Awake Before the Silence

THE TASK of the novelist is to give the devil his due. I will leave it to the saints to manifest God's presence in their words and deeds. That is the art of saints.

Writers are contemplatives. Daily we give ourselves over to silence, only to find the world at its worst marching across the snowy horizon of the page. The characters one had such hope for turn out to be, well, human. They hate, manipulate, seduce other people's spouses. They love money, worry about their looks, and fume about the state of the nation while making no effort to change things.

This is not to say that grace does not happen in their lives: instances of beauty and truth, wee epiphanies that unleash longings to live for...something more, something the world's religions have named variously as compassion, agape, wakefulness, tikkun, the repair of the earth. But all it takes is one bad traffic jam, one bad hair day, and my characters-those mirrors of my own heart-forget, entering once again into what Buddhism calls maya, illusion: what Christians call sin.

Still, the novelist hopes. We watch our characters without judgment, embracing equally what is lovely and sinister. We hope that in the end our characters will learn something about life and love-that is, if the darkness they court does not swallow them up first.

At times we try to push our creations toward safety and right action. But souls, even fictional ones, are not so easily manipulated. Like a parent, the novelist must eventually get out of the way so that our characters may become their own persons, enter into their own pacts with God and the devil. Book after book, our characters teach us that few people are wholly good or wholly evil. The writer who cannot love the color gray, who cannot embrace a world that is less than black and white, will not last long. Our creations will die for lack of compassion if we replace truth-telling with moralizing.

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with God or spirituality. Those words, bandied about so readily, frighten me even as they draw me like a moth to fire. I'm always amazed by the number of artists I know who once dreamed of becoming priests or nuns, myself included. It seems, however, that in reaching for heaven we fell all the harder back to earth.

The novelist is condemned to earth. We are called to be faithful not to abstract doctrine, so vaunted by organized religion, but to what our five senses tell us about the world around us. We may be affiliated with religions that preach a loving, all-powerful, and just God, but we are not God's public relations flacks. In our writing, we must be willing to indict God, to tell the other side of the story. We tell stories as we find them-of the Vietnam veteran, the incest victim, the war refugee, the diseased, the lonely, the insane. The novelist begs the question, "Where were you, O God?" We leave it to the theologians to formulate answers. Our job is to stand in solidarity with those who have no answers.

And when our characters experience what seems to be the presence of the sacred in a moment of healing, heroism, cleansing anger, or bliss, we tell that story too. For who is to say that the world as a whole is not struggling to realize a greater experience of the sacred? The writer's imagination must be roomy and supple enough for hope and joy as well as gloom and doom.

As writers, our imaginations must be on call at all times, open to any possibility. So we fight sloth and fear and struggle to show up each day before the blank page with its frightening silence. If a writer can be said to have a spiritual practice, this is it: to stay awake until the imagination stirs and the music comes out of our hands. The hope is that by writing well we will help keep you, the reader, awake-and in love with the human project despite the dark times in which we live.

DEMETRIA MARTINEZ is the author of Mother Tongue (Bilingual Press), winner of the 1994 Western States Book Award for Fiction, which will be reissued by Ballantine in October. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she belongs to Congregation Ner Tamid.

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