A Spent Storm: On Faith and Writing

From the panel I got to be on at church:

I have read tons of books on writing – how to write, why to write – I have an MFA in Creative Writing, I am in constant conversation with others about the craft, but no book has told me more about writing’s call – what it does, how it feels, what it means – than LM Montgomery’s Emily series.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Towards the end of the first book, Emily is talking  about her writing with her teacher, Mr. Carpenter – a cranky, sort of dark, and extremely passionate man. Emily’s given him several poems to critique and for three pages he lays into them sharply:

  • “”Sunset – Lord, how many poems have been written about a sunset?”
  • “And this – To Life – ‘Life, as a gift I ask no rainbow joy’ – is that sincere? Is it, girl? Stop and think. Do you ask ‘no amount of joy’ of life?
  • “You should study the art of titles, Emily – there’s a fashion in them as in everything else. Your titles are as out of date as the candles of New Moon.”

And then: 

“Ten good lines out of four hundred, Emilly – comparatively good, that is – and all the rest balderdash – balderdash, Emily.

I – suppose so,” said Emily faintly.

Her eyes brimmed with tears – her lips quivered. She could not help it. Pride was hopelessly submerged in the bitterness of her disappointment. She felt exactly like a candle that somebody had blown out. 

“What are you crying for?” demanded Mr. Carpenter.

Emily blinked away the tears and tried to laugh.

“I – I’m sorry – you think it’s no good -” she said.

Mr. Carpenter gave the desk a mighty thump.

“No good! Didn’t I tell you there were ten good lines? Jade, for ten righteous men Sodom had been spared.”

“Do you mean – that – after all -” The candle was being relighted again.

“Of course, I mean. If at thirteen you can write ten good lines, at twenty you’ll write ten times ten – if the gods are kind. Stop messing over months, though – and don’t imagine you’re a genius either, if you have written ten decent lines. I think there’s something trying to speak through you – but you’ll have to make yourself a fit instrument for it. You’ve chosen a jealous goddess. And she never lets her votaries go – not even when she shuts her ears forever to their plea.”

These lines Mr. Carpenter says are precisely what I believe about being called to write:

  1. I believe Something is trying to speak through me.
  2. I believe I must make myself available so that I can be used.
  3. I believe in the jealousy of the call. That is, I believe God’s given me this gift, but it’s my choice to work, to figure it out, to take the plot of my days and turn them into stories. I am the most myself when I write. All of what I am – the broken, scattered pieces; the sharp edges – is laid bare in the loving hands of this Jealous Goddess who promises me nothing except to show me each time I come to the page that I am wonderfully and fearfully made. 

This all sounds so dramatic, which is another reason I love these books. I’m dramatic. I can find (and create) drama checking out bananas at Trader Joe’s. Emily shows me the power and the good there is in this trait. 

Like once, Emily and her best friend Ilse get lost and Ilse, who has a horrible temper and who is also someone I can relate to, says, ‘What’ll we do? What are we gonna do?!?” And Emily says, “Admit we’re lost and make a beautiful thing of it.”

So they find a haystack, and “they [sink] down on its top with sighs of content, realising that they were tireder than they had thought. The stack was built of the wild, fragrant grasses of the little pasture, and yielded an indescribably alluring aroma, such as no cultivated clover can give. They could see nothing but a great sky of faint rose above them, pricked with early stars, and the dim fringe of tree-tops around the field. Bats and swallows swooped darkly above them against the paling western gold – delicate fragrances exhaled from the mosses and ferns just over the fence under the trees – a couple of aspen poplars in the corner talked in silvery whispers, of the gossip of the woods. They laughed together in sheer lawless pleasure. An ancient enchantment was suddenly upon them, and the white magic of the sky and the dark magic of the woods wove the final spell of a potent incantation.”

Ilse eventually falls asleep, but Emily does not. She doesn’t want to. “She wanted to lie awake for the pleasure of it and think over a thousand things….Everything in it and out of it ministered to her. It filled her with its beauty, which she must later give to the world.”

I understand this so well, and I also know this is not the beautiful thing that’s being created. This is the thing that’s being given. This is the call of the Jealous Goddess. She gives you this glorious night, this soul mate of a best friend, and you say, ‘Yes, yes, a thousand times over, I will make myself into the fit instrument you are asking me to be. Just stay here. Give me the words.”

“No, no,” the Jealous Goddess says. “My part is done. The words are on you. This is why I’m asking. You need to figure it out. Get off this haystack and go because someone is lost and you need to find a story to bring them home.”

Again, drama. But the fact is, someone is lost. A little boy. Emily and Ilse learn about this when they end up finding refuge in the house of the mother whose boy is lost. Understandably, the mother is beside herself with grief, and doesn’t speak too much, but Emily and Ilse learn that the whole town is looking for him. It is cold though, and there is a storm coming, and at this point most of the people have resigned themselves to believing the boy is dead.

Emily and Ilse knew the storm was on the way. It’s the whole reason they found the house in the first place. That morning, Ilse is doing her darndest to get Emly to stop writing and make a plan to get out of dodge because of the storm. Emliy says, “There’s something delightful in a storm. There’s always something deep down in me – that seems to rise and leap out to meet a storm – wrestle with it.”

This is foreshadowing, and another instance of choosing to make yourself a fit instrument because after hearing about the lost boy, Emily cannot stop thinking about him. What happens next is what it looks like when a writer rises up to meet the storm.

We meet Mrs. McIntyre, who tells a story that frankly is dull and tedious, and pretty creepy. Emily though, sees something in Mrs. McIntye’s “clear blue eyes [that] looked as if their owner had been dreadfully hurt sometime,” and so she listens with the heart of a storyteller. She bears witness to it.

The next morning, Ilse finds a sketch and note showing where the little boy is. It was made by Emily, but she has no recollection of drawing or writing it. All she knows is she couldn’t stop thinking about this little boy and Mrs. McIntyre’s story. They took possession of her, and because of what Emily made, the little boy was found.

“Something used you as an instrument,” someone tells Emily, harkening to what Mr. Carpenter told her about the consequences she’d have to face having chosen a jealous goddess.  It is a joyous moment,  and a serious and haunting one, too. It is clear it’s taken a toll on Emily.

The next morning, the girls leave “the little white house on the windy hill, [and] the sun was breaking through the clouds and the harbour waters were dancing madly in it. The landscape was full of the wild beauty that comes in the wake of a spent storm and the Western Road stretched before them in loop and hill and dip of wet, red allurement; but Emily turned away from it.”

Nothing I have written has brought anyone home. At least, not literally speaking. But I know what it is to be lost, and I know what it is to want to make something beautiful out of it. I know too, how it feels to have moments when everything is ministering to me, when I am filled with such beauty, that all I want to do is give it back to the world. This is why I choose writing and why I believe God chose to make me willing to write.

Here is what you gave me, I tell my Jealous God – nights when I’m turning over a thousand splendid and haunted things, all of them taking possession of me until I can turn them into a story – here is what I did with it.

Fill me up again, God. Make me a spent storm. 

Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.

  • I handed out goody bags with writing prompts and resources in them on the day I gave my presentation. If you are interested, feel free to grab the downloads from my website: http://www.calliefeyen.com

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