Writer as Prophet

The great religions of the world are revealed through their prophets. The liberation of suffering in Buddhism through Siddhartha and legions of orange garbed monks. The revelation of God’s’ word in Judaism through Abraham, Moses, and a group of observant nomads. The salvation of the soul in Christianity through the disciples, Paul, and later devotees. The submission to Allah in Islam through Mohammed and subsequent faithful clerics. The prophets existed in the realm of spirituality, select individuals following closely in allegiance to holy words. Those loyal people struggled to understand God’s commands, to bring truth to the quarreling common masses and peace to the world, begging us to be attentive. They showed the way forward.

Few of us are prophets, no matter how well we listen and observe the signs. Mostly we wallow down here in the trenches. Our feet stink, our armpits sweat, our eyes blur with exhaustion, and if we seek truth, it is mostly grasped in small flashes of illuminated moments between singing hymns and chopping onions for supper. We scream in frustration at our kids for whom we would lay down our lives and ignore our life partner because today is the same as yesterday. We don’t have the inclination to seriously reflect about where our souls are going, about whom we should love without question, what we should refute as corrupt thoughts. Some have decided there is no God at all, but they still must wash their dirty sheets, still gaze beyond the stars, wondering, what else is out there?

Writers fill the gaps. Pithy comments, mean observations, articulate descriptions, all meant to lead to what we have come to understand as essential rules for life down here on Earth. Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” We sit up and pay attention to her words. Hurston’s got the goods on some kind of truth. Characters exist in an alternate fictional world that closely resembles the real one we inhabit. Ann Patchett wrote in State of Wonder: “Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it.” Holy cow, we shout, that’s exactly like me, no wonder I’m so bloody!

Plots mimic the messiness of our everyday lives. Ian McEwan wrote in Atonement: “We go on our hands and knees and crawl our way towards the truth.” Yep, I know just how it feels to go through that. My knees are always bloody. My belly too. At the end of a story, writers cite the practical application of how to get along with each other, how to be compassionate, and how to love the people we hate. Khaled Hosseini wrote in The Kite Runner: “It’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.” I’ve been running too long. We recognize ourselves in his story even if we’ve never been a child in Afghanistan. Time to turn and face the truth.  

The resolution tells the reader how it might come out if we follow the suggested format. Nicole Strauss wrote in The History of Love: “So many words get lost…There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations.” Is that a possible answer to my problems? Our heart calms. Just put my thoughts together until they make sense, and deliver them as needed? Writers may not have God’s divine directives leading us with a heavenly flame toward freedom, but they have some sense of practical life experience to shine enough light to make sense of our human disorder. Somerset Maugham wrote in The Painted Veil: “One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.” Finally we know, it’s up to me to search my own soul, and Maugham showed me how.

My favorite stories are the ones where I see bits of myself, a mirror held to my inner being, even the ugly, desperate me, and espy another way to approach the way I live in the world, a better way, a more universal way of belonging. My favorite authors deliver again and again, new prophets guiding me, nudging me, warning me. Fix it, fix yourself, get it right for once. At the end of a really great book I feel enlightened, perhaps empowered. At least I want to get back into writing my own work and make it better. And that’s a good thing.

What makes you want to get back to work?

Be well, friends.

2 thoughts on “Writer as Prophet

  1. What a great image–“between singing hymns and chopping onions for supper.”

    You’ve probably identified the Big Problem in my writing. I like that string–that leads from here to there relentlessly, dependably, and that just isn’t realistic.

    You’ve given me a lot to think about Shari (again).

  2. Thank you, Jacqui.
    Nicole Strauss is a magical writer. She literally weaves sparks of the sublime into her stories, and The History of Love is my favorite. You’ll have to read her book to see where the string leads.

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