As I have mentioned here many times before, I’m teaching a Narrative Writing class this semester that is presently winding down. In addition to requiring students to write the first 50 pages of a novel as well as the outline, they will have an essay final. One of the questions on the final I have been talking to them about since the beginning of the semester. The question is this: What is your life philosophy and how is it reflected in your writing?
I doubt very much that any of the students will be flippant about their response, especially considering the second part of that question and that I have become intimately familiar with their writing. But it is a question that I think every writer needs to ask themselves.
The idea for the question comes from a book that I have in my home library. The name of the book escapes me, but it features a variety of contemporary writers who tell of the author that had the biggest influence on them. The essay I go back to time and again was written by Stephen Lawhead, Christian fantasy and historical novelist. In it, he talks about the influence that J.R.R. Tolkien had on him as a writer. He also tells how Tolkien, himself a Christian and part of the Oxford group of authors called The Inklings that also included C.S. Lewis, was asked time and again about the powerful Christian metaphors that could be found in The Lord of the Rings. What does it all mean?
“It’s just a story, that’s all,” Tolkien would say. And he was right. Tolkien did not write about Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf in an effort to evangelize the world, or even express his love for a Savior. But the message was there, nevertheless.
Lawhead saw it as a revelation in his own writing. Instead of approaching his Christian mission in life in a heavyhanded way, the reality was–as he saw it–that regardless of what he wrote, what he believed would shine through. That was both liberating and sobering. Liberating because he had the license to write whatever he wanted without feeling guilty. Sobering because if he truly didn’t believe what he espoused, that would come through as well. You can’t fake sincerity, no matter how much you try.
And so it comes around to my students. In a couple of weeks, I will ask them the telling question. What do you believe? In some cases, I suspect they won’t truly know what they believe until they take a hard look at their own writing. Maybe their stories will serve as a window into their own soul, a place many college students need to examine more often.