I’ve never met Frederick Buechner—let’s start there. In case you don’t know him, here’s the quick rundown from his website: Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is an American writer and theologian, the author of more than thirty published books. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been awarded eight honorary degrees from such institutions as Yale University and the Virginia Theological Seminary.
He’s also my writing mentor.
How is that possible? The author Dani Shapiro explains it well in her blog on having mentors you’ll never meet: “But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.”
Frederick Buechner, when I reach out to him through time and space, is such a mentor to me.
I used to think that whenever I wrote about faith I had to do it by stealth because there wasn’t a place for it in today’s publishing world. I’m not good at stealth, mind you.
Inevitably church scenes and Bible verses materialize in my writing. And even when they don’t, there is a gentle assertion of grace—of the good I see in people and therefore the world. I’m certain this all began with an essay I composed for a writing class my junior year at Harvard about the words from Psalm 8 carved into the top of Emerson Hall, the building housing the philosophy department:
WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM
I walked past those words every day and was struck with a strange but thrilling sense of both humility and exultation each time I read them. When a writing assignment called for a rhetorical essay, those words in stone were, for me, an obvious topic since they were consistently in my thoughts. So I wrote about them. I wrote about the question, its possible answers, and the love I felt was present in every layer of those answers.
Perhaps I did so too fervently.
That’s what my teacher suggested in his notes and my caution grew from there.
It didn’t help that after college I spent my writing life as a journalist where the closest thing I got to writing about faith was reporting a couple of news stories, one about the Mormon church, that ran in the religion section of Time magazine.
Only well-established senior writers tackled the big-thinking essays—I remember a sweeping cover story on evil that was especially controversial. But I didn’t aspire to write such essays, not yet anyway. I was still figuring out what I wanted to write. And on a certain level I had to live my way into understanding what my voice was about and what I had to say with it.
Five years ago my family and I began attending an Episcopal church, and my son and I went on to get baptized together. The experience deepened my spiritual journey in ways I didn’t expect and, because I’m a writer, the thoughts, observations, and emotions connected with my explorations began to surface in my work—first in a short story, then in parts of my next novel and then essays. I felt the caution of old return.
For a long time the only people who’d read the short story, which I eventually titled “Sometimes God Wears Orange Cowboy Boots,” were my pastor and the MFA advisor I had during the semester I wrote it. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to do much with this writing.
In her sermons, our pastor has a particular fondness for quoting Frederick Buechner. I’d never heard of him before, but he seemed to say a lot of things that made sense to me, things like listen to your life because that’s where God is speaking to you.
Out of curiosity I began reading Buechner’s memoirs and what I learned fascinated me: I had assumed Buechner was a minister who happened to write. This is true but chronologically not accurate.
He was a writer first—a writer without any particular faith. He published his first novel to some acclaim while he was still in his twenties. Only after that did he feel called to the seminary. Then, once he’d graduated, he was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy and starting a religion program there. In assigning books to his students and thinking about what those authors were saying, Buechner came to a realization about his own work and it was in these words from Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation that he and I connected:
“…although many modern writers have succeeded in exploring the depths of human darkness and despair and alienation in a world where God seems largely absent, there are relatively few who have tried to tackle the reality of whatever salvation means…Sin is easier to write about than grace, I suppose, because the territory is so familiar…I was too occupied with my job to think much about the next novel I myself might write, but it occurred to me that, if and when the time ever came, it would be the presence of God rather than his absence that I would write about, of death and dark and despair as not the last reality but only the next to the last.”
There it was—he had put words to what I’ve sought, perhaps unconsciously at first, to do.
I realized I’d found in Buechner and his work a kindred spirit who shared my desire to write about “the presence of God rather than his absence” and is fascinated by the possibility of communicating with the written word the essence of grace. He’s become my trusted companion on this road and a valued one too because he’s traveled it many times before.
The presence of God on any page is unsettling. But when I doubt what I’m writing or feel unsure of how my faith is showing up in the work, Buechner is there telling me, “It’s okay, just keep going. It will be all right.” And when I wonder if I can place such writing in the publishing world Buechner is there telling me, yes, there are a lot of books about dystopia and darkness and violence, but there is plenty of room for books about light.
The writers who have the ability to create such books must go ahead and do it. I believe him because he’s modeled that last part quite well. So I sit at my notebook in Connecticut and I think about the multiple times he has done the same at his home on a hillside in Vermont. I smile because this is a good road to travel and I know I am not alone.