I was honored last month when the fabulous Jane George, VP for programming of my local San Francisco Area RWA chapter (which is an amazing group of writers!) asked me to give one of the inspirational talks at our annual holiday party. I wrote a sermon, and confess I got pretty nervous this morning about whether it was appropriate, but the group was so generous and gave me back so much positive energy that it was the most fun I’ve had “preaching” in a long time!
Here’s the text:
Last year at this holiday party I heard four very inspirational talks by Sophie Littlefield, Carolyn Jewell, A.J. Larrieu and Shelly Bates. They were wonderful–skilfully crafted and delivered, and I couldn’t help but think they were very much like the kind of sermons I aim to preach as an Episcopal priest. Accessible, and interesting, full of pathos, and insight (their talks for sure, my sermons hopefully), and most importantly, full of hope.
Because of the hang-ups we Christians have about sex [Here's where my friend and heckler Alice Gaines interrupted to tell me to speak for myself!] people think it’s odd to meet a priest who writes racy romance novels. And as you can imagine, I have a lot to say about that, but I’ll try to share only the most titillating and inspiring of my opinions with you today. And the first one is about the power of storytelling.
The trend in sermon writing is narrative. This wasn’t always true. If you think about those old, three-hour long sermons delivered by America’s famous Puritan preachers, and which you may have read excerpts of in high school, they were epic exhortations without any thread of story. And let’s hope the preachers read them like this *holds iPad up to nose* so they didn’t notice everyone dozing in their pews. Or maybe you grew up on a steady diet of the deadly boring “three point sermon.” Lord have mercy.
Now a days, preachers learn in seminary that story is what keeps people’s attention.
And as we writers know–story is the very best way to tell a capital T truth, because a narrative is a compact vehicle perfect for conveying a truth far bigger than the spare words used to tell it. Story has the potential to be sublime. It invites wonder and reflection. Stories echo in our dreams and return to us at the oddest moments–and that is how we come to know Truth. And every story that’s any good has a bit of that kind of universal Truth in it.
Like most of you, I’m a voracious reader and I’ve always loved to write. But I’d forgotten about my childhood dream to write fiction until five months after my twins were born, which was rather inconvenient timing. After a year-long binge on paranormal romances, I decided to try to write one. My husband cautioned that writing a novel is really hard, but my best friend and preaching critique partner, said, “You can do it. A romance novel is just like a sermon. You explain the conflict, descend into the dark moment, and then you fix it. And Voila–denouement.”
Dear Husband was right–it was challenging to learn the conventions of the genre and some of the basic skills of fiction writing. But my friend was more right. It turned out writing a novel is a lot like writing a very elaborate sermon.
Another thing preachers and romance writers have in common is the idea of core story. Preachers are fond of saying we each only have one sermon. We use a variety of scriptures and anecdotes to reiterate the same theological point over and over again. Hopefully, if we’re good at it, no one notices we’re repeating ourselves.
My one sermon is something like “God loves us, flaws, shameful secrets and all. That kind of love is a miracle, and so we must love other people with it, even the jerks, the bad guys, and the reluctant romance heroes. And when it’s hard to be loving, we can rely on each other for help.” This core story of mine evolved over the course of preparing dozens of couples for marriage and then preaching at their weddings, and somewhere in that process I realized I had developed a theology of romantic love and sex.
As a part of my training, I was a chaplain at a nursing home, and I learned on the dementia wing that even when people forget who they are, sex is still a big part of what it means to be human. And I’m pretty sure, after having several roommates before moving in with my husband, that the only way to really tolerate sharing house with someone is to have sex with them. Those feel-good hormones smooth over the cranky, you-didn’t-do-the-dishes bitterness involved with cohabitation.
I believe in romantic love. And I believe making it last is very hard. When infatuation fizzles out, maintaining a relationship is one of the great spiritual disciplines. Most of us married types will meet other people we could fall in love with, most of us will change over time, we might develop crazy all-consuming interests like writing romance, some of us will at times be so angry over something real or imagined that we consider ending our relationship, some will separate. But I still believe love is worth it, because romantic love is one of the straightest paths to the divine.
God, or Truth, or Love with a capital L, as I might call her at weddings or RWA meetings where I know not everyone is a Christian–she is a mystery. Maybe you call her “the universe” or “the sublime” or “collective human potential.” Whatever you prefer. The thing is, she is a bit of a tease. There one moment, gone the next.
In the Bible, when Moses asks to see the face of God, all he gets is a vision of the divine backside–God’s ass, so to speak. We can’t see her, touch her, pin her down, except when we receive a dose of unconditional love from another person, or notice our lover is even more beautiful with those lines around his eyes, or we lose ourselves in sexual ecstasy. Romantic, erotic love is perhaps the very best real-life experience of the infinite, of meaning and purpose that transcends self, of love that heals, and of hope that what we do matters.
Desire is divine–it is our longing to be loved, to be so close to another being that the boundaries between us disappear, to surrender ourselves to the greater whole. And desire is our craft.
The miraculous thing about fiction is that happily single people and unhappily single people, happily and unhappily partnered ones, and people who have never even once been in love can have their taste of ecstasy in a romance novel. No matter our life circumstances, immersing ourselves in someone else’s story means we get to share in their experience of transcendence. It might make us more open to a love connection, or inspire our own private DIY pleasure session, or dispose a grumpy spouse more kindly to her partner.
Now you can begin to see why, to me, a romance novel is just one big sermon about the power of Love and what it does to us, and what we should do with it once we’ve felt it. My favorite romances are gritty, and quirky, and point to the hard work of making it last. And I can’t get enough of them.
Are you getting bored? Because I made the mistake of writing a three point sermon instead of a narrative one. Hang in there. I’m almost done–this is point three!
I’ve talked about the power of story, and the power of love, and now I want to talk about the power of calling, or vocation. Nearly every author bio I read states that from the time so-and-so could pick up her crayola crayon, she was scribbling stories. Yes, it’s a cliche, and most of us probably have told some version of it, because it’s true. The writing bug, the itch to tell stories and weave worlds and tie up loose ends and grant orgasms and concoct happy endings–that desire will not be denied.
I pretty much go nuts if I’m not writing. Even in the revision stage, I start to get beyond PMS pissy if I’m not putting new words onto the page. So I often have something new going even while I’m revising. Desire and compulsion can feel dangerously close–but I choose to believe desire is good. When we don’t repress it, we find healthy ways to express it. We find balance.
Church geeks are fond of a famous quote from Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Like me, all of you are here because in some way writing is your deep gladness. Probably, we could cleverly argue that the world NEEDS more romance novels, too. But surely, it needs more love, and that is what we really have to offer.
Before I began writing novels, I found I only knew what I really believed when it was time to write the sermon. Now, that’s even more true. Writing romance reminds me what’s important, when I’m infuriated with my husband, it helps me remember he’s a lot like those stubborn heroes I love to write about. Writing romance helps me remember the toddlers who won’t let me pee by myself are the ones I longed for through years of infertility. Writing romance reminds me I am good enough, and I can also always learn to be better. I pretty much write myself into existence, and it feels good. And when I come here, I know I am not alone in that pleasure.
Last week, a clergy colleague told me she knew she was called to be a priest the first time she stood in the pulpit to preach. And the reason she knew is because it felt like another experience she’d had, the first time she’d made love to another woman, and her body had finally belonged to her, and she thought “this is what I’m made for.” That is vocation, that is having a calling, and the reason we are all here is because we share one. A lonely, frustrating, thrilling, and surprisingly important one.
Sometimes it is far more frustrating than it is thrilling, but it doesn’t have to be lonely, not when we have each other. I’ve read some of your books, your novellas, and your short stories. I’ve read many of your blog posts and know about you the random things you decide to tweet. For as many of you as I’ve managed to squeeze in, I’ve tasted a little bit of what transcendence is like for you. Thank you for sharing it. I’m truly grateful, as I am for the friendships that come with being a part of this chapter.
Love. It’s a miracle. It’s hard. It takes other people to do it well, and also to write about it. That’s my one sermon in a nutshell. And now you never have to read any of my books, because you’ve already heard it all.