A blessed day to you! Maureen Pratt here with my second CAN Blog post. This time, I'm going to dive right into the deep end and talk about writing controversial subjects, characters, and themes. I've had very recent (ongoing, actually) experience with doing this, so I'm looking at the topic with eyes wide open and have some tips for handling not only the material, but also the feedback that inevitably comes when one "stirs the pot." (Although my experience is with a non-fiction piece, I hope these thought will be helpful to those who write fiction, too).
The Scripture verse I chose for this blog post sets the stage: For many people, even the strongest believer, controversy stirs up feelings of fear, denial, even cowardice. Yet, we people of faith are often called upon to confront issues and situations and stand firm, as our Lord did throughout his life. How much inside of us is Peter's "no!"? How much is Jesus' "yes!" How can we put on more courage and write boldly and maybe, just maybe, change hearts, too?
I do not court controversy, however recently, one of my columns focused on a current and very hotly debated subject. (A link to the column is on my website: www.maureenpratt.com.) Although many were writing and speaking about the topic, I felt there was a huge piece of the argument that was not being addressed, the proverbial "elephant in the room," so I wrote and submitted the piece ot my editor. We discussed it, I strengthened it, and it was posted via my syndicator and has been published widely in print in English-speaking diocesan newspapers and on the Internet. To date, I've received extremely positive feedback and only a few vulgar anonymous emails. I've also received an invitation to participate in a public radio station sponsored discussion with someone with an opposing view – an opportunity that I have eagerly accepted. (I'll post details on my website when I have them). Here are some of the considerations and techniques I used in treading into very deep waters:
1) Pray before, during and after writing. Wisdom, guidance, courage, and clarity – we need these things and more when we write about a controversial subject or character.
2) Feel something. Anger. Bewilderment. Repulsion. Anxiety. The controversial subject about which you write must make you feel something, or those who read your piece probably won't be brought along for the read. Know yourself and your relationship with the issue/subject. Then, see # 2…
3) Know the facts and all sides of the argument. Consider facts as armor – know all you can about what you are writing and anticipate the questions and opinions you are likely to stir up. If your article or book strikes nerves, you're going to have to respond!
4) Give your work the authenticity test. Does it persuade? Enlighten? Teach? Writing that rings true is usually what affects people most. For example, plopping a controversial character into a novel just for the "color" isn't as effective as showing why that person is they way he or she is and how he or she can be turned around.
5) Be you. As I explained, my column focused on a part of the issue that I felt was not being addressed. It is usually less impactful to reiterate what others are saying; a unique perspective that is well-founded can engage even the most saturated audience.
6) Connect the dots. Use your command of the facts and your strength of conviction to shape your argument clearly. If you're writing fiction, make sure your character has a discernible arc, too.
7) Be prepared for feedback and consequences. Here, I am oddly reminded of one of the first scenes in the epic movie "Lawrence of Arabia." Lawrence extinguishes the flame of a candle with his fingers, taking his time, much to the horror of those who see him do it. "Doesn't that hurt?" one of the other men asks. Lawrence looks at him a moment and then says evenly, "The trick is not minding that it hurts."
When we write anything controversial, we must keep in mind that others might not like what we write, and they might challenge or even attack us For this reason, throughout the writing process, ask, "Am I being led to write this?" Listen for the answer – not to the part of you or me that is Peter's "no," but the part of you or me that is Jesus' "Yes!" Listen for God's guidance. Test for authenticity. And know that, fortified by faith and prayer, armed with facts, and writing from the heart that is unique, controversy just might become conversion.