Novel Theology: Confessions of a Whiteheadian Novelist
Patricia Adams Farmer
“[God] is the poet of world . . . " --A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality
"At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic Beauty." --A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas
THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID about the writer's old adage: Write the first draft with your heart, and the second with your head. This is especially true for improvisational writers like me. By improvisational writing, I mean something akin to the jazz artist who, out of the possibilities within a given chord progression, creates a spontaneous melody as she goes along. As both an essayist and novelist, my writing falls into this category, that is, taking a cue from a single thread of an idea and playing it out “as the spirit moves.” If it gels into something coherent, the creative process wins. If not, it can be set aside or discarded. Essays work well this way, often needing only light editing. But the novel--an unwieldy cauldron of multiple personalities--is a whole other story.
Truth be told, the characters in my novels run the show, giving real meaning to the term “character-driven.” (How I envy those who can plot every jot and tittle and stick to it! But, alas, my characters prove uncooperative.) Of course, I do work from an outline, and yes, I lure my characters in that direction. But they do have a will of their own and a definite say-so in the plot. So I listen and write and let the narrative take its course, constantly readjusting my outline as events unfold. The end result is usually quite different from anything I imagined when I started.
And then comes the re-write . . .
Once the euphoria of the finished story subsides, reality sets in. Like all first-flush creations born of the enthusiastic heart, first drafts cry out for that second stage of creation, the brass tacks, the hard, analytic thinking. My characters, with their free-wheeling personalities, now have to take a backseat to the pesky realities of logical coherence, continuity, detail, and foreshadowing—not to mention the painful, gritty, mind-numbing work of copy editing. But there’s no getting around it. Creativity must, in the end, give way to craft.
So, with a deep breath and copious amounts of tea, I take the novel as it is, and transform it into what it can be—much like the world of process philosophy. Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki says that God “works with the world as it is, in order to bring it to where it can be.” Thus, the entire artistic process of writing and re-writing can serve loosely as a metaphor for what Whitehead calls “creative transformation.”
The process world of Alfred North Whitehead is a story unfolding in time with no pre-determined outcome. Many influences are at work in the writing, like strong-willed characters colliding against each other. And yet, every becoming moment of the story also includes a divine urge toward intense harmony. Whitehead calls this Beauty. In fact, the "poet of the world" lures us always and forever toward Beauty. The divine poet beckons and persuades and lures us forward with enticing possibilities, but can never strong-arm a character's action. So, in sense, God works as the improvisational writer works—not as an all-powerful tyrant over characters and plot, determining the outcome from the beginning, but rather as a the poet of possibilities, luring the narrative into realms of richly contrasted Beauty.
When it comes to our individual stories--our personal story within the cosmic story--we choose our own words. And not always with care. Bombarded by a plethora of influences all vying for a place on the page, we make our choices of nouns and verbs, characters and plot, metaphors and meaning, and hope for something close to a happy ending. But things happen. Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in constant need of revision? We ignore the divine lure toward Beauty on a daily basis, sometimes making a holy mess of things. Or, we simply write ourselves into a corner and don’t know how to get out. And even when we do our best to write our stories on the dreams of youth, evil characters lurk among the pages and unforeseen tragedy dismantles our carefully constructed plot.
But thankfully there is always more to the story. God, Whitehead believed, is not only the lure toward Beauty, but the reaper of tragic Beauty when the story goes awry. This divine companion—the poet of the world—is our constant co-writer, who is able to take our flawed and fractured lives and re-imagine them into fresh metaphors of meaning. Just as words are alive and open to a thousand interpretations, so the past is alive and breathing, just waiting for a fresh word, an embrace of love, a divine imagination that can re-create out of the wreckage we have wrought.
No, we cannot erase the actual facts of the story we have written—the past—but we can transform those facts into an ongoing story that can still be made beautiful. In fact, isn't that what we love most about stories--the redemption of flawed characters? In this way, no story is really set in stone. All can be redeemed; all can re-interpreted; all can be re-imagined and loved and forgiven and woven into the cosmic story that unfolds under a canopy of stars in a universe of glimmering possibilities.