I know confessions in the Orthodox Church are private. I get uncomfortable whenever the topic comes up in a group for fear of someone spilling their guts and then expecting me to respond with some great spiritual insight. With that in mind, I would like to start this post off with a confession of mine. Ready? I daydream during homilies. I know I should listen to the many well-crafted homilies I have heard. God bless the priests and their homilies. I grew up Baptist so I know all about paying attention to what a preacher preaches, but I still day dream.
Like Adam, I blame God for this. The cause of this day dreaming ‘sin’ is Bible reading. The Scriptures are full of the most fantastic stories and they capture me every time: The most perfect woman ever created is walking alone, naked in a garden and happens upon a fallen angel in the guise of a talking snake and changes humanity forever—now that’s a storyline, characters, inciting incident, and catastrophic plot points! There’s a reference to angels mating with women creating Nephilim. There’s a prophet that calls fire from heaven atop a mountain in a ‘throw-down’ of whose God is bigger and then taunts the priests of Baal that would shame a modern day professional wrestler’s smack talk. There is a story of a guy who is told to marry a prostitute and name their kids ‘no mercy’ and ‘not my people’—talk about being picked on in Hebrew school—now that’s interesting Young Adult fiction. But what really sends me dreaming is Jesus and His parables. When the Epistle or Gospel is being read, I don’t follow along in the bulletin but listen with my ears like the first believers would have heard it.
Life as an Orthodox writer for me is one of constant amazement, basking in the creation of the greatest story teller of all. He’s called the author and finisher of our faith. My creative life is interwoven with my life as an Orthodox Christian. One cannot exist without the other. Christ is in all and fills all things for me. I am compelled to write because the power of the Divine story captures me and communicates God’s love to me. He is called the Word after all.
Another confession: You may think, because of the last paragraph that I sit at my computer with incense burning, among a shrine of beeswax-candle-lit icons and chant music filling the air. That does sound cool, but my process for writing is very similar to other writers, such as Anne Rice, Stephen King or Steven Pressfield. It’s a grueling process both internally and outwardly. I fight the inner war of procrastination and the outer war of scheduling. Writing is hard and everyone has a comment or suggestion or ‘bone to pick with me’ or ‘their take’ and it gets in the way of my selfishness. It’s my story after all, right? (read sarcasm and deeper philosophical themes about living a life that edifies others into that last question.) But the process is also life for me. I must write. I must have a discipline of writing something every day. A lot of times what I write is weak, preachy, sometimes mean and ill-informed diatribes, but every now and then, there is magic. ‘There’s treasure in trash’ if you will allow the cliché. The process of my writing includes a large piece of paper with a mind map on it, trying to cipher a story arc. I usually start with a character or a phrase and then go from there. Once I have the kernel of an idea and have extrapolated possibilities I let it percolate and I start paying attention to what I see, hear, feel and think. I live, as best I can a liturgical, ascetic life. I read a wide spectrum of books and the lives of saints. This is where the magic starts.
In Sojourning with Angels I had the main character Milo in my mind for a long time. Then I ran across an akathist to a guardian angel and started to think about the role of guardian angels in our lives—so I have a guardian angel that can protect me in a car crash, good—yeah angels! The angel watches over me, and then it hit me and I was instantly unsettled —the angel is watching me right now. Right now as I sit at this computer, listening to Explosions in the Sky (post-rock band), snacking on ham and drinking coffee with cream on a Wednesday—Noooo—angels, look away!
I find many things that I believe as an Orthodox Christian unsettling when I really think about them: time dimensions that collapse during the liturgy and how I can’t stop yawning or being stern with my kids while in the Kingdom of God somehow. Or how my sinful mouth now consumes Christ—Whoa!—back to the post. So I usually obsess about these beliefs for a time, and with this book I obsessed about angels. I then read about the Toll Houses that guardian angels guide us through when we die and I knew then what to do with Milo and the story. Magic.
This seems to happen often in my stories. I reflect on the ramifications of some of these beliefs. I can’t possibly replicate this holiness because of my own flaws and sinfulness but I am wrapped up in all of this ‘stuff’, so I turn to my characters and the art of telling a story. Jesus did the same thing with the Good Samaritan. He told an amazing story then posed the question to the audience, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” and sucked them into story forever.
Confession three: One day I was walking down the Christian fiction aisle of a bookstore and saw Amish prairie romance novels, an end of the world series, a couple books about Christian assassins, vampires and zombies. I confess I write Orthodox fiction because I am not satisfied with the stories that populate the Christian fiction aisles. I write the stories I would want to read—stories that wrestle with the sinful condition of mankind, stories where God is thought to be silent, stories where characters really struggle and run from God, stories where the love for God must fight if it’s going to win, stories of faith, adventure and definitely more about angels than vampires. The world needs great fiction, even fair to good fiction, from an Orthodox perspective because, well, if we don’t write it then we will have missed the mark as artists, writers and Orthodox Christians in America and that is something to go to confession about.
R. Leo Olson lives in West Michigan with his wife and three children. He has degrees in Comparative World Religions, Biblical Studies and Ancient Greek. He attends St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids MI. He has recently published his first adult fiction novel: Sojourning With Angels: The Rise of Zazriel. More information than you probably want can be found at http://rleoolson.com/wordpress/