Christianity, Cancer, and Criticism

Ten years ago, I wrote the first draft of my first (and still unpublished) novel. At the recommendation of numerous writing instructors, I joined a writing group in my community to have my work critiqued. I showed up at a meeting armed with the opening three pages of my novel, and when invited to present the work, I read clearly and calmly. I anxiously waited for the praise and accolades. But I did not get the reaction I had hoped for. Instead, my reading triggered tremendous debate.

The funny thing was this: there was no sex, profanity, religious overtones or political rants in my submission. Nobody particularly disliked my writing style. And no one was offended by the content. Still, there was something about the scene I read that evoked so much discussion within the group that we had to take an unscheduled break to let everyone blow off ideas and steam.

It was, quite frankly, an astounding experience for me.

And what I discovered about myself that day was that, despite my conflict-avoiding personality, I enjoyed the notion that my writing could get people thinking and talking. The group’s reaction to my 900 or so words also confirmed the motivation behind my creative work: it was one part entertainment and/or education and two parts exploration –whether of the self or of the greater world.

So on I wrote. I have since published a number of pieces which have generally been well received, although they haven’t always been 100% appreciated or accepted. That’s all right. The percentages have been good enough to keep me going — even the great writers have naysayers, after all. And I’m hoping for similar percentages when The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife comes out this summer. But there is one concern that lurks in the back of my mind and pokes at me every now and then. It’s the worry that I might actually offend someone.

There are plenty of writers who aim to offend, but I’m not one of them. I was raised in a good Midwestern family where we were taught to be mindful of the feelings of others — sometimes to a fault. I didn’t worry too much about this while writing the novel; you can’t worry about what others will say while you’re creating your art or you’ll never get anything done. But now that it’s complete and almost ready to be sent out in the world, I am losing sleep now and then. There are two populations, in particular, that I worry might find some of the content objectionable.

First, there are my devout Christian friends. My book is not Christian literature, nor is it anti-Christian. It doesn’t endorse any particular religion, but it is indeed partially about faith, and some of the characters have some pretty deep questions about spirituality. I’m not going to explain now just why I chose to incorporate faith as a theme in this book; the truth is that it was not part of my initial intention. But you know how these darn characters can be with agendas of their own. And, like plenty of real people I know, they have their doubts about life, death, and God. To stuff those issues into the dark recesses of a character’s closet and ignore them would be like stuffing stinky laundry in the front hall closet of my home. As a guest, you’d know something wasn’t quite right and eventually, when you figured out what it was, you wouldn’t be happy with me. I decided that, at the risk of upsetting some readers, I needed to let my characters air their concerns.

There are also my reader friends who have been living with or beyond cancer, or who have otherwise been deeply touched by the disease. As this is a narrated-from-beyond-the-grave story, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the novel’s narrator dies from terminal cancer early on. I did not set out to write a depressing story about a woman who lost her battle, or to discourage cancer survivors in their own journeys, or to come across as insensitive to those who have lost loved ones to the insidious disease. What I set out to do was to write a story about love, survival, and a plan that a dying woman set into motion before her death. Not sure what to do about this notion that the cancer topic might be upsetting to some readers, I wrote to my writer friend Corbin Lewars, who has also been coping with a cancer diagnosis. She wrote back and quoted an editor she’d previously worked with. “If you aren’t scared about your book being released, then you didn’t write a book worth reading.” Books are supposed to trigger good and bad emotions, she also said. Thank you, Corbin, for that boost of courage.

So the point in all this is to say that I wrote what I was compelled to write, staying true to the characters and keeping a keen eye focused on matters worth exploring, from my perspective and hopefully from the reader’s perspective too. And I’m willing to accept the criticism that may blow back; it’s part of the writer’s job. But I also want to say, to those readers who won’t appreciate my inclusion of certain topics, or the presentation thereof, this. Quoting Barbara Streisand, Toni Braxton, and Eminem, “I never meant to hurt you.”

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