God and Greatness: The Writing Process, and Censorship

My older sister Heather has started reading Sleeping Kings, and she somehow stumbled across this website (and pity to her for that), and she read and responded to my post on The DaVinci Code (something none of you regulars were brave enough to do!).

That conversation was here:

I started to reply to her comment, and in my reply I said some things that I wanted everybody to hear, so I’m making a new post instead of a comment.

Now, in response to Heather’s direct questions, I have this to say: don’t ever feel guilty about writing something inconsequential. My complaints against The DaVinci Code were based on the fact that he wrote something extremely consequential and treated it as though it weren’t. It is hard to go too far in that direction (pretending your stuff matters).

In fact, I think the most important element for a writer is to care, which you (Heather) obviously do.

There are writers who write just to play with language (think Alice in Wonderland), or just to tell an interesting story. That’s okay, as long as you’re writing insignificant things (or things clearly established as fictional, which is the difference between, say, Kate and Leopold and The Patriot). The DaVinci Code goes out of its way to seem real, while playing extremely fast and loose with the base elements of people’s worlds (as one would expect from fantasy).

Mainly, it’s important that you, as a writer, try to write responsibly. Sometimes you’ll do a good job of it, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. Both aspects are important to your learning process (and, as a direct result, to your eventual potential to do good).

Please don’t misunderstand me. Every story should be interesting. Most of them should be entertaining. Those aren’t inherently bad things, but when you’re writing (or reading) just to get that feeling, it becomes like eating just for the taste (and ignoring the far more important aspects of nutrition).

Like anything, though, the learning process is not the same as the master craft. My advice to you, now, is to focus on the stories you most want to tell, for whatever reason. Every single page you write at this point benefits you in a dramatic way. As a writer, and as a person. Writing, no matter what the topic, is a process that involves examining the world you live in, finding your place within it, as well as the place of your topic, and trying to understand and communicate. These are the most basic elements of human existence, and the foundation of human society. So, yeah, I realize I’m a writer and this sounds self-aggrandizing, but the very process of writing makes a person better at being a person.

Not necessarily a good person. That depends on what you’re writing, and what you’re thinking, and all of that.

Now…as to that. Heather asked me specifically which stories to tell, what lessons to teach. And, again, my answer for someone just starting to write is, “Anything that interests you enough to keep writing about it.” Once you’ve gotten past that, though — once you’ve learned to commit yourself to writing in order to get something accomplished, then the process of choosing which story to tell is no different from choosing anything else you could communicate in any other medium. On this point, I’d like to mention something Milton once wrote.

Milton (of Paradise Lost fame, and the author of the bulk of our religious imagery and mythology) became involved in a massive political debate on the topic of censorship. He wrote a fairly well-known (to Lit majors, that is) essay on the topic, which he published as part of the debate.

I should mention that he was an extremely conservative Christian. He held fairly extreme opinions on the idea of obscenity, and it’s safe to say that he was on the “against” side. When the king began taking serious steps in support of censorship, though, Milton strongly opposed him. Milton was a man of considerable social influence at the time (so there was no chance his opposition would go unnoticed), and, yeah, this was that time in history when opposing a king was still a Very Bad Idea.

So Milton, a total prude of a man, risked life and limb to oppose censorship. His reasoning went thus:

* We, as Christians, believe that good is good, in itself, not just because of our belief and support.

* We believe that good is stronger than evil, that right will triumph over wrong.

* Therefore, any idea or message that is right should win out over a message that is wrong, in a state of free competition.

* It follows, then, that any message that cannot stand without our protection is not entirely right. If we have to force an idea (or protect it from attack or ridicule), then it is not of God. It is not right.

* It also follows that any message we know to be wrong should be exposed to public scrutiny, rather than hidden from it, so that the idea can be destroyed in free competition (or, perhaps, proven right in spite of our expectations). If the idea, freed from censorship, stands against our wishes, that means the idea is not as wrong as we wanted to believe.

* Right and wrong are not a matter of our comfort, or our preference. After all, Jesus said a lot of things that a lot of strongly religious people wanted to keep quiet. Part of the reason we believe today, is because Jesus’ ideas were able to stand the test of time.

Okay, I studied that essay about six years ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then, so I don’t know 100% how much of that logic was Milton’s, and how much of it is mine, derived from Milton’s basic points. I think it’s got a lot going for it.

One thing that I know he said, and that I cannot possibly overstate, is that — based on these other ideas — the Christian as a reader ought to strive to become exposed to absolutely as many ideas as possible, so as to learn about right and wrong, so as to test them. We earnestly believe that good will triumph over evil, and every time we try to protect good, to hide the right from the ravages of wrong, we deny our own belief — we show clearly that we don’t have faith in right’s rightness.