me — Satan, actually — who rationalizes that perhaps not every kid participated that last day, and maybe not every kid did the relay. But there were more kids that day than any other, and they all did the relay.
And if there had been some single kid who had come up to the bag and found there was no gum for him, where would God have been, finally?
I believe in a supernatural God.
One last story, this from that same trip. There's a little fact I left out of all this: two of our team lost their luggage altogether, traveling from Charleston, South Carolina, where we all live, to the capital city of Moldova, Kishnau. So that though we had spent all that time parceling out all our various supplies, it didn't really matter: we didn't have enough of what we needed.
Sure, Debi McQuillan, Skip's wife, had brought some extra Polaroid film, more than she'd passed out to us all, and there were, finally, plenty of ice cream sticks for the frames they would make for those photos. There was enough glue and glitter, enough of that Dayglo plastic string to make lanyards for them all. We made do with a couple of softballs and a baseball bat less than we had planned to have ready.
But the big craft event the last day was the tie-dyeing of T-shirts. And we'd packed 140 T-shirts. Enough for the number of kids we'd been told would be there. There wouldn't have been enough, not by a long shot, even for the number of kids we'd planned for. That is, there weren't even 140 T-shirts. Plain and simple.
And here's what we did: we prayed over the T-shirts. We knew we didn't have enough, and we prayed over them, and then stepped boldly into that last day's craft activities, faithful that somehow we would have enough T-shirts, though we knew we had less than we needed.
And at the end of that long day of messy crafts — imagine, to begin with, trying to guide that many kids at dyeing T-shirts twisted and rubber-banded into knots, and then not being certain who would get one and who wouldn't — at the end of that long day of stepping out in faith, there were precisely enough T-shirts for every kid who was there — over 170 children.
In the book of Joshua, God instructs Joshua to choose twelve men from the tribes and to have each one carry a stone from where they crossed the Jordan and place it where they were camped on the other side. "Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel," Joshua instructs them, "that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, 'What do those stones mean to you?' then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. ... So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever" (Josh. 4:5–7).
These stories I have just given you are only a few of my own standing stones. They are reminders to me and to those who come after me — you reading this — of the supernatural power of God.
Because I cannot explain how we got the right amount of gum, or why a kid called me to ask what book of the Bible he should read on a day when I'd written that kid off, or how we got enough T-shirts to make each kid at that camp feel a part of that camp at the end of a week in which they were presented the gospel message. In the town of Telenesti, in the country of Moldova, there is no running water, there are no flush toilets. Needless to say, there is no Wal-Mart to which we could repair and purchase bundles of T-shirts to save the day. But in Telenesti, there were orphans, kids whose parents had left them outright simply to go somewhere else and try to live. And there were also kids who lived with their parents and who showed up to that Bible camp unannounced and unplanned for.
And not one of them went wanting. No one was missed.
I can only tell you that these standing stones point to a supernatural God, one I can't explain by logic or rationalization. I can only bear witness to him.
And now, finally, we come to the thin ice of my own believability as a human being, and at the same time the concrete foundation of what it means to have faith. Do I really believe that God reached out his hand to us and, as those five thousand people who'd gathered at Bethsaida on the shore of the Sea of Galilee were given food from five loaves and two fish, gave us some extra gum and a big wad of T-shirts?
Yes I do. Count on it.
For if I, as a believer in Christ as God on earth, can find a way to explain away a phone call or a pack of gum or those T-shirts, then what is the point in my believing in the resurrection of a dead man? Plain and simple.
But I do believe it. Plain and simple. Our God is a supernatural God.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Letters & Life"
Copyright © 2013 Bret Lott.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Letters,
Why Have We Given Up the Ghost? Notes on Reclaiming Literary Fiction,
The Artist and the City, or, Some Random Thoughts on Why We Are Here,
Writing with So Great a Cloud of Witnesses,
Part 2 Life,
At Some Point in the Future, What Has Not Happened Will Be in the Past,
What People are Saying About This
“Letters and Life is nothing less than an invaluable gift to the body of Christ. Let no serious believer who aspires to serious writing neglect to read it and to be encouraged, instructed, and blessed by it. A wise, wonderful, and desperately needed primer on what it means to be a genuine Christian writer and artist.”
Eric Metaxas, New York Times bestselling author, Miraclesand Bonhoeffer
“Like all great storytellers, Bret Lott is a bridge builder: his characters cross into our lives and help us know ourselves more truly. In this lively collection of essays, Lott is determined to bridge another gapthe sometimes uneasy tension between the world of literary fiction and the broader community of faith. Along the way, he demonstrates that reading literature, far from being an elitist indulgence, is at once deeply pleasurable and a transformative spiritual experience.”
Gregory Wolfe, editor, Image; author, Beauty Will Save the World
“Bret Lott has dared to write an impossible booka serious and candid set of meditations on what it means to be a Christian writer living in a secular society that neither respects nor even understands his faith. I can hardly imagine a more difficult topic or a more necessary one. Letters and Life has the courage to explore a question at the heart of contemporary culture: How do we reconcile the spirit and the imagination?”
Dana Gioia, poet; former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
“Bret Lott is one of America’s finest writers and editors; this book reveals him to be one of our greatest mentors to writers of faith, as well. Letters and Life brims with wisdom and advice to all who bear the call toward an authentic journey of a writer. It is a gift for all readers who desire to know more about the creative process and to infuse their creativity into their lives.”
Makoto Fujimura, Founder, International Arts Movement and Fujimura Institute; artist; author