Fiction Writers MUST Be Preachers
Wait a minute! Let me read that Blog Title again. Does it really say that fiction writers must be preachers?! Waz Up With Dat?? Isn't preaching one of the fundamental "no-nos" for fiction writers.  It says so--right there in every basic fiction writing book, so it's got to be so.

OK everyone--raise your hands: WHO WANTS TO PLAY LET'S BREAK A WRITING RULE!?

Let's start with why this a writing rule in the first place. You'll see a lot of reasons given, but seldom, if ever, the real one. Writers should preach because they're lousy preachers. That's what it really comes down to--writers don't know jacksomethingorother about preaching. BTW, neither do a lot of preachers. (A CYA moment of self-preservation here: my wife, who is a minister, is obviously not one of them.)

Preaching is nothing more than a means of trying to arrive at some sort of truth that has relevance for everyday life. It may be centered around a holy scripture but need not be, despite the common perception. That's its substance: every thing else falls into the realm of accidents. (Time to dig out Thomas Aquinas--or to get hold of him if you have nothing to dig out.)

What are some of these accidents (read--things that are non-essential)? Oh, I don't know, maybe: long-windedness (my wife had a homiletics professor at Yale, one of the greatest in the world, who would give any sermon lasting longer than five-minutes an "F"), pounding a topic to death, boring examples, lack of meaningful applications, way too much back story, infatuation with your own words . . . you get the picture. Some of these same things make fiction boring.

The trick is to make the message--the truth--almost invisible, to show it rather than to tell it (and tell it, and tell it, and tell . . .) and to make it engrossing so that people can and will relate to it. Fiction writers are skilled in the techniques needed to pull off this trick and good preachers know that. 

Witness the fine book by Alyce M. McKenzie,  Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons, published earlier this year by Westminster John Knox Press. McKenzie (officially "The Rev. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church," so I'll use McKenzie) believes that ministers could learn a lot about preaching from fiction writers and, to this end, offers a guidebook drawing upon  such luminaries as Isabelle Allende, Frederick Buechner, Julia Cameron, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Melanie Rae Thon.

I've read the book (stole it fr . . . oops, borrowed it from my wife) and found that it has some solid advice for novelists as well. (If you want to sample McKenzie's wares and other tidbits from her creative mind, swing over to her blog Knack for Noticing at

Unfortunately, right now, this is a one-way street. There's no guidebook for novelists to learn from preachers, with examples from, say, Niebuhr, King, Coffin . . . I'm not going to continue since there are so many Ministers, Rabbis, Priests, Imams that could be used. You need not be religious to glean lessons from these women and men, although if a spiritual insight or two creeps into the old cerebellum what's to hurt? That's right: they can not only offer some pointers on such things as structure and "grab factor," but demonstrate that there are man subtle ways to convey meaningful messages. And fiction writers need to pay more attention to meaningful messages no matter what their genre, messages such as good, evil, love, hate, forgiveness, revenge.

Yes, I know--these are a key component of all fiction, but there needs to be a shift: more often then not, these are accidental and they need to become substantial (go back to Thomas).

No, there's no guidebook as yet that tackles this directly. There is, however, a provocative work by a writer that provides some penetrating focus on what constitutes the essential preaching core of fiction. It's beautiful, brilliant, aggravating, challenging and, sadly, little read these days or, sadly still, often dismissed at the hands of the technicians.  It's the late John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, still very much in print by Basic Books 39 years after it's writing. Gardner argues for the privilege of being a writer and the responsibility he or she has to the intentionality of truth. It belongs on the bookshelf--and in the mind--of every fiction writer. For right now, it's arguably the best bridge to how preaching can and should be incorporated into writing.

And now this sermon is ended. Go thee forth and preach the word, the word written in truth.
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