Holy Writ is not 'chicken soup for the writer's soul'. It isn't a guide for getting in touch with your inner Nobel prize winner either, or a twelve-step program for recovery from writer's block. Holy Writ is one author's examination of the creative and spiritual sides of her life. Often hilarious, always unorthodox, K.D. Miller's reflections on writing as a form of worship, selfishness as a virtue and church-going as a necessary evil, will delight believer and skeptic alike. In several of the essays, she is joined by colleagues from the writing community -- practising Catholic Philip Marchand, one-time Quaker Elizabeth Hay and atheist Russell Smith among them.
Author comes out of religious closet
Canada hasn't produced many Annie Dillards or Anne Lamotts -- serious authors whose spiritual writings also enjoy popular and critical acclaim.
So the new essay collection, Holy Writ (Porcupine's Quill), is a brave book of sorts. Author K. D. Miller risks accusations of flakiness for writing about God outside the approved bounds of literary satire or scientific debunking.
After years of doggedly slogging in the 'little magazine' trenches, Miller celebrated a breakthrough -- her 2000 fiction collection, Give Me Your Answer, was shortlisted for two big awards and called one of the year's best by The Star's Philip Marchand.
Some might worry that Miller is committing career suicide in Holy Writ by 'coming out' as a believer. And she knows it.
'Even now,' she writes, 'I would only call myself a Christian after all kinds of politically correct throat-clearing.
'For years, I attempted atheism, largely because I craved its intellectual cache. I sometimes still do, when it comes out in conversations that I go to church, and the person I'm talking to gives me that sugary, seraphic smile that means they've pegged me as one of the not terribly bright.'
In Holy Writ, Miller asks herself and a number of other Canadian authors -- including Christians, Buddhists, Jews and agnostics -- what role (if any) faith plays in their creative endeavours.
The views of Russell Smith, with their quaint, 19th-century patina, fall well within the normal range among urbane artistes:
'I am hostile not just to organized religion, but to any form of spiritual belief -- to any talk of spirit or chakras or life-force or gods or fairies or elves.'
(Oh, my. Smith swipes at fairies and elves not one but twice in Holy Writ. That atheists are often more zealous about religion than their believing brethren is one of God's little jokes, like the platypus.)
Essays by Robyn Sarah, John Metcalf and others are equally revealing about such intimate subjects as writerly rituals and superstitions, and the origins of inspiration, whose root word, after all, means 'spirit.'
Miller's observations make up most of the book. She has thought a lot about the connection between the worlds of literature and religion:
'Each has a mission to the world. Each has a carefully refined idea of what constitutes ''good.'' Each formalizes and brings out into the open what is invisible, impulsive and private. And each introduces the individuals to a community of like-minded souls.'
She looks at such biblical figures as Martha and Pontius Pilate with a novelist's discerning eye for character.
The results are enlightening, but Miller is never the precious, pretentious capital-A Artist.
She writes about writing, yes, but also about her office job and about commuting, housework, friendship, romance and other everyday travails.
Miller's candid, witty style resembles Lamott's, without the self-conscious quirkiness.
Holy Writ more closely resembles poet Kathleen Norris' recent memoirs -- erudite yet conversational tales of her own spiritual homecoming that became surprise bestsellers.
Who knows? Since Miller has come out of the God closet, perhaps other authors will follow. I only hope -- no, make that pray -- that they write half as well as she does.
Holy Writ will no doubt inspire and affirm other artists -- not to mention ordinary folks -- who wrestle (in secret) with angels rather than devils.
Kathy Shaidle hosts the faith and culture weblog, RelapsedCatholic.com. This review first appeared in the Toronto Star.
'I suffered a severe case of ''writer's envy'' as I read Miller's book. To say that she is refreshing, original, or direct are all understatements. Miller's spiritual integrity cuts through pious platitudes and quick-fix faith fluff like an icebreaker on a long-lost frozen ocean called religion.
'This is a book for the seeker/writer who lives in all of us, a collection of Miller's essays and work from authors who are not, as one chapter title puts it, ''Coward souls.'' They believe and do not believe with a passion that gives us new creation from what was once dust and destruction.
'In her opening piece Miller names writing as her ''Morning Prayer.'' And lest you start to drift off into bliss land, let me ground you with her words: ''Writing stories is the way I pray ... to search for the right word is to search for the word that tells the truth.'' Later she writes: ''Prayer, whatever form it takes, is not Prozac. And I know I'm doing my best work when what appears on the page scares the hell out of me.''
'If you are looking for a nice feel-good, means-well book this summer to keep you from the deep water, this is not it. If, however, you are looking and longing for something from someone who is not afraid to get real about religion, faith and things spiritual, then I dare you to do the deep waters with these writers. Holy Writ is not ''an ad for Jesus,'' nor it is a self-help, writer's manual. What it is, I think, is an invitation to face questions like ''What does popularity have to do with the love of God?'' Enjoy is probably not the right word to bring you to this book, but then again, if you enjoy the wonder, risk and curiosity of an intimate faith, this book will set your words free to become holy writ.'
A Writer Reflects on Creation
If nothing else, K. D. Miller deserves points for bravery.
Miller is an accomplished short story writer whose latest book, Holy Writ, is a collection of essays on the subject of her religion. Among other things, she outs herself as a regular church-going Anglican.
This is not cool. Being Buddhist is cool. Being a Mother Earth pantheist is cool. Being agnostic is ho hum, but perfectly acceptable, if not the norm, among Canadian literati. But Anglican? 'I'm still not sure why, at the age of thirty-nine, I started sneaking into an Anglican mass on Sunday mornings,' she writes. 'I was so terrified of being seen doing this supremely uncool thing by anyone I knew that I travelled blocks out of my way to get there, walking briskly, head down, just short of ducking behind trees.'
Raised a Presbyterian, the Toronto-based Miller began a 'long slouch toward atheism' in her late teens. In her 30s, she reversed direction and eventually found a spiritual home in the Anglican Church -- where, at 39, she was confirmed in 1990.
Holy Writ is an apology, in the classic sense of an explanation or defence, for this move. Miller also sent a questionnaire to 16 writers published by Porcupine's Quill (the publisher of her short story collections) asking them about their religious affiliations and the connection, if any, between such affiliations and their writing. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention I was one of those writers -- the reader may find a couple of my philosophical gems quoted by Miller. She also prints in full four essays sent back by Melinda Burns, Robyn Sarah, Antanas Sileika and John Metcalf.
These essays, and the quoted remarks of her correspondents, certainly do add liveliness and diversity to the book. I like Russell Smith's robust statement of 100 per cent unabashed materialism. 'I am hostile not just to organized religion but to any form of spiritual belief . . . to any talk of spirit or chakras or life-force or gods or fairies or elves,' he pronounces.
Then there's the acute observation of Elizabeth Hay, who was born into a Quaker family. 'You can't go to a Quaker meeting without shaking everybody's hands afterward,' she comments. 'Supposedly the most direct form of communion with God, unmediated by a minister, it makes you most aware of the people around you.' This reminds me of Annie Dillard's comment that she became a Catholic because nobody at Mass asked her to bake a casserole.
But the book is Miller's show. The belief prompting it is summarized succinctly in her introduction: 'I may be wrong, but I believe we are by nature worshipful creatures. We sense in our bones that there is something bigger and better than our immediate circumstances, and we want to know and be known by it. I believe the creative impulse, the desire to make beautiful things, is a desire to be at one with our Creator.'
The relationship between creativity and spirituality lies at the core of Miller's faith. 'Writing stories is the way I pray,' she notes early on -- a statement repeated a number of times throughout the book.
Miller reaches for analogy to bolster this statement. 'To search for the right word is to search for the word that tells the truth,' she writes. 'And the struggle to portray a character honestly, that is, free of clich? or stereotype, is a struggle to love that character.' Moreover, 'the attitude of writing, with its surrender of conscious control and its willingness to wait in silence, is identical to the attitude of prayer.'
Art, it must be said, seems to have an inner coherence that suggests a larger coherence in the world that produced it. It is not just as a believer in God but as a writer that Miller can say, 'I tend to look for connection, order and meaning.' Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, 'We love whatever affirms, connects, preserves; and dislike what scatters or pulls down.'
Miller's form of Christianity, in fact, bears close relationship to the faith of such 19th century men of letters as Emerson and Matthew Arnold, a faith that looked to Christ but could not stomach the Christian creed. Arnold's Literature And Dogma, with its belief in 'something not ourselves that maketh for righteousness,' echoes Miller's craving for 'something bigger and better than our immediate circumstances.'
Arnold prefaced his book with the flat statement, 'Miracles do not happen,' and in this respect Miller also follows suit. 'The accounts of (Christ) walking on water and stretching a loaf of bread to feed thousands are fables as far as I'm concerned,' she writes. 'They have great symbolic value; but to take them literally is to render Christ a magician or party trickster.' This is far too glib. In fact, to take these accounts literally is to render Christ the opposite of a magician or trickster. The latter deal in illusion through sleight of hand, which is not what Miller, presumably, is talking about. Nor do these accounts, taken literally, suggest that Christ is acting as a magician in the occult sense -- that is, as someone achieving supernatural results through the recitation of certain formulas or the performance of certain prescribed actions.
There is no doubt, however, that miracles are a scandal to many readers of the New Testament. Miller would prefer to finesse this scandal, and the whole problem of the historicity of the Gospels in general, by regarding Christ in the light of a fictional character. 'Reading His story as fiction is the way to make it my own. And to make it real,' is how she puts it. 'Faith and remembrance,' she writes. 'With the imagination, they form a kind of trinity. And they're all we ever have, I suppose, in the end. No matter what in fact happened.'
But is she serious about the second member of that trinity, remembrance? If so, then it matters a great deal whether remembrance is true. We all know that memory is tricky -- but on the basic trustworthiness of that faculty we base a great deal, in law and politics, and in every area of life. 'What in fact happened' matters terribly, and not just in the reading of the Gospels.
It won't do to get around the question of remembrance by making everything fictional, as the sacrament of the Eucharist becomes, in Miller's view, 'a tiny, symbolic meal.' If the Eucharist is a symbol, Flannery O'Connor said, to hell with it. If the resurrection never happened except on a symbolic level, then to hell with Christianity. Russell Smith's good 'old-fashioned rationalist mechanistatheist' views are more palatable than Miller's 'agnosticism with a spritz of Jesus.'
To make everything a fiction has the curious effect of making fiction less interesting, since fiction most comes alive when it points to something beyond fiction. After a while, Miller's frequent references to the act of writing begin to weary the reader, much as do the enthusiasms of a health nut talking about diet and exercise. And Christ as somebody's fictional character always seems less compelling than what is on offer, for better or worse, in the Gospels.
'I am a Christian because I am imaginatively hooked on the story of a convicted felon who not only gets away with it, but goes on to be an all-time international bestseller,' Miller writes. 'What is his crime? Growing up. Finding his voice, telling the truth with it and not giving a damn what anybody thinks.'
Is Jesus Christ as a first century Norman Mailer really that fascinating?
'K.D. Miller's Holy Writ is a sequence of concise, luminous epiphanies that charm and enliven the human spirit. The cumulative effect is surprising: it's as if a representative of our own metaphysical restlessness had charted a passageway through the perilous territory of doubt and insecurity.'
'Miller's candid, witty style resembles Anne Lamott's, without the self-conscious quirkiness. She looks at such Biblical figures as Martha and Pontius Pilate with a novelist's discerning eye for character -- and with enlightening results. Who knows: since Miller came out of the spiritual closet, perhaps other authors will follow. Holy Writ will no doubt inspire and affirm those who wrestle (in secret) with angels rather than devils.'