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Powerful Writing: Lessons from Dostoevsky

LoraConnorLoraConnor Southern CaliforniaPosts: 54Administrator
edited January 28 in Creative Writing & Poetry Tips Must be logged on
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You’re standing in front of a firing squad, about to die.  Your sentence is commuted at the very last moment.  What are you going to do now?
No, you’re not going to Disney World.  You’re going to become one of the greatest novelists of all time, of course.
Born in 1821 in Russia, Dostoevsky had his share of hardships and traumas.  The son of a severely strict, alcoholic and abusive father, he was raised in a strict Russian orthodox home, and eventually became caught up in the sociopolitical unrest of the day and was arrested.  After his death sentence was commuted, he experienced a personal spiritual revival while in a Siberian prison.
Fyodor Dostoevsky completed eleven novels, three novellas, seventeen short novels and numerous other works.  Four of these major novels are generally looked upon to be some of the most accomplished works of literature the world has ever known.  These include The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons.
Many of Dostoevsky’s works contain a strong thread of Christianity, with themes of agape love, forgiveness and freedom, explored through the individual, who is confronted with all of life’s horrors and beauty.
However, despite being a self-professed and widely-held Christian, he didn’t write what would today be considered “Christian” books.  Nevertheless, his books have been read by various generations, classes, genders, and worldviews.  His novels are timeless.  As relevant today as they were in Russia 150 years ago.
So how can you use Dostoevsky as a muse?  Here are three things about Dostoevsky we can observe:

  • He had real, honest, fully human characters.
  • He wasn’t afraid to tackle and interact with difficult or unpleasant issues, ideas, or realities
  • He had an amazing and capable grasp on psychological issues, philosophical issues, and issues of faith

Let’s take these one by one.
He had real, honest, fully human characters.
“You’ll hear me out, you’ll understand, and you’ll forgive.  And that is just what I need – for someone better than me to forgive me.” – Dmitiry Karamazov
Having real and relatable characters means creating characters that are “unphotoshopped,” multi-faceted, and a holistic representation of what it means to be human, including full potential for both good and bad.
Dmitry goes into lurid detail in his confessions to his brother Alyosha, Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Brothers Karamazov, banking that Alyosha will empathically understand how Dmitry fell into those choices, while still fully acknowledging those choices as wrong.
Another example is the paradox we find in Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s main character in Crime and Punishment.  We find Raskolnikov committing a cold-blooded murder, yet we simultaneously see him giving money he can’t really part with to charity, and observe his genuine care for friends and family.  We also see this phenomenon in Sonya, who despite being pushed into prostitution through the actions of her alcoholic father, is the redemptive figure who convinces Raskolnikov to confess his crime.
Real does not only mean flawed, however. Real is much more than that.  Real does not preclude the characteristic of high-minded and whole.  Real is everything that makes us human and relatable.
Many people look to the twelve disciples as examples of very human characters.  But they are missing the most human example of all – Jesus.  Jesus was not flawed, but he was very authentic, and fully human.  Everywhere Jesus went people loved and were attracted to him.  And it wasn’t just because he healed them, although they were indeed drawn to his compassion.
Jesus experienced the emotional spectrum, he liked to have fun, he made jokes, he even had close friends.  He was a regular person, even though he wasn’t.  The book of Hebrews talks extensively of the relatability and empathy of Jesus as our High Priest.  People recognized parts of themselves – and their potential – in him.
He wasn’t afraid to tackle or interact with difficult or unpleasant issues, ideas, or realities.
Without the stark contrast against evil, the gospel loses much of its punch.  It becomes less amazing.  Less powerful.  Less incomprehensible.  Less the miracle that it is.
Whether it’s a specific anomaly of contemporary Christian culture, or just plain human nature, there often seems to be a need to sanitize everything for consumption.  Striving for purity of mind is not just important – it’s a command – but I believe that to be different thing from creating a mental and emotional bubble to live in.  I see in many settings what I like to call avoidance of the “ick” factor, and I think it is a great disadvantage in our efforts to reach a dying world.
When we cover up evil, dysfunction, darkness, depravity, and brokenness, it not only makes it easier for the enemy to hide, it stifles the juxtaposition against God’s power that could be reflected.  Uneasiness with boldly facing off in the terrifying face of depravity has the potential to cause people to not only doubt that we – and God – can truly meet them where they are at, but whether we can even win.
In The Brothers Karamazov we see Dostoevsky paining a vivid picture of the evil in the world through the words of Ivan Karamazov.  The passages do not shy away from the horrors to be found in life.  He does not do so needlessly or out of a voyeuristic fascination, though, and that is important.  Because in doing so, he sets the reader up mentally and emotionally for a more viscerally and exponentially powerful reaction to the argument for the goodness of God that follows through Alyosha’s actions.
I know one of the things that keeps me continually in awe of and in love with Jesus is being frank with myself in my heart about how truly tainted I am, and then realizing he can still not only love me, but redeem it.
He had an amazing and capable grasp on psychological issues, philosophical issues, and issues of faith.
“And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.” – Ivan Karamazov
Existential issues abound in Dostoevsky’s works, with his characters vividly interacting with the fabric and meaning of life.  Literary scholars have gone so far as to call Dostoevsky a literary psychologist due to his uncanny insight into human motivations and specific personalities.  For example, he frequently shows off his literary prowess in his works by switching up the characters’ speech styles.
Study other disciplines – it will enrich your writing.  Study psychology. Study philosophy.  But most of all, study Christian apologetics.  Apologetics is the defense of a position through the systematic use of information.  In other words, it’s the defense of the Christian faith.
Many people are hesitant to venture into a study of apologetics because they fear it will be either be all boring, crusty theological pontification, or so abstract they won’t understand it.  I assure you, 1.) you can understand this stuff, 2.) there are writers who make it fun and interesting, and we need even more of them, and 3.) your faith and creative juices will go through the roof once you get into it.
There is a famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov between Alyosha, our main character, and his brother Ivan where the issue of the existence of evil in the face of a good and all-powerful God is tackled head on.  This question is discussed at length in the study of apologetics, and has echoed in the minds of people throughout time.
People don’t want rote, placatory answers to legitimate questions.  And they deserve better.  Be the one who gives them better, a real meal, and watch them come back to the table for more.
Your work can span the ages as well, just like Dostoevsky.  Be bold.  Be yourself.  Be excellent.  Be His.
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