In my last post I drew on the wisdom and experience of E. B. White who wrote from his Brooklin, Maine home about his love of farm implements and animals, seasons, weather, and wordsmithing. Another celebrated writer, this time living, is the inspiration for today’s piece.
Barbara Kingsolver—author of the Pulitzer-nominated The Poisonwood Bible—has made it her mission to speak and write about the craft of creating fiction. Carrying out her task, she is direct, absolutely clear, inspiring. And, to be honest, some of what she says scares the bejesus out of me.
Literature, Kingsolver tells us, is a craft so extraordinarily powerful we are obliged to take it seriously. It’s a weighty calling.
Kingsolver likens the act of writing a book to walking into a cathedral. Recalling a visit to Saint Patrick’s in Manhattan, I understood her meaning. You leave behind the noise and distraction of Madison Avenue and step into the hushed domain of time and stunning craft. The Gothic cathedral was built by generations of exceptionally skilled artisans following inspired designs of men who dreamed up the whole damn thing, and you just can’t believe it.
Kingsolver uses the word “humility” when she likens cathedral making to penning a piece of fiction. Both demand humility because, she says, “the body of all written words already in print is vaulted and vast. You think you have something new to add to that? If so, it can only come from a position of respect: for the form, the process, and eventually for a reader’s valuable attention.”
In my view, respect for the reader translates into creating something that matters. As Kingsolver puts it, that something creates empathy and impacts readers politically. In her case the understory in The Bean Trees is parental rights of Native Americans and in The Poisonwood Bible Congo’s it’s the bloody history of political struggle.
A lover of the natural world and ecologist by training, it’s no surprise that Kingsolver took on the most compelling global crisis of our day—climate change. This crisis is “really, really terrible, let’s face it,” she says. “And it’s not going to end well.”
Kingsolver’s climate-fiction book Flight Behavior is both momentous and intimate, which is precisely why it works so beautifully. She transforms what is literally whole earth catastrophe into something personal through Dellarobia Turnbow, a restless Tennessee farmwife whose husband Cub “does everything in first gear”.
Very early in the story Dellarobia’s life is instantly changed by a magical other-worldly sight—15 million monarch butterflies that suddenly roost on the Turnbow property. As she later learns from a biologist investigating the phenomenon, climate change underlies the monarch’s sudden appearance. Budding ecologist Dellarobia faces a personal crisis when Cub’s father says he will clear-cut the butterfly roosting site to pay off an impending debt.
Based on Kingsolver’s own criteria, Flight Behavior has been generally well received. “Urgent issues demand important art. (This book) rises – with conscience and majesty—to the occasion of its time”, The Guardian said. Kirkus Review calls it “one of Kingsolver’s better efforts at preaching her politics and pulling heartstrings at the same time.” “Global warming and intimations of doomsday … share these pages with smaller-scale, deliciously human moments” says the New York Times.
Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver, here is today’s take-away for fiction writers: 1) the craft can be extraordinarily powerful—never forget this, 2) revere the form, process, and principally the reader, and 3) cultivate humility.