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The God Edit: Guest Post by Barbara Stewart

On the duality of public and private in creative nonfiction, and how much God is too much God?

Book Cover Campie

“Did you mean Two-Fingers Bob or Alligator Bob?” By (mostly) gentle consensus, nicknames are how anonymous 12-Step program members identify one Bob from another Bob, or Sailboat Mary from Big Boobs Mary, or Blue Judy from Tom’s Judy. You don’t get to pick your own handle. I once asked about mine and was disappointed to hear I was just “Barb.” How crushing. Nothing special set me apart from other Barbs? Only years later, well into my second decade of recovery did someone finally tell me. “We’ve always called you God-Barb.”

To my way of thinking, I had earned the moniker not because I was godly, but because I’d done so badly: a divorce followed by years of court dates and single parenting, followed by more years of bankruptcy, unemployment and depression. God became my go-to-guy, a heavenly Mike Holms with spiritual duct tape to fix the demolition job I’d done on my life. Finally in 2003, broke and homeless, I was hired to work as the camp attendant (nicknamed the “campie”) at an oilrig in northern Alberta. By then, the carpenter-saviour was embedded in my vocabulary and throughout my journal notes.

Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous wrote, “Pain was the touchstone of all spiritual growth.” Perhaps the touchstone of all my growth. Seven years after the camp experience, I achieved a BA with a major in nonfiction writing. University workshops had shaped those journal notes from the oilrig camp into early book chapters. Encouraged by a professor, I sent a proposal to Heritage Publishers and in January 2010, I signed my first book contract, a memoir called Campie.

My spirituality was evident in the proposal and Heritage was willing to make room in their catalogue for personality and recovery issues to reach a cross-market readership. We discussed their standard program of publishing nonfiction western Canadian stories and how well the northern camp experience suited their market. It was clear that I couldn’t propose a camp story and then deliver a sermon.

However, as I continued work on the book, a powerful tension developed. Two stories wanted to be told: one described how I had experienced camp in the flesh and the other told of how I had survived the chaos in prayer. While I scrubbed the toilets, burned the garbage, changed the beds, I had prayed. When the rig workers were drunk and partying, I had hid in my room and prayed to stay sober. My spirituality was the lens through which I had interpreted the entire camp story. How could I edit God?

In Keep It Real, editor Lee Gutkind described this duality as common to creative nonfiction and observed, “there is almost always a public and a private story.” The inclusion of the private, or personal story, brought drama to the genre, or as Gutkind said, injected the “creative” into the traditional nonfiction form. And so within Campie, the energetic conversation between rig workers and kitchen staff became a parallel narrative to the singular voice of my soul-ward quest.

When the final draft manuscript was ready to send to Heritage, I froze. How much God was too much God? Would Heritage reject it? What I had written was deeply personal, in places, searing. My boundaries had been suspect before. How could I be sure there wasn’t something hurtful to myself or someone else? From this agony came the wisdom to ask two friends to read the manuscript before I surrendered it to Heritage.

Author Photo Barbara Stewart

Linda had known me for 20 years. She was a poet, an avid reader, and had read almost everything I’d ever written. Her belief in God was profound. Marion, another 20-year friend, was a devout Anglican. She had a master’s degree in classics and numerous publications as a reviewer and poet. It was Marion’s suggestion that her husband Mark also read the manuscript. I had a deep respect for his compassion and intellect, a PhD double major in mathematics and psychology. He was an atheist. All three friends retired with pencils in hand; I trusted their love to wound me with their edits.

Linda caught typos and noted inconsistencies. She had no issue with anything spiritual; her benchmark was the truth and she knew the truth about me. Marion had more edits, some I had held suspect myself. After we discussed the changes, she gently tried to prepare me for her husband’s edits.

Mark had deleted Jesus once and God no less than 18 times. An entire prayer, a full paragraph long. Gone were complete sentences from journal entries and from letters to friends. Even thoughts in italics: “Maybe this is a sign from God to leave while I can.” Mere one-word prayers: “Help.” Most, but not all spiritual references had a pencil line through them. On one page I found a yellow sticky note, Mark’s pencil in caps: GOD REALLY WORKS HERE!

Later when we discussed the edits Mark made his case: deleting casual God references strengthened the impact of the important prayers. He was absolutely right. The skill of a good interviewer omitted the static from the conversation. Not every throat-clearing and nod to the weather needed to be written into the article. Why should the dialogue of prayer be exempt? His perspective was invaluable and I accepted every God edit except one.

In the first chapter of Campie I described the treacherous two-day winter drive to the camp, and how the first night I’d stayed in a Chetwynd motel that had a small sign in the office window: “Jesus Is Lord.” Mark felt because the sign appeared so early in the story, it would put readers off. I knew he was right and took it out. And then put it back. And took it out. In the end, the tenets of journalism saved me. The same litmus test of truth applied to the spiritual as it did to the factual. Was the sign relevant and did it move the story forward? The answer came when I stopped doubting my motives and trusted the facts to tell the story and readers to assign their own labels. It was the last available room in the last hotel open late at night on a woman’s journey towards an uncertain new life. The sign stayed.

Barbara Stewart is the author of Campie (2011), a memoir about her time working as a camp attendant at an oilrig in northern Alberta. She was shortlisted in the CBC Literary Awards (2008) for non-fiction and the Event Creative Non-fiction Contest (2009). Her essay, "The Arms of My Inheritance" was chosen by Tightrope Books for their next anthology, The Best Canadian Essays 2011. Barbara lives in Langley, B.C., and is working on her next book.

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