When writing about religion, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to find language or images that match the intensity of the believer’s experience. The problem is that this language almost always requires comparison and metaphor: “it felt like a strong wind” or “it was like there was a fire in my chest”. Such writing is fine for an audience inclined to believe, but it almost always fails with skeptics.
One writer who succeeds in finding a language to describe religious experience is Jamie Quatro. Her story, “The Anointing,” from her debut collection I Want to Show You More, is a perfect example of a successful description of what can seem like an indescribable miracle. It was published at Guernica, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
In the Bible, most of Jesus’ miracles are described simply. The focus is almost always on the physical items involved, not on the experience. The apostles passed out the handful of loaves and fish, and the food never ran out. The water-from-wine at the wedding in Cannae tasted better than the wine from the original casks.
This is the same strategy used by Quatro in “The Anointing.” In the story, Diane’s husband is so depressed that he refuses to get out of bed. She has begun to fear for his life, and so she requests an anointing from the church elders. Here is how Quatro describes the kind of miracle that Diane has in mind:
“During evening worship—held in a makeshift auditorium beneath a stained canvas tarp—a boy with braces on his legs was brought forward by his mother, his wheelchair leaving tracks in the sawdust. The camp’s pastor removed the braces, knelt in front of the chair, and rubbed oil all over the boy’s white calves as if he were applying sunscreen. The following summer the boy came back to camp still wearing the braces, though now he used crutches with metal cuffs around the wrists.”
Notice the details that Quatro provides: the stained canvas tarp, tracks in the sawdust, oil applied like sunscreen. These are the mundane details of the physical world, not the language of spirituality. The result is that readers are more likely to set aside their natural skepticism.
Here is how Quatro describes the arrival of the church elders, the source of the miracle she hopes for:
“She thought they’d have a small phial, like a test tube—maybe something crystal—but Pastor Murray stepped in carrying a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil. Diane was startled, not just by the oil (would something from Sam’s Club work?), but by the image of Florence Henderson that popped into her head, wearing padded mittens and frying up a mess of chicken.”
Because of the specific plainness of that description, we are engaged in the scene. We want to see the unearthly miracle that will (or will not) begin with that practical bottle of oil.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write about an unearthly experience using “The Anointing” as a model:
- Think of an experience that is either unearthly (a miracle or encounter with something unearthly like God, a ghost, or an alien). Or think of any experience that has a hard-to-explain effect on a character.
- List the items involved: the room, the furnishings, the personal items. Be specific in your list: not just oil but “a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil.”
- Now, set the stage for the experience. Assume that your audience is skeptical and ready to dismiss the first inklings of something unearthly. (This is always the assumption made by magicians, and the next few steps you will follow are the same steps they follow as well.)
- State what is about to happen (the miracle or unearthly experience).
- Show the items that will be involved, both directly and indirectly. (In Quatro’s miracle with the boy in the wheelchair, oil is used directly but the tracks in the sawdust are indirectly involved.) Make the reader believe in the physical reality of the scene. (This is why everyone knows the passage in the Bible where Jesus asks Thomas to probe his wounds with his fingers. We’re struck by the physical reality of the physically impossible.)
- State and show someone’s skepticism: the narrator or another character. (In Quatro’s story, Diane sees the oil and wonders if “something from Sam’s Club” will work.)
- Draw the curtain. Remove the object of the experience from sight, either literally (the narrator or main character leaves the room) or briefly (the narrator or main character looks away for a moment or becomes distracted). Make the audience forget for even a few seconds what is anticipated.
- Show the miracle or unearthly experience. State it simply. If the experience is truly remarkable, no loaded language is necessary.
Good luck and have fun.