Ron Hansen

Ever since I learned to read, I have wanted to be a fiction writer. The vocation was inchoate at first, for books seem as authorless as rain to a child, but it insisted that I not only inhabit the world imagined by others, as good readers do, but go on with the story, configure it to fit my own life, filch it like candy left out in a bowl. Robert Coles has named this odd hankering and delight “the call of stories.”

I may have been five or so when I first noticed that calling. At Sunday Mass in Omaha, the priest ascended the stairs to the high pulpit at Holy Angels Church, announced a reading from one of the Gospels, and after a few sentences of the passage I was suddenly aware that the story was familiar to me. Say it was the shockingly concrete scene in Mark where Jesus heals a blind man by wetting the man’s eyes with his spittle. I found myself anticipating the next moves, certain that the man would say he could see people but they looked like trees walking. And Jesus would lay his hands on the afflicted man’s eyes again, and then the man would see everything clearly. The sentences were sure and predictable to me; I felt I was finally their audience; and I realized with a good deal of wonder that the Gospels were like those children’s books that my mother or sisters would read to me over and over again. With great seriousness the priest would read aloud the same stunning stories from the life of Christ, and when he was finished reading would talk intelligently about the meaning of the passage in our own lives, and even the old in the congregation would watch and listen like children being taught.

The liturgical rites were grand theater then, filled with magisterial ceremony, great varieties of mystery and symbol and a haunting Gregorian chant that sounded lovely even if poorly sung. And since I could not yet follow the English translation of the priest’s Latin in my missal, I would fix my gaze high overhead on the soft blue sky of the dome, on which there was a huge, literal and beautiful painting of Christ being escorted by the holy angels on his ascension to heaven, his loose white clothing floating off him so that most of his flesh was exposed.

Looking back on my childhood now, I find that churchgoing and religion were in good part the origin of my vocation as a writer, for along with Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things and the high status it gave to Scripture, drama and art, there was a connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that storytelling mattered. Each Mass was a narrative steeped in meaning and metaphor, helping the faithful not only to remember the past but to make it present here and now and to bind ourselves into a sharing group so that, ideally, we could continue the public ministry of Jesus in our world.

On the other hand, my vocation as a writer was also called forth by something unnameable that I can only associate with a yen to live out in my imagination other lives and possibilities, a craving that eventually made acting attractive to my brother Rob and soon made storytelling necessary to me.

In kindergarten, for example, we had an afternoon period of show-and-tell. A few minutes earlier, a boy named Kenneth breathlessly told me about the side altar at some European cathedral his family had visited, where a pressure-sensitive prie-dieu illuminated a crucifix when penitents fell on their knees there to pray. Seeing my fascination, the five-year-old went further, confusing the scene and himself with flashing colors and whirring mechanisms that seemed lifted from a science-fiction movie. I fell into my own imagining as Sister Martha went from child to child, asking them to report on adventures, discoveries, encounters or anything else they thought noteworthy. And then she got to me.

I instinctively said a neighbor had turned a hallway closet into a chapel, with holy pictures everywhere, and there were lots of candles burning all the time, because that was the only light, and there was a kneeler in front of a crucifix and when you knelt on it real blood trickled out of the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet. Real blood? Sister Martha asked. Well, it looked like real blood, it was red like blood, and it trickled down his face from the crown of thorns, too. She squinted at me with just a twitch of a smile, and I was shocked, even insulted that she could think I was making this up. Hadn’t I seen that hallway closet, that padded prie-dieu, that crucifix with my own eyes? I could describe the finest detail, I could smell the candle wax as it burned. Stifling her amusement, the kindergarten teacher questioned me more closely, possibly having found a kids-say-the-darndest-things instance that she could present like a chocolate pie to her sisters at dinner, and I just kept embellishing and filling in gaps in the narrative until Sister Martha seemed to decide I was depleted and she shifted to another child. And when I looked at Kenneth, he was wide-eyed and in awe, with no hint of affront for my having stolen his show-and-tell, but with a certain amount of jealousy that I’d seen a prie-dieu that was so far superior to his and, worse, seemed to have tried to selfishly keep it to myself.

Within the year I would be reading on my own and finding out about children’s books and children’s authors and their need to do just what I did: to alter facts that seemed imposed and arbitrary, to intensify scenes and situations with additions and falsifications and to ameliorate the dull and slack commodities of experience with the zest of the wildest imaginings.

The first author whose name I remembered and whose stories I hunted down was Jules Verne, whom I avidly read in third grade. In fourth grade it was Albert Payson Terhune—I even named our foundling pup after his “Lad”—and “Peck’s Bad Boy,” by Aurand Harris, with its gladdening irony that a boy who was continually getting into trouble with grownups might simply be just acting like boys do. Then it was fifth grade and the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, books meant for kids my age but that seemed hopelessly old-fashioned and did not thrill me nearly so much as the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, who so hooked me that I held his book of horror stories open in my lap to sneak peeks at as I pretended to take classroom notes. I was drawing and painting then, not writing fiction. A friend’s father was an illustrator and I fantasized that I would have a job like that when I got out of school. But gradually an urgency to write fiction took over; it was a vocation that seemed so exalted and sacred and beyond me I would not even talk about it.

In “Confessions of a Reluctant Catholic,” the novelist Alice McDermott recalls learning to be a writer, which “seemed to me from the outset to be an impossible pursuit, one for which I had no preparation or training, or even motive, except for a secret and undeniable urge to do so.” She had discovered that “fiction made the chaos bearable, fiction transformed the absurdity of our brief lives by giving context and purpose and significance to every gesture, every desire, every detail. Fiction transformed the meaningless, fleeting stuff of daily life into the necessary components of an enduring work of art” (Commonweal, 2/11/00).

The intuition of the fiction writer is similar to that of the scientist: that the world is governed by rules and patterns that are, by analysis and experiment, detectable; that the hidden mysteries of nature can be interrogated and solved. I have run into people who don’t read fiction because they feel it is founded on fabrications and swindles and worthless extenuations of reality—a famous professional golfer once complained about English classes in college, where he was forced to read “these big, fat books that weren’t even true”—but for many of us fiction holds up to the light, fathoms, simplifies and refines those existential truths that, without such interpretation, seem all too secret, partial and elusive. And that, of course, is the goal of religion as well.

Some writers are agnostic and have as their religion art, but just as many are conscious that the source of their gifts is God and have found thanksgiving, worship and praise of the Holy Being to be central to their lives and artistic practice. In An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War That Came Between Us, James Carroll wrote that “the very act of story-telling, of arranging memory and invention according to the structure of narrative is, by definition, holy.” And in a later interview Carroll stated that “my notion of narrative informs my faith, and my notion of faith informs my idea of what writing is for.”

Writing not only gives form and meaning to our sometimes disorderly existence, but gives the author the chance for self-disclosure and communion with others, while giving readers a privileged share in another’s inner life that, perhaps imperceptibly, questions and illuminates their own. Reading attentively, connecting our lives with those of fictional characters, choosing ethically and emotionally just as they do or in contradistinction to them, we enter the realm of the spirit where we simultaneously discover our likeness to others and our difference, our uniqueness. Questioning ourselves and our world, finding in it, for all its coincidence, accidents and contingencies a mysterious coherence, we may become aware of a horizon beyond which abides the One who is the creator and context of our existence.

Writing on the Catholic short-story master Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff noted that in his friend’s work “the quotidian and the spiritual don’t exist on different planes, but infuse each other. His is an unapologetically sacramental vision of life in which ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things. He believes in God, and talks to him, and doesn’t mince words. He is open to mystery, and of all mysteries the one that interests him most is the human potential for transcendence.”

Edifying Christian fiction can have a tendency to attenuate the scandal of the incarnation by circumscribing the sensual or sordid facts of the flesh in order to concentrate on heavenly actions and aspirations. And in doing so such fiction fails both the mysteries we are informed of by faith and those mysteries of sin and redemption we perceive in our daily lives. We need Christian fiction writers who are, in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “hotly in pursuit of the real.” She noted that “the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray nature is less; it means it is greater” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 1961).

In an essay entitled “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” Walker Percy identified the inherent congeniality of Christianity to the vocation of the novelist.

The Christian ethos sustains the narrative enterprise in ways so familiar to us that they can be overlooked. It underwrites those very properties of the novel without which there is no novel: I am speaking of the mystery of human life, its sense of predicament, of something having gone wrong, of life as a wayfaring and a pilgrimage, of the density and linearity of time and the sacramental reality of things. The intervention of God in history through the Incarnation bestows a weight and value to the individual human narrative which is like money in the bank to the novelist. Original Sin is out of fashion, both with Christians and with Jews, let alone unbelievers. But any novelist who does not believe that his character finds himself in a predicament not entirely of his own making or of society’s making is in trouble as a novelist. And any novelist who begins his novel with his character in a...predicament which is a profound mystery to which he devotes his entire life to unraveling...is a closet Jew or Christian whether he likes it or not.

(Signposts in a Strange Land, ed.

by Patrick Samway, S.J., 1991.)

Even in high school it was my habit to send off my short stories to magazines for possible publication. I was never very disappointed when they were rejected, for I had no illusions that my callow stories were any good, but I had never in my life met a fiction writer, and the profession seemed so magnificent to me that my quest to try it seemed outlandish. My regular submissions to magazines were messages in a bottle, ways of keeping contact with a lovesick yearning that was gradually becoming my soul’s signature. And then when I was a junior at Creighton, a short story that was the first I felt proud of was rejected by The Atlantic Monthly with a letter from the fiction editor gently indicating what the errors and holes in that particular story were while generously urging me to send in something else.

I ought to have been gladdened by that letter, but instead I was dejected, because in spite of the editor’s notes to me, the necessary skills and discipline of revision were not yet mine, and I hadn’t the slightest notion of how to make my flawed and unfinished story any better than it was. And I found myself wondering if I wasn’t kidding myself about my talent and wasting my time in a foolish and vainglorious pursuit.

Then a picture flashed in my mind for just a fraction of a second. It was there and then, instantly, it was not. But I was sure that God had favored me with a foretaste of the future, for what I fleetingly glimpsed was a page in a magazine like Time or Newsweek and a few inches of a column that was indisputably a book review. I couldn’t read the book’s title or any other words on that page, but I knew with rock-hard certainty that the book being reviewed was by me. With that one look major questions were answered, a critical juncture, perhaps, was passed, and I was flooded with feelings of calm and bliss and purposefulness.

Writing on vocation in Magister Ludi, the great German novelist Herman Hesse noted, “There are many types and kinds of call, but the core of the experience is always the same: your soul is awakened, transformed, or exalted, so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within, a summons comes from without, a portion of reality presents itself and makes a claim.”

I have discovered in late night conversations that many of my friends have had profound experiences of God’s hand, God’s voice, God’s solace, God’s gentle invitation. But how often are those experiences written about? And yet they are as important, indelible and real as anything else that happens to us. Catholic writers may principally differ from others in their heightened awareness of the unseen but ineluctable foundation of our existence, and in their unsqueamish and unembarrassed insistence that one is hotly in pursuit of the real, especially when writing about the substance of things hoped for.

Ever since I learned to read, I have wanted to be a fiction writer. The vocation was inchoate at first, for books seem as authorless as rain to a child, but it insisted that I not only inhabit the world imagined by others, as good readers do, but go on with the story, configure it to fit my own life, filch it like candy left out in a bowl. Robert Coles has named this odd hankering and delight “the call of stories.”

I may have been five or so when I first noticed that calling. At Sunday Mass in Omaha, the priest ascended the stairs to the high pulpit at Holy Angels Church, announced a reading from one of the Gospels, and after a few sentences of the passage I was suddenly aware that the story was familiar to me. Say it was the shockingly concrete scene in Mark where Jesus heals a blind man by wetting the man’s eyes with his spittle. I found myself anticipating the next moves, certain that the man would say he could see people but they looked like trees walking. And Jesus would lay his hands on the afflicted man’s eyes again, and then the man would see everything clearly. The sentences were sure and predictable to me; I felt I was finally their audience; and I realized with a good deal of wonder that the Gospels were like those children’s books that my mother or sisters would read to me over and over again. With great seriousness the priest would read aloud the same stunning stories from the life of Christ, and when he was finished reading would talk intelligently about the meaning of the passage in our own lives, and even the old in the congregation would watch and listen like children being taught.

The liturgical rites were grand theater then, filled with magisterial ceremony, great varieties of mystery and symbol and a haunting Gregorian chant that sounded lovely even if poorly sung. And since I could not yet follow the English translation of the priest’s Latin in my missal, I would fix my gaze high overhead on the soft blue sky of the dome, on which there was a huge, literal and beautiful painting of Christ being escorted by the holy angels on his ascension to heaven, his loose white clothing floating off him so that most of his flesh was exposed.

Looking back on my childhood now, I find that churchgoing and religion were in good part the origin of my vocation as a writer, for along with Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things and the high status it gave to Scripture, drama and art, there was a connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that storytelling mattered. Each Mass was a narrative steeped in meaning and metaphor, helping the faithful not only to remember the past but to make it present here and now and to bind ourselves into a sharing group so that, ideally, we could continue the public ministry of Jesus in our world.

On the other hand, my vocation as a writer was also called forth by something unnameable that I can only associate with a yen to live out in my imagination other lives and possibilities, a craving that eventually made acting attractive to my brother Rob and soon made storytelling necessary to me.

In kindergarten, for example, we had an afternoon period of show-and-tell. A few minutes earlier, a boy named Kenneth breathlessly told me about the side altar at some European cathedral his family had visited, where a pressure-sensitive prie-dieu illuminated a crucifix when penitents fell on their knees there to pray. Seeing my fascination, the five-year-old went further, confusing the scene and himself with flashing colors and whirring mechanisms that seemed lifted from a science-fiction movie. I fell into my own imagining as Sister Martha went from child to child, asking them to report on adventures, discoveries, encounters or anything else they thought noteworthy. And then she got to me.

RON HANSEN is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor of Creative Writing at Santa Clara University. His novels include Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus and Hitler’s Niece.This article is an expanded version of the author’s