Conviction in Fiction
By Kristen McCarty
August 13, 2006
“A great novel is a kind of conversion experience. We come away from it changed.”
Well meaning adults often ask teenagers in junior high and high school, “Where do you want to be in 10 years? Where do you see yourself?” For a culture that gives its young an endless multitude of choices, this is not a bad question. Prompting young people to think about what they want to do in life and how to prepare for it is wise. But the question starts to lose meaning once you have set the course of your life. If you’re 30, and you ask yourself where you would like to see yourself or what you would like to be doing in 10 years, the answer may be “something pretty similar to what I am doing right now.” We work our jobs, we build our relationships with family and friends. There should come a saturation point with salary and material possessions where hopefully we no longer dream of getting more and more. No matter what our age or where we are in life, perhaps a better question to begin asking ourselves would be, “What kind of person do I want to be in 10 years?”
I believe that reading stories can be the kind of transformative experience that makes us ask the important questions. Every once in a while, I have read a book that prompts me to stop and think about the person I am and the person I need to become. Recently reading The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry was one of those transformative experiences.
His writing is beautiful, not on it’s shimmering surface, but in the simplicity of the truth it illuminates. The stories he tells are often short on plot and long on character, giving lie to the idea that for a life to be interesting, it must be filled with intrigue and explosions, car chases and serial murderers. Old Jack is an old farmer, fully anchored in his community of family and neighbors, passing his old age lost in memories of his past. It’s a rare and skillful storyteller who can compel us to look to our own hearts and character while engaging us deeply in the life of someone else. Old Jack’s past and the mistakes he made brings to mind our future, our chance to live life to the fullest.
I want to be the kind of person who buys less because I want less, satisfied with what I have. I want to be the kind of person who remains cheerful and flexible when my plans are thwarted—the kind of person who keeps a small leaf of hope alive when things go horribly wrong. I would like to find a way to serve God that honors the life of Christ. The kind of person who continually asks, “What is the best way to live my life? What is right and how can I do it? How can I be happy as well as kind and good? How do I tell my story and the stories around me that need to be told?”
The Mad Farmer tells us to "ask the questions that have no answers." Even if we never come to conclusive answers, I believe that there is worth in wrestling with the right questions, and I’m thankful for books that bring those questions before me with such grace and power.