In last week’s Writing with Caspian lecture/discussion, we got on the subject of “leaving room for grace” in your writing. In the class forums a couple of people had questions about what that even means, so I thought it might be a good topic for a Tuesday letter.

If you’ve written very much, you have likely noticed that the most interesting things about your writing are the things you weren’t planning to say when you sat down to write. Your most persuasive arguments, your most insightful observations, your most surprising plot twists, your characters’ most compelling actions—many of those things weren’t there in your original conception of the essay or story. I have written four novels; only one of them ended in a way that even closely resembled my original idea for the ending. And even that ending didn’t resemble the original all that closely.

Something beyond your conscious mind is at work when you write—rather, I should say hopefully something beyond your conscious mind is at work. To keep that possibility in mind is to leave room for grace in your writing. Too often I set out to answer questions I already know the answer to. Or I look to craft an argument based on ideas I had before I started writing. One way to feel confident that you are mastering a subject is to shrink the subject down to something that you feel you have already mastered. That, friends, is a shortcut to mediocrity.

Some of us have to have an outline before we’ll even start writing. I’m one of those people. But if the end product matches the original outline, something has probably gone wrong. I have probably missed out on some magic. So I write the outline, but I hold it very loosely, in the hope that once I wade in, something better than those initial ideas is coming.

Lee Isaac Chung is director of the much acclaimed film Minari, which won Best Foreign-Language Film at the Golden Globes earlier this week. In an interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, he spoke of this openness to grace in specifically theological terms:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m making films, I kind of pray and make a deal with God . . . I’m going to work with this assumption, but God, I’d like you to surprise me somehow, surprise me in this and show up. As we all go to these theaters and we sit down in the dark and watch these things, we’re all searching. We’re all kind of lost in some way.”

Yes. That sounds just right to me. You proceed with your assumptions about what you’ve started writing, and you pray that God will show up and surprise you. Maybe you’re an absolutely brilliant writer. I congratulate you. Still, if you don’t leave room for grace in your work, you will be limited to the scope of your own brilliance. You can do better than that.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the new George Saunders book about fiction-writing. In one especially interesting section, he talks about the fact that the highly developed moral sense in Tolstoy’s fiction wasn’t always evident in Tolstoy’s domestic life. Does that make Tolstoy a hypocrite? Well, that’s very possible, but there’s also something else going on according to Saunders, and according to Milan Kundera, whom Saunders cites.

Kundera observes that in the first draft of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified.” But the Anna that readers know is much more complex; we sympathize with her and understand something of her struggle, even if we can’t approve of her choices. The universe of the published novel exemplifies that moral expansiveness that Tolstoy is so famous for.

So what happened? Did Tolstoy experience some personal transformation between the time he started Anna Karenina and the time he finished? His wife’s diary suggests that he did not. Milan Kundera has another theory:

I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

What I’ve been calling grace, Kundera calls suprapersonal wisdom. For you Presbyterians out there, this suprapersonal wisdom is a variety of common grace, available to all writer who remain open to it—all writers who aren’t “more intelligent than their books.”

And what is the path to this suprapersonal wisdom? Even if you pray for it, like Lee Isaac Chung does, you still have to do the work. It doesn’t come magically. George Saunders writes, “As Kundera suggests, the writer opens himself up to that ‘suprapersonal wisdom’ by technical means. That’s what ‘craft’ is: a way to open ourselves up to the suprapersonal wisdom within us.” I would suggest that this suprapersonal wisdom isn’t always “within us,” but often beyond us. I don’t wish to quibble, however. Wherever it’s coming from, you make space for it by doing the work and staying open to the possibility that something better is coming.

Additional reading from the archives of The Habit Weekly:
“It’s not your job to be a genius”
“Be more brilliant: The back-to-school issue”

1 Comment
  • Richard E Wilson
    6:38 PM, 3 March 2021

    I have never thought of it this way, but I’m glad you have. The idea of ad hoc modification in writing as a form of common grace is lovely, and an encouragement to allow for more of it. Thanks for writing this

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