editor’s note :: i’m taking a break this month to work on a new manuscript. some of my closest friends have agreed to fill this space in my absence with their thoughts on bravery and what it means for our faith. you can read the rest of the posts here. today, josh shares his words. Put your ear to my chest, listen closely, and you’ll hear a crowd of voices inside me—some of them loud, and some of them tender, some of them brave, and some of them fugitives, some of them skeptical, angry even, and some of them innocent, some of them voices that I discuss publicly, and others that I bury deep in the closet behind the bones of my other skeletons— I’m not crazy. I’m just not as symmetrical as I’d like to be. This is the reality that birthed the idea for my most recent book, Heroes and Monsters.
My name is Josh Riebock and today, in this guest post, one of the voices inside me is going to interview me about this new book…
So, Josh, let’s start with this question: why in the world did you write this stupid book?
It’s not stupid. Actually, I’m really proud of it, and a big part of the reason why is because I wrote it for me. Instead of trying to write the book that I thought other people would want to read, I just tried to write the kind of book that I’d want to read. An artist can spend all of their energy, talent, and ideas trying to guess what kind of stories and art that others will like, or they can simply create the kind of story and art that resonates with them, inspires them, the kind of work that they are passionate about. That’s what I tried to do. And what came out was an illustrated memoir mixed with intentional fiction, an honest, partially experimental, kind of weird, genre-bending story. And well, I’m proud of it.
With that in mind, how much did you worry about this book bombing? Remember how I warned you that it might bomb? Remember?
Yes. I remember how often you warned me. Over and over—
As you were writing it I kept envisioning someone making a paper airplane that they are convinced is really aerodynamic—a technological breakthrough!—only to have it plunge straight into the ground once they throw it. I mean, didn’t you worry that no one else would resonate with this thing that resonates with you?
Sure. I worried about it plenty. I think most people fear that others won’t share his or her passions, fear that our heart beats for something that no one else cares about. That’s what being alone is.
You feel alone a lot don’t you.
I know you do.
Of course you feel lonely.
I suppose I do. Every artist is destined for frequent bouts of loneliness. But I inflict a fair amount of that on myself. I’m an introvert, so I wander through my own imagination a lot, spend loads of time alone—reading, thinking, movies, whatever—and all of that is good. But sometimes I do it to the point of isolation. Lots of folks do. Humans are really good at building inanimate community: a tight circle of songs and films and trophies and possessions and ideas that we can relate to. We connect deeply with authors and musicians and business leaders, athletes, historical figures, those far away people who share our passions, but we may struggle to connect in a similarly meaningful way with those we can actually touch. Sometimes I work harder to connect with an author I’m reading than a friend or my wife. I’ll watch a movie with my phone in my pocket, silenced, but check my phone repeatedly when I’m with a group of people. I’ll engage significant ideas and emotions in a book, but not in a conversation. I’ll concentrate while I’m writing, but then let my attention drift when someone is talking to me…
Is there a point in there?
I’m just saying that, chances are, there are people near me who share my passions, but because I’m sometimes so invested in my inanimate community, I never find out. So I feel alone, even though I’m not. In that way, my loneliness is often an illusion. A very lifelike illusion.
“Illusion”. You like that word don’t you?
Any other favorite words?
Man, I’ve got lots of favorites right now. Ragged. Caloric. Fish. I could go on and on. In general, I have a strong love for words. I believe in their power. That’s why the writing process matters so much to me. I don’t just care about what I’m saying, but also about how I’m saying it. Word choice. Sentence structure. Artful prose. The wonder depicted in the form of writing, the form of anything—singing, architecture—can do so much in us, and in others. And in my opinion, that dimension isn’t valued enough. Sometimes we care so much about the what, and neglect the how. And the how is often the very thing that makes a message so profound. When we stop valuing form, we strip the soul out of whatever it is that is being said. Form is the soul of expression.
Speaking of soul-stripping, I get the idea that you are comfortable exploring dark ideas in your writing, ideas about ugliness and pain and fear. True?
I guess so.
Well isn’t that dangerous? I mean; being comfortable dabbling in dark ideas probably implies something dark about you, that you’re tortured maybe. Or, I don’t know, maybe that you’ve got unresolved issues that shouldn’t be shared with others—not your wife, your friends, your readers—issues that you should keep to yourself, unless, of course, you want to fill the world with more darkness, be considered a dark person, or are a dark person. Is that what you’re saying? Would you consider yourself a dark person?
No. I’d actually consider myself a hopeful person. But I like to explore the most honest places of life and humanity, those places that we often don’t want to think about, and that, at times, takes me into pretty dark territory. Can it be dangerous? Sure, just like anything handled poorly can be dangerous. But in order to understand who we are, in order to tell great stories, we have to go there. Our frequent resistance to depicting darkness can lead to terrible art, untrue art. Sometimes the “brightest” art feels good, but it’s a total lie. It glosses over pain, and creates false realities, false promises, tidy answers that don’t really exist. Sometimes art has to have elements of darkness if it’s going to be true, if it’s going to bring genuine hope, transcendent hope, that butterfly floating over the ashes of a burned city kind of hope
Can you give me an example?
Sure, well, I’d say the Bible is the most hopeful book I’ve ever read.
And it’s also the darkest book I’ve ever read.
Alright, well, since you had to go and bring up the God thing: in Heroes and Monsters, you’ve got a character named Jack. What’s up with him? I found that dimension to be weird, annoying sometimes.
Thanks. Yeah, so Jack is a character that represents God. I did it this way because I wanted to capture the physical presence of God in the story of my life, in both the big and small moments, rather than representing him in a distant, floating amoeba kind of way. I wanted people to be able to see how involved God has been in my life, how involved he is in their own life. But I also did it to expand the way we view God. It’s easy to fall into ruts when talking about God, always using the same language, the same images, and in doing so we limit the conversation about God to those who are able to access it in those terms, with those words and pictures. It becomes an exclusive conversation. And because of that, we’re always having the God conversation with the same people. I wanted to create a fresh picture of God that would speak to those who struggle to access the typical God conversation, to talk about God in a way that would engage those who’ve grown tired of the same God talk, and maybe to depict God in a way that would even rattle some folks. Besides, God is bigger than any of our pictures or conversations anyway. I wanted this book to demonstrate that.
Yea, so I think we should stop now. Besides, people probably aren’t going to like this anyway. You know that, right?
Maybe. We’ll see.
Yeah, we will. Anything else you’d like to add?
Oh I know. This is where you want to tell everyone to go get a copy of Heroes and Monsters, right? Wow, way to make a sleazy sales pitch—
Then what do you want to add?
I wanted to tell you that someday you’ll be gone. Someday you won’t bother me anymore. And that day is coming. The day is coming when I’ll just be me. Just me. All the voices within me will go quiet, and you’ll be nothing more than a memory, a vapor that used to harass me. When that day comes, you’ll serve the same purpose that every other pain and struggle that I endure will eventually serve.
And what’s that?
You’ll become just one more reason for me to celebrate.