Faith: It's not something that most of us talk about in public. But maybe we should.
Author, editor, and writing teacher Victoria Zackheim recently asked 23 authors to write about their belief systems. The result was her book Faith, which includes essays by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Anne Perry, Caroline Leavitt, Malachy McCourt, and others.
Zackheim recently took questions from Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe. Here's their exchange:
Q. What gave you the idea for a book of essays on faith?
I've been on my own journey for several years, asking myself what I believe. I'm comfortable with many of my beliefs, but there are those that have confused me. Life seemed easier when I didn't question, or allow myself to feel the full measure of anger or sadness, worry or fear. Eventually, I arrived at a place where I could no longer live without all those wonderful, and sometimes messy, emotions that wrap around us, define who we are and what we believe. I was driving on a highway when this book formed in my head. What would happen if I asked an assortment of writers What do you believe? Would they dig into heart and mind and soul to fully explore the question? They did, and the result is a collection of personal stories as diverse and wonderful as the women and men who wrote them.
Q. Why did you choose to ask writers?
The value of an anthology is the diversity of viewpoints, and the challenge to readers to analyze and perhaps redefine beliefs, which brings us closer to ourselves. Whether the writer is Caroline Leavitt discussing psychics, faith, and quantum physics, Malachy McCourt confronting every aspect of organized religion, Jacquelyn Mitchard explaining why she considers herself a God-fearing atheist, or Anne Perry drawing us into her heart with words that sound like a poem of comfort and hope, we are made to think. Another reason I invited writers is that I know the joys of creating a community around our work, and having that community become a family.
Q. Do you think that this is an uncomfortable topic for some people to address in a public way?
Absolutely. When I teach my personal essay or memoir course (in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program), I tell my students that we can scratch the surface and get our fingernails dirty, use a shovel to go deeper still, or drive a two-ton excavator and dig out the truth. Several contributors to this book contacted me, asking that I explain more clearly what I meant by Faith. It's such an intimate subject, and to explore how we feel and what we truly believe can seem both threatening and exposing. I have great respect for the authors who took the risk and wrote for this book.
Q. What is the value of sharing such stories?
So many of us are made to feel uncomfortable with our beliefs, and are judged by people who find them strange, or even threatening. Imagine being a Muslim in today's world? What must it feel like to embrace a belief that you love, that guides you and teaches you kindness and humility, and is held up for ridicule and distrust by a large population that has no understanding of the Islamic faith? When stories are shared, writers of all viewpoints can express their deep-felt beliefs – no matter which religion they follow, or do not. Our definition of a good and worthy person need not include the label of Christian, Muslim, or Jew. Why can't we be judged by the way we live our lives?
We live in such a lonely world, and the messages shared – whether profound, funny, hopeful or inquiring – speak to all of us. Perhaps the most important value is that readers will find their own beliefs in this book, and with that discovery comes the reminder that we are not alone.
Q. What most surprised you about the essays as you read them?
I've worked before with many of the authors in this book, and know several as close friends, so I was absolutely certain of what they would write. I was so wrong! Authors I believed to be atheists wrote essays revealing a faith coming from a lifetime of searching and questioning, while a few I was certain held deep religious beliefs wrote about why they did not. The more I read, the clearer was my understanding of each writer; and the more I learned about their beliefs, the closer I felt to them.
Q. Did working on this project change you or your own belief system in any way?
Without a doubt, yes. Is it possible to read 23 deeply personal, soul-searching essays and not be pressed to reevaluate one's own beliefs? The strength of these writers' convictions, the intensity with which they explored and then shared what they felt, forced me to look even deeper into my own faith and question every aspect to discover what I believe. For me, this is the power of these essays: they make us think, perhaps help us to define what we feel...what we believe. Understanding this, we have a deeper sense of who we are.