Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Uses and Misuses of Inspiration

“The Lord gave me this idea.” How often I’ve heard a new writer say this? Often, this sentence preceded great stories. But just as often it introduced writings that were so half-baked I found myself searching for a tactful way to say “Please don’t blame the Lord for this.”

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God is an everflowing font of creative ideas. When I find myself stumped in the middle of a story, I will often –very often– shout out, “Father, help!” Then, taking it on faith that He has indeed helped, I resume writing with the confident hope that the new God-given idea will emerge. Sooner or later, it does. Either the idea comes gently as I sit at my computer, or it rides on a very apt coincidence, or it floods in on a creative torrent as I lie in bed at night. (Always remember to keep that notebook on your beside table!)

As Creations of God, in whose image we are made, we cannot help but create. But God is an Author as well as a Finisher. He plants seeds, nurtures seedlings, sends water and sunshine, until the tree has grown sturdy enough to attract all kinds of birds to its branches.

Unfortunately, the writings of many Christians seemed stunted, like perpetual seedlings. Quite often the seed needed better soil in which to grow, a soil mulched with technique and watered in discipline and mindfulness. But many Christian writers are such believers in the idea of Inspiration they think that if God has given them an idea, there is nothing more for them to do than to simply write the story. But writing is difficult, and many internal and external obstacles work against this idea of “divine inspiration.”

From within the writer (affectations, unconscious mimicry, the refusal to touch an idea that “God has given,” lack of research) and without (publishing company guidelines, denominational requirements) come obstacles common to all writers. But the “divine inspiration” flaw is especially hard for a new Christian writer to shake. As a published fiction writer who critiques and reviews fellow writers, I have seen too many stories that fail because of the writers’ attachment to divine inspiration

They usually fall into one or several of these categories:

The tendency to slavishly imitate a parable:
Bible sermons, parables have much in common with novels, such as themes, characters, and conflicts. But while sermons and parables often preach to the choir, novels reflect a journey in which the soul and spirit of a writer argue against each other. Parables aim to teach one simple profound truth, a truth the hearer probably already knows. I’ve used the parable of the seed, for instance, throughout much of this article. There is nothing wrong with an old motif or idea. Parables, cliches and old motifs are perennial because they have power. Throughout literary history, great stories such as Steinbeck’s East of Eden have been written using the Cain-Abel or prodigal son motif. But consider that East of Eden does not slavishly mimic either the Bible story or the parable. Instead, complications abound in the characters, setting, and situations. The reader sees events through Cal’s point of view, thus reflecting the author’s own inner questions --attraction and repulsion– about the character of Cain. The novel’s emotional resolutions satisfy the reader because the ending seems valid and thoroughly examined; in addition, all the characters were loved and all were imperfect. Many a new Christian writer, however, fail because they rigidly refuse to depart from some minor aspect of a parable because “that’s not the way the story is told in the Bible.” When a writer says, “God was on Abel’s side,” she is blocking her own creativity.

Banal stories
The old adage states, “write what you know.” One of the staples of the Christian publishing world is the prodigal “return to self/home” story. Slice-of-life stories are hard to write, because they are about what everyone knows: everyday life and home. Life is full of wondrous moments crafted by a loving and Invisible hand. In the same way, a slice-of-life story must fulfill its creative purpose while adding conflict that entertains or enlightens the reader. A writer has to understand if the scene she’s describing is a burning bush, a dying fig tree, a stone of stumbling or if she is writing something that doesn’t resonate at all. Is the scene an episodic little event full of cute home-spun small talk that is simply taking up space? Is the author willing to change or delete the scene or will she argue that “God wants me to write it in exactly the way it happens”? It is amazing how much “truth” can be told even if the facts are changed. Another problem with slice-of-life stories is that they are conversion stories. A conversion story is notoriously hard to write. Imagine a successful worldly character returning home. She feels vaguely empty and rootless. At last, the homecoming to good kind-hearted and holy Grandma brings about a return to old-fashioned values, and the character comes to herself. These stories are always satisfying if done well, but what if they are not? And what if, once again, that old idea of “divine inspiration” has once again caused an obstacle?

Stories that are simply unreal.
While it is good to show the goodness of God and His people, many Christian writers rely too much on the sentimental, the melodramatic or the miraculous. This leads to over-emotional run-of-the-mill storylines, too-obvious allegories, black and white characterizations, simplistic conflicts, and Deus ex Machinas. Yes, praying patient Grannies often kneel before their homemade altars to pray for missing prodigals only to rise minutes later with new (miraculous) information – perhaps an address in another town where the prodigal lies in a drunken stupor-- but when I saw this scenario in a manuscript I recently critiqued, I knew I was in for a book of unreal, extremely perfect, godly characters ...and divine quick fixes. I was not disappointed. After the third miraculous escape, and the author’s declaration that “God does this kind of stuff all the time,” I realized the author did not care about the rules of fiction.

Affectations and emotional entanglements:
Another problem with this notion of Divine inspiration are stories written by people who are too emotionally or psychologically entwined with their works. These stories fall into four categories; speculative fiction which the writer truly believes to be prophetic, stories too imitative of the King James Bible, writings that aim to speak a new truth, and lastly, memoirs written by those who have endured profound sorrow. These are some of the hardest seeds to bring to fruition. Why? Not because God didn’t give the seed of these writings, but because the writer’s ego depends on getting the work done in exactly the way she has written it. As Christians, we don’t need to be told that we have problems with our carnal nature. We are humans and want to show others how poetic, wise, and wounded we are. But tried-and-true modern techniques exist to improve a story, and it is the story that matters, not the writer. This is especially true when a writing project is a memoir. Christians are always reading spiritual memoirs, parables, and miracle stories. We cannot help but be affected by what we read but we must be aware that the styles of these works can adversely affect our own stories. The writing styles of these books often are not like those of books in the marketplace. Aspiring authors don’t see the obvious: the Christian memoir they are reading was either self-published, written by a famous Christian personality, written years ago in a fashion that is now outdated, or was about an event that affected not only the writer but a large number of people. Sad but true, most people –even Christians– don’t want to hear about us, and they don’t want to hear our justification of our lives...not until we are famous. This does not mean the story should not be told or that the idea to write a book was not God-given. It does mean, however, that much watering and careful planting is needed.

Lack of Research
Another problem in which divine inspiration butts up against reality -or is it realities?– is in historical fiction. The writer who chooses to write historical fiction has chosen a hard path. She must understand that cultures, ancient and modern, need to be researched and understood. Research is not easy and cannot be done with only a few clicks on the internet. A writer must immerse herself in that other world until she understands it. Style of dress, currency, names, architecture, geography, tribal laws and etiquette, governmental hierarchy are just a few aspects of culture that much be explored. This is especially important if the heroine is a passionate fiery feminist type. I once was asked to critique a story in which the main characters took a boat from Galilee to Rome. On their arrival, they gave an innkeeper a few “coins” to rent a horse, and then sat down to look at the menu. The story lost me when these Jewish main characters sat down to eat non-kosher food. With unwashed hands, no less. To say nothing about the unnamed coins, the “menu,” the fact that one of them was a woman traveling alone, and the horse rental. The story might have been half-way good (okay, maybe not) if the author had done something to root the story in a well-researched world.

These problems are not uniquely Christian. Yet, in my experience, I’ve seen that many Christians begin to build a tower of works without first examining their building materials. They often use spiritual justification for not doing the hard work of writing. They will often say, “God will teach me to write.” True, God does teach us to write, but since He is a God of love he often leads us to an interdependence on other people. No man, John Donne puts it, is an island. Self-reliance or trusting only the Holy Spirit often are excuses used to avoid learning.

Inspired or not, we must do our part. Although God loves humanity and has saved it by the blood of his Son, I am not truly saved unless I meet God’s gracious act with my act of faith. In the same way, an inspirational idea is graciously given to us but we are to water it and plant it in good soil. A successful Christian writer knows that hard work and inspiration go together. If a writer is inspired to write a story, she should do historical research, learn all the aspects of her craft, free her story from the burden of validating her life, study the denominational statements of magazine publishers, and work within publishers’ guidelines. Then if her idea is truly a divine inspiration, God will give her the ability to use it in a form and genre acceptable to the publishing world. Instead of using only half-baked stories, let us study to show ourselves as good workmen, fashioning the clay with as much care as the Universal Potter does.

Copyright Carole McDonnell. All Rights Reserved.

Carole McDonnell’s fiction, devotionals, poetry and essays have appeared in many publishing venues, in print and online including, and Her works appear in various anthologies including “So Long Been Dreaming: Post-colonialism in science fiction,” edited by Nalo Hopkinson and published by Arsenal Pulp Press; “Fantastic Visions III,” published by Fantasist Enterprises; “Then an angel came along,” edited by Julie Bonn Heath and published by WinePress Publishing, “Jigsaw Nation” published by Wildside Press and “Seasoned Sistahs: writings by mature women of color.” She is currently working on two Bible studies: “Hagar, Vashti and other Scapegoats of Bible study” and “The Easy Way to Write Bible Studies" and two SF/F novels based on the Bible, "The Daughters of Men" and "The Windfollower.” Her website is She lives with her husband, their two sons, and their ferocious tabby Ralphina in upstate New York. Easy Way to Write Bible Studies --

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