I think a lot about religion. A lot. And I’m hardly diversified. I grew up within Christianity, attended Christian school, and spent a considerable chunk of each summer at a Christian camp. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that I look favorably on religion. But I think it surprises many of the Christians I meet. There is, within contemporary Christianity, this trend to try and rise above one’s religion, or to disavow it in favor of being “spiritual” or “in a relationship” with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse, and making religion a priority before God, but tackling the issue has worked its way backward into other aspects of my life.
I’ve often said that religion is a tool, a set of spiritual habits that a Christian (or person of any religion) commits to, in order to draw nearer to God, personally. Religion is also a tool that Christianity commits to, as a whole, to draw the world nearer to God. On a personal level, Christians have found spiritual aid in consistent times in prayer, in the Bible, in fasting, vows of chastity, celibacy, or temperance. I don’t advocate all of these, but you cannot ignore that some of the most peaceable, productive, and effective people on the planet (Jesus, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, etc.) have worked from within a frame of self-sacrifice.
The idea of giving something up isn’t limited to spiritual things, though many who sacrifice for some other reward often describe their experience in terms that suggest a spiritual high. Eric Liddell said, in Chariots of Fire, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” There is a sense of accomplishment we have when we sacrifice for something we know that we are good at, are called to, or enjoy.
One of the reasons I despise the phrase “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” is because it sets up a false dichotomy, or else, a false definition of religion. Imagine a husband who says of his marriage, “It’s not about romance or fidelity, it’s about the relationship.” Imagine a soccer player who ignores the rules and referees because he’s only interested in “the game.” Or a student who eschews the rules of their school, the deadlines of their assignments, or their schedule because only their education matters.
That’s how I try to be with my writing, and most successful writers will describe their process in something that sounds very much like Judaic or Mosaic Law: Write every day. Write 1,000 words a day. Write 10,000 words a week. Keep deadlines. Cleanse your manuscript of all adverbs. Some rules are so deeply ingrained that we forget that they’re there. Like spelling.
The point of making those rules and habits is to develop a routine. The writers of Leverage talk about the self-imposed rules of the show, one of which is that there isn’t any deus ex machina, and that any secondary complications have to arise from the characters’ failures, or the fact that they succeeded too well. There was a particularly revelatory moment in the commentary of one episode where a writer said that while self-imposed rules sound limiting, they actually help them to know where to go next.
When I started writing Salvage Yard, I decided that no matter what happened within the novel, it needed to end where it began. This isn’t so much a gimmick as a promise to my reader. It says, don’t worry, we’ll be back. It also helps me to know where to start the story, which is a hard thing to choose.
In order to be successful at writing, or anything, really, one must make a religion of it. If one believes that God honors our efforts to be diligent in anything, whether we’re talking about studying or earning a paycheck, we actually make a religion of the thing we do. To be clear, we don’t make a religion of it in order to worship that thing, but in order to become better at it.
The Bible is almost entirely silent on the actual workings of religion and this is something that has caused centuries of arguments within the church. Should we baptize by sprinkling or immersion? Is one day holier than another? Are all days equally holy? Do we fast, or do we eat in remembrance? Do we gather together or do we pray in the solitude of a prayer closet? Do we marry or stay single? The fact that the Bible says yes and no to each of these is telling. The fact that the Bible never outlines a specific form of church government should be something of a hint.
I think that the authors of the Bible, and the early church fathers, and probably any successful religion recognize that people are different, and yet, we’re all the same. We all face troubles, pain, grief, periods of emotional drought, periods of achievement, joy, and success, but we deal with those things in vastly different ways. But we must deal with them.
It is hard for me to understand how people write without an outline. It’s hard for other people to understand how I can outline a novel to such a degree that I know, within a thousand words, when a particular thing will happen in my novel. It’s hard for me to understand how some people can sit down and write 3,000 words a day and not turn out drivel, and they don’t understand why I do so little revising. It’s because my religion of writing is different from theirs. The ultimate goal—to create a readable, enjoyable, reading experience is the same, and we both have the same burning passion to fulfill that goal, but the roads by which we reach it are vastly different.