As you may have guessed, very little thought goes into these posts. Why do I keep a blog? Solely to satisfy my narcissism? That could be. At times, though, I feel like there is some greater purpose to this blip in cyberspace, like maybe there’s a reason I do this other than I’m bored and kinda stuck on myself. And at times I feel like that reason is on the verge of revealing itself. At still other times I know that reason is you.
Some of you may know that I graduated from Pratt Institute with a degree in writing. To do that, I had to write a fiction thesis (which, to my surprise and delight) didn’t have to be finished, just long and properly formatted. Tacked onto the beginning of that thesis was a critical introduction in any format I wanted as long as it clearly explained my feelings about, approach to, and reasoning behind the thesis. I did my best to be completely honest with myself as I wrote it, but ended up having to draft it several times before I arrived at the truth and the final version, which I’m posting here as a reminder to myself and everyone else that I made a promise. So here it is; my critical introduction.
Before this letter, I wrote you another one, an introduction to Just One More Soul, which had to be thrown away.
The first letter filled the assignment—it contained some plot summary, a description of the work, my feelings about commercial and genre fiction, and a discussion about the influence Stephen King has on my writing—but it never explained why I started writing Just One More Soul or why I’m so determined to finish it. During a workshop of one of my stories this semester, a professor said, “Why is always the most important question. It’s the question that allows you to ask all the other questions.” My biggest problem, in writing and in life, is that because I know why, I assume everyone else does, too, and I don’t bother to explain.
So, in as simple terms as I can state it, this is why I wrote Just One More Soul: to prove to you that no soul is beyond redemption.
The narrator of the story, Tristos, spent his early childhood as a sex slave in a sarai (a brothel catering exclusively to pedophiles), his teens as a rebel soldier, and his adult life as a political assassin. Revenge was the reason Tristos became a soldier—most of the men who frequented the sarai were soldiers loyal to the dictatorship the rebellion was trying to overthrow. Tristos was thirteen when he joined the war, and after watching an enemy soldier beg for his life, he realized that the ability to kill gave him power. When the man the enemy soldier was begging agreed let him go, Tristos stepped in and cut the soldier’s throat.
It’s similar, in a way, to rape victims who begin to carry a gun. Very few victims actually use the gun, but just having it gives them a sense of control, a feeling that if they were in the situation again, they could stop the rapist. Tristos can’t articulate his reasons for thinking so, but as a soldier and later as an assassin, he feels that he’s making Nytundi a safer country for innocents, most importantly the girl he fell in love with in the sarai, Thestra Droboskaya.
Tristos sees Thestra as the ultimate innocent because of her beliefs. She was born into the same conditions as he was, but found triumph over the helplessness of her childhood when she learned about God. She spends her time trying to rescue people from the fallout of the power struggle between Nytundi’s two political parties, the Truth and the Light, and reaching out to Tristos again and again in attempt to show him that violence isn’t the only way to bring on change. Thestra wants Tristos to see that God’s love changes people, too, and when people change, the world changes.
Redemption in the Christian sense of the word is based on the belief that no human can fully atone for all of the sins they’ve committed, and that divine intervention is required to save a soul from eternal damnation. The Bible says that God loved us so much He sent his only son, Jesus, to die for our sins. Baptists believe that when Jesus died, he took the sin of all humanity upon himself, and when he rose again, it was symbolic of his victory over sin. That gave all sinners the option of accepting Jesus’s victory in place of their own failure, and by accepting it, receiving a place in Heaven, redeemed of their sins.
One of the most common misconceptions people (including some Christians) have is that there is a cut-off point for who can be redeemed, and anyone past that point isn’t worthy of redemption. Tristos believes that, and I worry you do, too. I started writing Just One More Soul to show you that the only line you can cross that will cut you off from salvation is deciding not to accept redemption.
Before you start reading, you should know that this story isn’t traditional Christian fiction and I never intended it to be. I realize that people I know—my little Baptist mother and mother-in-law, my Bible college graduate grandfather, my devout Catholic grandmother, the preacher and congregation at my home church—are going to read this. I’ve been struggling with that knowledge most of my life. How do I reconcile my faith with my writing? That’s been the question since I decided to become a writer, and it brings up a whole host of other moral questions: Is it worse to write the cuss word or to lie about the way my character talks? Am I doing more damage admitting that some of my characters have sex outside of marriage or by pretending that no one ever does? Most importantly, how can I prove anything to anyone if they don’t trust that I’m telling the truth?
A lecture at Pratt Institute was the last place I expected to find the answer—especially since I had planned on going to the bathroom and not coming back as soon as my professor took attendance. Fortunately, I didn’t get the chance because my professor decided to mark attendance when the lecture ended. Stuck there against my will, I tuned in and out while the guest speaker went on and on about Chekhov. During his life, the speaker said, other Christians berated Chekhov for writing about thieves, murderers, and evildoers of every kind without harsh enough judgment. Chekhov replied that as a writer, his job wasn’t to judge good from bad or right from wrong, only to present people honestly.
All the cylinders fired in my mind. Whether he’d done it on purpose or not, Chekhov had pointed out an essential truth about Christianity. Jesus hadn’t ignored sin—he ate with tax collectors and whores, chose his disciples from rowdy fishermen, and he redeemed the thief on the cross. When the holy men rebuked him for preaching in the streets, he told them that a healthy man doesn’t need a doctor. They wanted him to condemn all sinners, but that wasn’t why he’d been sent to earth. He came “to seek and to save,” which meant living alongside sin, confronting its existence, not hiding it or hiding from it. Jesus understood that no human had ever lived without sin—that’s a basic truth stated in The Bible—and that having compassion for your fellow sinners, letting them know that you love them and that God loves them, can change their life.
That was my answer. If no human has ever lived without doing something wrong, then to write a story without admitting that your characters sin and expect it to say something about the human condition is to call God a liar. My main character enjoys killing, he’s addicted to painkillers, he cusses, drinks, does drugs, and has sex. I didn’t dilute any of it when I wrote Just One More Soul, I just told the truth about who he is. I’m sure I’ll probably be accused of justifying immorality for writing about things like fornication and murder, but I’m not worried. The Bible details every sin imaginable, and it has never been accused of justifying immorality.
What you have here is only the first seven chapters of Just One More Soul, and less than a third of the story. Things have been hard, but they aren’t hopeless yet, and Tristos hasn’t reached the breaking point, but he will.
My relationship with Tristos has been eye-opening. I’ve never been as invested in one of my characters as I am in him. Maybe that’s because I put myself in him—I’m bullheaded; I always think I’m right; and I go about things the way I want to, not the way I should, letting the ends justify the means. Just like Tristos, I have the desire and capacity to hurt people, maybe worse. And just like Tristos, I want some kind of purity in my life to off-set that blackness in me. I gave Tristos all the darkest parts of myself, expecting to hate him, but he’s been with me for more than a year and I can’t do anything but love him. I don’t want to hurt him, and yet I plan to completely destroy him before this story ends. One of the maxims of the military is that you can’t start building someone up until you break them down. Tristos is tough, but I’m going to break him down so that he can become something better.
Only recently have I realized that this parallels God’s relationship to humans. By all rights He should hate us, but He can’t because He loves us too much. That love makes Him want to rescue us and it’s the desire to rescue us that keeps Him from making our paths smooth. He could shield us from experiencing any of the pain and trials of this world, but we would be weak and complacent. Instead God refines us in the fire and sharpens us with steel, just like He promised He would. In the end we emerge something better, stronger, and purer than when we started.
I know you’ve gone through a lot. You’ve been hurt, life has kicked you around, and people you trusted—people you loved—walked out of your life like you never meant anything to them. It happens to all of us, and it’s going to happen to Tristos even more as the story goes on. We deal with it by doing whatever we can to pass the time and hide the pain—drinking, smoking, fucking, staring at a screen, opening books, sitting in crowds of people we wish were our friends. We have to be pulled out of that rut to be happy again, and it’s always painful to get pulled out of your rut.
When I realized I wasn’t going to finish Just One More Soul this year, I felt like I’d failed. I started writing this for you, to show you that life isn’t hopeless, that things won’t always be as bad as they are now, but how can I make you see that if I don’t even get you to the end of the story?
My answer came from critiquing one of my classmates’ thesis introductions. I was sitting on the windowsill in my kitchen, reading it when I broke down crying.
“David Foster Wallace is gone,” she wrote. “He gave up. I read every word of his and know that he decided one day that he couldn’t handle life anymore. His stories try again and again to dissolve the barrier that exists between everyone and the rest of the world, and again and again he falls back on the conclusion that this dissolution is impossible. We’re trapped in ourselves, his stories repeat, and that’s a terrible place to be even for an instant. So yes […] I understand why you were so paralyzed when Wallace died: you thought he was going to make it, that he was somehow living despite an acute understanding of how much everything hurts, and he wasn’t going to ignore his pain even though that might have been easy, and then he gave up, which means that it really must be that bad, and that we’re going to run out of reasons to stay alive, or maybe we already have.”
That was on page seven. I scribbled an apology to her on page six and ripped seven out of the manuscript. I was furious and sick and heartbroken. The world shouldn’t be this way. People shouldn’t fail each other. No one should kill himself because other people had failed him. Worst of all, that my friend believed Wallace meant that I had failed her. I know that humans aren’t hopeless and life isn’t just pain that only death cures. I have God to show me that, but I haven’t shown anyone else.
I know that you don’t believe in God, and you think my logic is flawed because it relies on the precept that there is actually a higher power. I can’t convince you that God exists and I won’t try—that’s between you and Him—but I can tell you this: I read Oblivion and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. My classmate was right—over and over Wallace’s stories come to the conclusion that the barrier between people can’t be dissolved, that one human can’t reach another because of that barrier.
But Wallace was wrong. He based his conclusion on the assumption that the fear of the pain it takes to live without the barriers—even for a few minutes—is greater than anyone’s desire to reach another person, that people are so caught up in keeping themselves from getting hurt that they can’t put their comfort at risk to save someone else.
The first critical introduction I wrote to Just One More Soul, the letter I mentioned before, had to be trashed because I’d written it with the barriers up. I wanted to reach you, but I was afraid to let you see what was really in my heart, so I failed. It was only after reading my classmate’s introduction that I realized I was doing the same thing as Thestra was in my story. Over and over again she reaches out to Tristos, but it never has any affect on him until she puts herself at risk and lets her barrier down.
Once I heard a preacher tell a story about a man trying to win souls for Christ. He went out every day and witnessed about God’s love to as many people as he could, but no one he spoke to ever accepted Christ’s salvation. When the man told his preacher, the preacher asked him, “Are you really expecting to win the soul of every person you talk to?”
The man said, “No, of course not.”
“Well, that’s why you’re not,” the preacher said.
That man’s barrier was not believing. As long as he assumed people would reject his faith, he couldn’t be disappointed when they did. I had the same barrier. I didn’t tell you the truth about my motives for writing Just One More Soul because I thought you would reject me. Somewhere in my mind I knew what had to be done—I couldn’t have written it into my story if I didn’t—but I hadn’t yet applied it to my life.
It only takes one person to prove Wallace wrong. I know that if I take down my barrier and let you in, I can reach you. The problem is, fiction is just another barrier between us.
My name is eden. When I was in preschool, I was molested by the grandson and granddaughter of my babysitter. Since the girl was my age, I don’t think she actually knew what she was doing; she didn’t act like she thought it was anything unusual or wrong. I knew something was wrong, but like most kids I couldn’t tell until I was older and looking back.
My dad was an alcoholic. I accepted Christ at a Wednesday evening service my granny had taken me to and I waited up to tell Dad that I was saved, but he didn’t care because he was drunk. I very acutely remember standing on the corner of his waterbed, staring at the mole on his side as he got undressed to go to sleep. My mother is a strong woman, but back then she was just a kid, stretched too thin between four babies and countless jobs. One night she came and sat on my bed crying and told me that she might have to divorce Dad. She wanted me to pray with her, so I did. I prayed that she would leave him because I didn’t like him. He scared me. I was disappointed when she didn’t, but glad when I found out that detox would keep him away from us for almost a month.
When he came back, Dad was changing, painfully trying to adapt to his new life without booze. I didn’t make it easy. I was selfish and hurtful and ready to start that teenage rebellion a few years early. Instead of just taking it out on my father, I rebelled aimlessly. I hated everyone who was close to me because, I told myself, they hated me first. I pushed them away. They were a family, they all loved each other, and I felt like someone looking in from the outside, but I wasn’t about to admit that I needed them.
Puberty struck and things got worse. I didn’t trust anyone, so I couldn’t talk to them. I went to the internet for my information and instead of sex I found pornography, an addiction that lasted into adulthood. The people around me barely registered anymore except as entities to hide from. I was becoming a worse and worse person and I didn’t know how to stop. I lived in my depression; I read, wrote, and fantasized about killing myself. If that sounds melodramatic, you should’ve read the stuff I was writing.
This is something I haven’t told anyone but my husband: I was sixteen when my granny died. Like everyone else in my family, I thought she was a hypochondriac and when she told me to tell Mom, an LPN, that she was having some pains in her chest, I filed it away under the myriad other things she thought she had wrong with her. I rolled my eyes, said goodbye and hung up the phone, eager to get back to the story I was writing. Several hours later, my grandpa called and told me that Granny was having a heart attack and to get Mom. It was my fault.
I was at the blackest point in my life. Not long after Granny died, Upward Bound started recruiting at my school and I jumped at the opportunity to escape, even if it was only for six weeks over the summer. My family wasn’t ready to lose anyone else yet, but I had to get away, so I forged my parents’ signatures, and when they found out, I cried until they let me go.
Upward Bound is where I met my husband, Joshua, who I firmly believe God put in my life to show me how strongly one person can love another without the benefit of biological ties. I didn’t want to lie to him about anything. I was more honest with Joshua than I was with myself and he loved me despite every awful thing in my heart. Just knowing him made me strive to be a better person.
But I still couldn’t stay in Missouri. Brooklyn seemed far enough away, so I went. The people from Pratt’s TransFORM Christian Fellowship welcomed me in and took me to a fall retreat where, for the first time in my life, I heard the words of a song we were singing and realized it was a love song. Sure, I knew that God loved me, I was His child and all that. But that night, as I stood by the lake and talked on the phone to Joshua and the words of the song played over in my head, I realized that God was in love with me. I started crying and I fell down where I was standing. Joshua loved me no matter what I’d done and I knew that was true because there was nothing he could do to make me stop loving him. And that was how God loved me. Endlessly. Openly. I could never hurt Him enough to drive Him away. He was there waiting for me even after everything I’d done and He always would be.
It’s not like I haven’t done anything else wrong since that night. I have an addictive personality and alcohol was the next thing on my list. I’m less than a week sober, but praying it lasts for my baby’s sake. Now instead of my family, I hurt my husband when I feel angry or alienated. History repeats itself. I turn away from God and I turn back. There’s never been a time when He turned away from me, and praise Him, there never will be. His Son saved me from my sins and He saves me from myself. Thank God.
So my barrier’s down and my hand is out. It hurts to exist like this—vulnerable, naked, waiting for you to accept or reject what I’m telling you, waiting to see if you’ll reject me, too—but I can’t give up. If I take my hand back now, it’s possible that no one else will reach out to you. I’d rather let you hurt me than take that chance.
Right now I’m promising you that I will finish Just One More Soul and find a way to get it to you. This is the truth: the soul in the title is yours. Whatever pain or humiliation I go through will be worth it if I can reach you.
All my love, sincerely,