Try This: Apostolic Fiction
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
Welcome to the easiest form of writing you’ll ever do. And the most rewarding.
First some backstory: Our local elementary school held two writing contests each year. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day every student wrote an essay about why their parents deserved a prize. The prizes had been donated by the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, items from small businesses, branch banks and gas stations. We’d each scribble a couple pages to praise our folks, and judges at the county seat — Walla Walla — would choose the winner from each school.
The prizes were sets of glassware, tools, gift certificates, nothing expensive. The real award was to get your essay published in the local newspaper, and showcase your mother or father. Even at eight-years-old my gut told me I couldn’t bully anyone into liking my parents. Other kids wrote, “My mom should win because I love her.” Or, “My dad should win because he loves me, and he’s the best.” Or, “I love my mom because…” Rookie stuff.
Make your whole circle of writers a little smarter (?)…
Or bond over a deep, shared disdain for my hackneyed advice!
Really, these contests weren’t about determining the best parents. They were about determining what child could best portray their parents.
Heart-felt love aside, the first lesson here is — don’t filter you subject matter through the narrator.1 As Tom Spanbauer would insist, write, “The bell rang” instead of “I heard the bell ring.” By not filtering the world you allow the reader to think he or she is inside the story. They hear the bell.2
The second lesson here is — submerge the I. As the writer Peter Christopher taught us, you can write in the first-person, but hide the “I” as much as possible. Each occurrence of “I” reminds the reader that he or she isn’t living the story. Keep the camera focused on mom and dad, and leave yourself out as much as possible. Allow that judge in Walla Walla to take the freshly ironed shirt from your mother’s hands and slip into its warmth. Or to feel the teeth of the comb on their scalp as your father parts your hair.3
To win “Best Mom” or “Top Pop”4 what worked best was to simply unpack the details of what your mother and father did day in and day out. They were up before dawn and started the coffee. They turned up the furnace, and packed lunches, and waited as long as possible before calling us from our beds. The more details you could dissect out and present — the extra shifts your father worked leading up to Christmas, the cupcakes mom baked for your classroom on your birthday — the more you’d lead the judges to decide in your favor. This took some particularizing. You had to pay attention and pin down solid examples.5
You had to make those strangers love your parents, not tell them to.
Welcome to the world of “apostolic” fiction. Stories in which one character observes and marvels over another. The revered figure need not be completely wise or powerful. The awestruck gaze of the narrator will make the other character shine. Consider the way Nick Carraway depicts Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. No, Gatsby isn’t perfect. He’s coarse and deluded, but he’s become such a romantic figure to Nick that we’ll accept much of Nick’s version. Plus, by being full of such generous praise, Nick himself becomes a likeable character.6
Later in life my friends and I learned to shun “hero” stories told to shine glory on the braggart. Instead, we loved what we called “goat” stories.7 Self-told goat stories allow others to tell self-effacing stories and drew us closer in our shared humanity. Goat stories were funny and bonding. Hero stories were only boring.
But, if you told a hero story about someone else… You could shine a spotlight of public attention on them, yet also look decent by delivering that praise.8
Again, in storytelling this strategy is called “apostolic” fiction. An apostle recounts the greatness of another. It’s me writing my Top Pop essay in Mrs. Francisco’s classroom. And decades later it was the unnamed narrator in Fight Club recounting his adventures with Tyler Durden.
Even now, it’s the narrator Luthor as he recalls the reckless boldness of his friend Samantha in Greener Pastures. It’s a joy to depict someone you love and admire despite their flaws. And it’s seldom you get the opportunity to share your feelings of love with the world.
Of course Jay Gatsby and Tyler Durden could be reckless and wrong-headed, but both stories are told after the fact. All stories are told after the fact. And in hindsight, everything shines a little brighter.
And, no, my parents weren’t perfect, but each contest was an opportunity to list only their best deeds, and to prove I was paying attention to how hard they worked. Since then I’ve always loved people who loved people who loved people. Or at least characters who loved characters. In a world where everyone seems dedicated only to their own glory, it’s wonderful to see anyone praising another person.
And did I mention that I won? Every year that I wrote an essay I’d win a fondue pot or a can of Simonize for my mom or dad. Apostolic fiction works — on you and the reader — because writing those essays made me love my parents more.
As a writer, the easiest and most fulfilling thing to depict is one character who grows to admire another.
You and your reader will find yourselves loving both the admirer and the admired.
Don’t just love your finished work…
Love the act of writing, itself.
This deserves a posting of its own. It was the first thing Tom taught me. Don’t filter!
They don’t hear you hearing the bell ring.
That hurt, that comb thing.
These were the actual names of the two essay contests. This was 1969 or 1970.
I still remember the moment my father showed me that if you held the hammer by the end of its handle you could pound a nail in three or four strikes. Until then I’d held the handle up beside the head, and it took endless taps to sink a nail. My first lesson in physics.
An old saying: “A little scent always lingers on the hand that gives flowers.” To me this means that giving gifts or tribute is a reward in and of itself. The giver benefits at least as much as the person being praised. In fact I tell my students that the greatest skill they can learn is how to give an intelligent compliment. Not just a fatuous, “I loved it!” But how to identify exactly what elements were impressive and moving.
A goat story makes the teller look like an idiot, a fool, a goat.
Anywhere, aboard a plane or… anywhere, if you can coax a stranger to really describe the qualities of someone or something they love, that stranger will shine. Giving that kind of thoughtful praise makes the most unlikely people glow with beauty.