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Write about what you know

23 October, 2017 (00:30) | Dead Water, Writing | By: Ian Burdon

I’m writing a novel. I tried doing this a while back but got nowhere and instead wrote a heap of short stories, two of which have found publishers. I would be happy to stick with the short stories but, at the risk of being precious, you go where the story takes you.

I’m not making any great claims about it; I write for fun not profit, but also write because in putting stories together I can sometimes find myself working out things that have sat unresolved in my subconscious for years.

Anyway, with this one I find myself working through issues I first grappled with in the late 70s when I was at Coates Hall, an Anglican theological college in Edinburgh. I was there two years before leaving to complete my degree without any thoughts of ordination. Although I left the church and have never gone back, nonetheless I remain close to thoughts about faith and belief and what might loosely be called spirituality, though that word drags baggage behind it.

Write about what you know, goes the old adage, but in this area I don’t know what I know or even what I think, in the sense of being able to crystalise it into a statement of belief. So there’s fertile ground for fiction exploring some of those issues in a somewhat fantastical setting. Fantastical or not, it’s remarkable what memory and the subconscious can throw back at you, either as half-memories or sudden flashbacks to things done or the embarrassments of being young and stupid.

When I was 19 or 20 I realised with abrupt clarity that, whatever else I might do with my life, ordination was not the right thing for me to seek. My protagonist made a different decision. However in the course of writing, I’ve become aware that I really have to make sure that I play fair by those called to ministry. I’m not interested in aggressive abuse of a life of faith; I am interested in some of the questions that still, nearly 40 years on, remain current for me.

I also, as part of my research, did something I don’t remember doing before, ever: I read the 4 gospels straight through, end to end. As far as I recall I’ve only ever read them in discrete passages before, not as complete documents. In any event I hadn’t looked at them for decades. Reading them now I am struck by two things: how very, very deeply they are concerned with Judaism, and also how all four are concerned to put Jesus firmly in the tradition of John the Baptist–all of gospel writers went out of their way to stress this, and I find myself wondering why.

When I was a student back then, one of the texts was Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism. I don’t recall a great deal about it except that Sartre was inordinately concerned to stress the extent his thinking was compatible with Marxism. This puzzled me until I realised it was because Marxism was a keystone for his audience of Parisian intellectuals, something of primary importance for them. I’ve come to think something similar is true of the gospels and John the Baptist: for reasons not now remembered it was of great importance to the audience for whom the gospel writers wrote, to establish that Jesus was not only compatible with the Baptist’s thought, but also recognised by John as the Lord whose way he prepared. Tales of Mary and the Magic Baby ( (c) Francesca Stavrakopoulou ), raising the dead and healing the sick, and Jesus’s own resurrection weren’t enough, John’s blessing was important too. The most interesting thing about John the Baptist in the gospels is therefore that he is there at all.

I’m not sure if this will feature in the novel yet, though other aspects of early ‘Christian’ thought will, but it’s fun to get into this, and see what lurks unresolved somewhere deep inside me.