Re-Writing My Life
I'm a New Englander, with all of a New Englander's deep-seated reserve. I'm also painfully shy; the two things don't always go together, but in my case they do. And so, I never imagined that I'd write a memoir—much less write it twice. But, as it happened, I had a story that people seemed to think was worth telling—an account of how as a committed atheist, an English professor with no interest whatsoever in what I thought were silly superstitions, I had nonetheless come to Christian faith. I'd shared my story with a few people at church; I'd been invited to write a magazine article; a publisher saw the article and emailed me out of the blue to suggest that I write a book. Well! I'm still not entirely sure why I said yes, except that along with my New England reserve comes a New England desire to make myself useful; my story might do some good.
So, in 2008, just two years after I was baptized, I wrote what would in 2010 be published as the first version of Not God's Type.
I had arrived! (Or so I thought.) But very quickly, I discovered that the map of my journey contained a lot of blank spaces. I hadn't accounted for how it was that, as an antagonistic atheist, I had become willing to consider apologetics arguments. I'd focused on the rational part of my conversion and almost totally ignored the role of imagination and literature—although I came to realize later that this was at the heart of my conversion.
In some important ways I'd over-simplified my story, and I can hazard a guess as to why. My newfound faith required me to change not just my ideas but my actions and my attitudes. Conversion, far from being a one-shot deal that I was done with, involved the exquisitely painful working of grace into all the cracks and crannies of my soul. C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' has long been my favorite of the Narnia Chronicles, but I came to sympathize even more with Eustace and his un-dragoning. It seems to me that even as I was writing about the remembered terror and disorientation of an atheist becoming a Christian, I was trying to control and manage the fearful re-orientation of myself as a Christian.
I might never have realized any of this—never interrogated myself in this way—except that in 2012 my journey took me into the Catholic Church. The Protestant publisher of the first version of NGT promptly handed back the rights; Ignatius Press then took it on, and gave me the chance to revise it. My intention had been to add a chapter or two, telling how I had become a Catholic, but I soon realized that I had a lot more revision to do, if I was to tell my story the way it needed to be told. What I had written in 2008 was true; what I could say about those same events five years later would be more true—if I could dig deeper, and question myself more rigorously.
One of the first things I discovered was that a scene can be factually accurate and still not ring true. For instance, the first version of Not God's Type contained a vignette describing my helping at Vacation Bible School. It was always my least favorite bit of the book, and when I re-read it I figured out why. It had a syrupy, Hallmark-card tone to it; I was trying to convince the reader—and indeed, to convince myself at the time—that this experience was joyful and profound. Well, it wasn't. The problem was that when I wrote the scene, I was trying to fit into a certain image of piety for my audience: Real Christians experience profound moments of joy serving among the little children!
But it was false. I like kids, but helping at vbs wasn't profound. It was usually okay, often boring, and sometimes absurd. For the record, putting Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke is a lame way of illustrating the Resurrection. I still don't know what that was about. It was fun—I'll grant that—but even at the time, I choked on using it as a way to talk to the kids about Jesus. Just … no. Unfortunately, I didn't write that; instead, I wrote a sentimental and glowing scene about discovering joy in service. The facts were right, but the meaning was all wrong. So I cut the scene.
In the revised version, I do write about experiences of real joy; and those scenes work, I venture to say, because I'm painting a picture that evokes my actual response, not the response I thought I should have had.
In addition to the temptation to present myself in a shiny-positive light, there was also a perverse temptation to "show off" my humility by emphasizing my failures. The very same scenes that had been quite unpleasant to experience—such as losing my temper at a fencing tournament on the very first day after I'd decided to become a Christian—were relatively easy to write.
And I noticed that this temptation to make a melodrama out of my spiritual growth had started to seep into the way I was living my post-conversion life. After Not God's Type was published, I began to write blog posts about the challenges of being a new Christian. So far, so good. It's important that Christians write honestly about weakness and failure, struggle and doubt. What I discovered, though, was the danger of reporting live from the front lines. Performing my spiritual life for a waiting audience had the perverse effect of making the struggle itself seem more worth my attention than the resolution of the struggle. I became tempted to hold onto my own weaknesses and difficulties so as to have something to say.
One day I was walking around an arts and crafts fair in town, debating whether to buy a painting. (Truly momentous, I know.) Eventually I decided not to … and then I found myself thinking, "Ah, this inner debate will make for a great blog post."
Next thought: Ugh.
Next action: I stopped blogging about my spiritual life. I've never regretted that: I would venture to say that one of the reasons I was able to do a good re-write of Not God's Type was that in the intervening time I'd been living my life and not writing about it!
A further challenge of memoir is that it involves other people. In addition to considering the unknown future readers out there, I had to deal with the possible reactions of the people who knew me, or who were mentioned in the book. Eventually I found a guiding principle, which was, paraphrasing Aslan's words to Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, that I was telling no one's story except my own. This gave me the freedom to tell my story more fully: it was ok to have cameos and walk-on parts as well as major roles.
The tricky part was deciding what to do about my parents.
In the first version of NGT, I had omitted my parents entirely—simply because I didn't know how they'd feel about it and I was afraid to ask. There were no skeletons in any closets, but I feared that anything I said would be too much (we are New Englanders, remember). By the time I approached the revision, though, I was more at ease with my family about my faith, and so I felt able to write about my childhood without awkwardness.
Except for one word that I agonized over. I wrote: "In retrospect I realize that we were quite poor when I was growing up … ."
It was a statement of fact. We used food stamps when I was a little girl, and ate soup and rice at the end of the month because there wasn't enough money to buy more groceries. I remember that we stayed at my grandparents' house at various times when I was growing up. It was a drafty 13-room colonial, starting to fall apart; there was running water indoors, but for a toilet there was only an outhouse, in the shed. But we were always clothed and fed and warm, and my life was imaginatively rich: I had books, and crayons, and as much paper as I wanted to write and draw on; my parents encouraged my love of learning. I never felt deprived. Nonetheless, my parents, who worked so hard to claim a middle-class life, were ashamed of the very word "poor." To use it would feel like a blow, like an act of ingratitude.
Even so, it was important for me to write something of this in NGT. I had discovered that many people assumed that because I have a PhD and I speak well, I come from a privileged background, with college-educated parents. To be honest about my humble beginnings, even in a small way, might give encouragement to those parents who are struggling to bring up a family on too little money—and to readers who were, like me, first-generation college students.
In the first version, my anxiety about my parents' reaction had led me, by omission, to create an image of myself that elided my working-class roots. As I revised, I became aware of how much my perspective as an author inevitably shaped the way I told my story; I had been naive about my ability to record events with camera-like objectivity.
Some of the dialogue in NGT is word-for-word, drawing from email conversations with Josh, my fencing coach who served as a guide into the Christian faith. Yet I'd often had to re-create dialogue, as Boswell famously did for Dr. Johnson, not to mention my own thought processes. In revising NGT, though, I couldn't go back to look at the originals, because in various email-account shifts I'd lost all my old messages, and in a burglary I'd had my journals stolen. (I kept them in a locked cash-box, for privacy's sake—I suspect that the burglars, frustrated after finding nothing worth stealing in an English professor's house, were elated to think that they'd finally found the good stuff. I can only imagine their disappointment when, later, they cracked open the cash-box.)
I was forced, then, to confront the question of re-writing remembered dialogue. I realized that even in the first version, my reconstructions of conversations were shaped by my 2008-author's understanding of theology. Since then I had learned a great deal, and—probably more to the point—I'd had five more years of experiencing God's grace (including a year of the fullness of the sacramental life as a Catholic). I knew, at an experiential level, many things that my earlier author-self only knew about.
As a non-Christian I'd had difficulty not only with believing in miracles but even with understanding what a miracle really was. As a convert in 2008 I still had a fairly hazy notion. In the first version of the book, I wrote: "If God did choose to interact with the world, it made sense that He would do so in a way that was meaningful, because Reason and meaning were attributes of the Creator, above and beyond the natural world that He had created." In the revision, as I looked at this passage and its context, I realized that the "if" and the "above and beyond" pointed to my narrator-self's compartmentalized picture of reality, with a God who stood apart from a creation that carried on fine without Him.
I couldn't recover exactly what Josh had said or I had thought about miracles back in 2006. What I could do was fine-tune that passage so that what I said, as the narrator, about miracles was in line with what I now knew to be true, scrubbing away the film of naturalistic assumptions that still clung to it. In the new version, I cut that line, and added: "It made sense that God could be involved in the world in and through natural causes, like a gardener pruning and watering to selectively guide the growth of plants already in the ground; but apparently Christians also believed God could work like an artist, painting new images directly and surprisingly onto the canvas of reality. There didn't seem to be a sharp line between the natural and the supernatural the way that I expected. Properly understood, both evidenced divine activity—and the former was in fact a subset of the latter."
A subtle difference, perhaps—but I knew that it signaled a real change, from a more abstract "head" knowledge to a more integrated faith. One could argue that the original version reflected my thinking closer to the time of my conversion, and that I was disturbing the pure accuracy of my account by revising it. Maybe. But there's only so much interior development that the reader will stand. To trace in detail all the slow, painful progress of my faith and thinking, with its ebbs and flows, its anticipations and sudden accelerations, would have been scarcely possible for me, and certainly unbearable for my readers. And in any case, I'm sure that this more mature understanding of miracles would have been accepted by my younger self if she'd had it explained to her at the time. And so, for the sake of brevity and clarity, I did a little bit of retroactive concertina-ing; it's an example of how, as I re-wrote my life, theology showed itself to be more important than chronology.
As I made these revisions, I realized that one more stage of re-writing was needed, to correct my slightly younger self at a fundamental level. I had changed, from the time that I'd written the first version; I had grown in my faith and matured in my understanding. In the first version, I had subtly framed my narrative of conversion as something I had done—as if I had been the active agent, seeking God first, rather than responding to His grace that He gave me first.
Certainly I believe that I had the ability to respond to God or reject Him. "He cannot ravish; He can only woo," as Lewis writes somewhere. But God, not I, took the initiative and provided the very means by which I was capable of choosing Christ. Probably I would have agreed with that statement in 2008, but my language showed that I didn't fully grasp it. I unconsciously cast my conversion as almost a favor that I was doing for God: I accept Your existence; how good of me, how intelligent of me to do so!
When I revised my language, I took the opportunity to dig deeper, and discovered there was a common theme running through my whole story: the question of surrender. As an atheist becoming a Christian, and then as a Christian moving forward into the Catholic Church, I was faced with repeated calls to surrender my pride, to be obedient to God, to be humbled. And that's why I changed the subtitle of Not God's Type from "A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith" to "An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms." Being willing to push on a weak spot, and to interrogate myself, as it were, led me to discover this theme of "laying down my arms," which turned out to be central to the book.
The events were the same: the way I understood them—and thus, how I described them—was what needed correction. Becoming Catholic taught me that the process of laying down my arms had not been finished, and made it possible for me to write, in the new version, that "this is not, at the heart of it, a story of what I was clever enough to do, but rather of what I was weak enough to have done to me and for me."
I've been truly delighted that readers and reviewers have told me that the revised version is well-written. Though I say so myself, I agree—or at least, I agree that it is better written than the first version! It is better because, in addition to being more experienced as a writer, I was more mature as a Christian and more able to interrogate my motives, challenge my emotional honesty, correct dodgy theological presuppositions, and deflate a few egotistic bubbles. I'm fairly sure that the second version still doesn't rise to the heights of poetry, but now I know through firsthand experience the truth (in principle) of Yeats' famous dictum: "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry."
Holly Ordway is professor of English and director of the MA program in apologetics at Houston Baptist University.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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