Writers: Oh, We of Little Faith

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The nuns at my convent secondary school said I’d lost it.

Faith, that is. I had lost my faith.

I only believed in things that could be proven in a science lab or in my math or grammar notebooks (We had paper notebooks back then; this all happened shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania.)

Episode 1: My first public crisis of faith went like this: There we were, us convent girls, all wearing our navy-blue uniforms and all pretending to listen to Sister S.’s latest speech on our “one, true faith.”  I was 14. I politely interrupted to opine that, if Sister’s hypothesis were true, then the entire faith/formal religion thing amounted to a rigged (and therefore illegal) horse race in which every bettor had an insider’s tip for the favorite.

“But it’s not, is it, Sister?” I said. “The other faiths (protestants, et al) are all backing their own horses, so we’re all in a punter’s race.”

Sister S. argued back.

I counter-argued and trotted (ouch! sorry!) out more horse-racing analogies to make this woman see.

She sputtered and spat and fought back tears. She said she would pray for me.

(Psst! If your eyes are glazing over already, or if you’ve gone back to reading your daily racing pages, then skip this next episode of “Convent Kid Goes to Hell.” I’ll pray for you).

Episode 2: Two years later, we were all studying for our final exams and (hopefully) university. One day, Sister G., a younger nun, announced that advanced biology and French grammar and mathematical theorems were all fine for the mind, but we also needed to feed our young souls.

So Sister G. arrived with this box of religious books. They had book jackets with celestial sunrises and petrified martyrs gazing sky-ward. We could pick what we wanted, so of course I chose an extra big edition of the four gospels because it was hefty enough to camouflage my own latest creed: a steamy paperback novel.

Pant. Swoon. Now, this was the best religion class yet.

Until that day when Sister G. hauled me up in front of the class and held up my clandestine paperback filth as Exhibit A of what happens to girls who lose their faith.   I was, she said, “rapidly heading toward atheism.”  So she said she’d pray for me, too.

Between then and now,  I’ve been a student and a teacher and a waitress and a dishwasher and a secretary and a professor and an editor.

Oh, and I moved across the sea to America, where my faith never returned. My faith done gone.

In America, I don’t leave home without my GPS.  Every morning before work, I check my bag for my wallet, my phone, my lunch and water bottle. I often check twice.

At work I need written assurances of projected finish dates and what the project will look like.  I would never do one of those executive retreat thing-ys where you pitch yourself off a mountain ledge in the belief that your colleague will catch you.

Not me.

I only believe in what I see. In what I’ve been promised or contracted or what I can behold.

But then …

Just before Christmas 2011, I started my third novel. So far, it’s a crossover novel with a young adult main character but some fairly adult themes.  Beyond the main characters and the initial set-up, I have no clue what will actually happen. And worse, I cannot cast my mind forward 300 pages to envision a page that pronounces, “THE END.”

As writers, are there ever any promises?  Is there ever a GPS or Godly voice announcing, “Destination on the right.” Heck, most of us don’t know where our story will end or if it will end or if this current draft will be the draft or if it will all just end up as kindling or kitty litter.

Writing is the ultimate test of personal faith. It presents many crisis of faith, like when the back-story becomes the front story. Like when the main character pouts and stalls and regresses to baby talk again. Like when the phone rings. The sink is full of dishes. Like when work is so busy you just about keep it all together.

Faith is damn hard.  And yet, to not believe, to not have faith is to not write.  It’s to declare yourself as a permanent non-runner in every race.

And hell, we can’t do that.

Today I abandoned my writing to take a long walk. On my walk, I stopped to  listen to the wind in the marsh grasses and how the incoming tide makes the ice snap and pop.   As I watched the winter sky out over Plum Island, I needed to believe.

So I kept walking and thinking and kept asking that little brat-character o’ mine to reveal her true self.

She hasn’t. Yet.

But she will.

Do women lose their writer’s faith more easily than men? Or is it about equal between the genders?  How do you keep believing in yourself and your project?

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About Aine Greaney

I'm an Irish writer living in greater Boston. I've published four books--two novels, a small collection of short stories and a how-to writing book, "Writer with a Day Job" (Writers Digest Books). I've also published lots of short stories, essays and feature articles. My latest project, "What Brought You Here" is a non-fiction narrative about being an expatriate in America. Find me on Twitter @ainegreaney. Or at my author web page, www.ainegreaney.com. As well as creative writing, I am the communications director for a healthcare non-profit. I also lead creative writing workshops at various libraries, schools and arts programs. At my workshops, I've been inspired by lots of wonderful writers--most of whom work a day job!
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2 Responses to Writers: Oh, We of Little Faith

  1. Gerrie says:

    This is great food for thought. I too have always wanted clearly delineated deadlines and expectations. Although I enjoy flights of imagination and whimsy (and I love to read and want to write in the genres of either supernatural horror or magical realism), my work is in a hospital laboratory. My work excels when I know exactly what is expected of me. I think it has a lot to do with needing external validation. So now I find myself (trying) to start my first novel (short story??). I have all these themes and feelings and urgings, and all I get down are a travel log – she walks over here, says this, does this, blah blah. No idea if I’ll ever get down to those wondrous urgings that promise to blossom into an intricate and enjoyable novel with uplifting themes and moving prose and complex yet enjoyable layers. How will it end? How will I (and my main character) get there? I guess, like you said Aine, ulp – faith. Faith in myself that I can do this. And that in order to write it, I have to just – write it. I can’t do an outline, my brain doesn’t work that way. I have to stay on this ride as my character muddles through my dry boring text to get to the lovely story that’s somewhere in my head. I have to Trust myself. Thanks Aine!

  2. anngrenier says:

    Aine,

    Serendipity led me to your blog when I wondered one day, what would come up when I googled my name: Ann Grenier. You did!

    I couldn’t let your piece on Faith pass by without comment. I like your writing style…makes me smile. I too was a catholic school student in the blue uniform, white blouse and brown oxfords. I was, apparently unlike you, completely molded by “my” nuns, and haven’t lost faith, but my vision has cleared. I am fully convinced that I know nothing at all. That gives me the confidence, apparently like you, to question everything.

    I started writing poetry last year and find the same theme creeping into every piece I write no matter where I start out. I end up on a fence looking down on both sides; it never fails. I have written four chapters of a novel as well, have oodles of research, but am stalled because I have lost faith in the whole enterprise. I got on a poetry sidetrack, loved the immersion in another world, and quit on the novel.

    You will no doubt recognize the tendency to confession in this comment…appropriate, no? Thanks for the New Years pep talk you have written here. Perhaps you’re an angel tapping me on the shoulder…like it or not!

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