How to Write About God and Other Big Ideas

I recently read an article about what people talk about when they’re dying. A hospice chaplain named Kerry Egan wrote the article. Every day she holds hands and watches people die. She listens to their last thoughts about life.

They almost always talk about their families. She says, “They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.”

What You Say When You Die

Photo by Alyssa L Miller

What they do not talk about is God. She’s a hospice chaplain, a person paid to be a representative for God. But she said she doesn’t pray with them much or talk about heaven or hell. Mostly she listens as people talk about love.

And of course isn’t that how people talk about God, she says? Or talk to God?

How to Write About Big Ideas

I’m reading Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which won the Pulitzer in 2005. It’s a novel written from the perspective of John Ames, a dying minister, as he writes a letter to his son. It doesn’t talk about God much. It does talk about love, John’s love for his father and his grandfather, or the lack of love, at times. His love for his son, to whom he’s writing. It’s a beautiful story.

I think it can teach us something about how to write about big ideas. I loved what Kerry said here:

What I did not understand when I was a student… is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families….

If you want to write fiction about God or if you want to write about Philosophy or Existentialism or Buddhism or any other isms and ideologies, please don’t use technical terms and explain to your readers the tenants of your ideology. You’ll bore us all and convince no one.

The best writers who wrote fiction about ideas, authors like Sartre, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and even Ayn Rand, wrote  out their ideas in the flesh of relationship, of family, of love. They’ve committed to these characters to the extent that they’ve even had to let go of their ideas a bit. It became less about proving something and more about getting to know the people in their stories.

In other words, if you’d like to write about God, do it like Marilynne Robinson, write about a father and his son.


Write about a father writing a letter to his son. What does he say about love? What does he confess about how he fell short?

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments.

And if you post, make sure to comment on a few other Practitioners’ posts.

Have fun!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • i love pinning your book recommendations for future reading material. i think this is really good advice: “It became less about proving something and more about getting to know the people in their stories.”

    • Thanks Chelsea 🙂 You should read definitely read Gilead. You’d like it.

  • Do you have a link to the article mentioned?

  • This is how God seems to relate to us, through story and family. And stories about family.

  • Nancy

    As time gets short, my siblings and I are hoping for a conversion. Here is what we would like to hear:.

    Dear Sons,

    Before it’s too late for all of us, I would like to pass on my wisdom from lessons learned too late in the game.

    It’s not the wisdom that I dispensed every evening at about eight or whenever the clock arrived at two hours after my first drink. It’s not the nightly wisdom I so carelessly tossed out, thinking I was offering the truth, as only I possessed the intuition to discern it. Oh, I thought I was so smart then. And why wouldn’t I? None of you challenged me. None of you argued back. You just cowered there, giving me a full audience.

    I remember you sitting on the floor looking up at me in wonder as I teased you about homework undone and rooms unclean, for baskets missed and shots gone wide. I’ve always been a teaser. It’s fun for me. And at the time my head was so foggy that I actually thought you were just pretending not to like it.

    I was proud of myself, too, because I never hit you. And I told you as much. You really upset me, I’d say. But I’m a good father, and I’m not going to spank you. Self control is the key, and I am the master. Look at me and learn.

    But you only looked to your mother. You always talked to her at dinner, never me. It was like you had this exclusive club for only three members. She always knew everyone and everything. I didn’t know any of it. I thought you were excluding me, but the truth is, she listened while I just talked. And you weren’t leaving me out; I was just refusing to join in.

    And now, lately, I hardly see you, and I never see your families. But I never took you to see my father either. So at the end of my life, I want to ask for one thing. Help me break this vicious cycle of addiction. I have stopped myself for you. It’s not easy. I think about a drink maybe twenty times a day. I think, but I don’t act. So please, don’t drop by for a drink anymore. Just come by. Show me that you don’t need a drink to brace you up for a visit with your old man. Tell me the stories that you only shared with your mother. Tell me all of it. I am now prepared to listen, and I don’t have much time. You will have my full attention, if you will please accept me where I am.

    • I can actually relate to the other paragraphs of the letter, like the dad being a teaser and never joining in our conversation. My dad also brags about not hitting us ever, and constantly reminds us about it. So I was actually smiling as I read this.

      Though the difference is my dad isn’t an alcoholic. Though he smokes, which I think is worse. 🙁

      The last paragraph really made me sad. I know all dads will feel sad and lonely when their children never visit them anymore, even moms. Which is why I admire my dad for always making it a point to invite over my grandparents for a holiday lunch or dinner and even playing badminton with my grandma and her friends at least once a week.

      • kati

        Hi unisse! i come here a lot and love to welcome all of the new people…and thank them for being brave and jumping in. i really liked your practice — i think lots of dads in prison would plead for forgiveness in a similar way that you wrote. i also thought your comments on Nancy’s practice were cool, too. i totally agree, it’s very sad when kids stop visiting their dads. it made me think of a song that i first heard in junior high, it’s a ballad from the 1970’s that is all about this very topic. It’s called ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ ( what do you think of the song?

        oh and one more quick thing. i thought it was fascinating when you said that you think smoking is worse than drinking too much. I’ve never heard anyone say that before….so would love it if you would say a little more about it. i’m a medical therapist, so i always appreciate the chance to learn about how people feel about certain things in life. thanks and have a great day!!

        • About the drinking vs. smoking health issue. My dad smokes and there are a lot of studies that say second hand smoking is actually worse than first hand smoking. Unlike first hand smokers, second hand smokers don’t get that filter that the former does from the cigarettes. So smoking actually causes more health problems for other people rather than just the smoker him/herself.

          With drinking, only the drinker is getting sick with the liver being damaged. (I’m actually basing this just on what most people say about drinking and smoking.) Sure there are some bad things related to an alcoholic, like physical abuse.

    • Anonymous

      This is so sad. I think it hits on the behavior of a lot of father’s both “good” and “bad”, and ones who are addicts as well as ones who aren’t. The teasing seems to be a thing men often do to boys maybe to toughen them up and the turning to a mother for support and advice is also common in our culture. He seems to be saddest because he may be very typical, a little exaggerated, but typical. One reader has already said she related to him, and I can see him in a lot of men I know who are fathers. I think John Ames, the narrator of Gillead, is maybe the exception to the rule in this instance rather than the “norm”. I wonder if the “sons” in this story would really want to hear this or if they would be much like their dad, maybe just a modern version of the same. To me it would be better without the preface, just starting in with the “Dear Sons”. I really feel sorry for this man, even more than for his children.

    • Gord Mayer

      This has a dark that goes deep – like generations deep. Gives me the willies and I expect that’s how you wrote it. I thought if you wanted to go for the jugular you could have described the home with light and life around Mom and now dark and dank with just Dad – I was having fun conjuring pictures of the scenes you described. Thanks for posting.

    • Diana Trautwein

      This is so poignant, Nancy! And I fear too true for many. Thank you for writing this down with so much heart and soul. We have alcoholism on both sides of our family tree and there is so, so much heartache because of it. That’s probably why I’ve never had a drink in my life! I pray with you for your the Light to shine into your dad’s life.

  • Steve M

    I don’t have a writing practice to share, but I do have a very relevant experience with reading something like what you’re talking about. In “The Caves of Steel” (Isaac Asimov), the author allows the characters to talk about God without being preachy. Allows them to quote the Bible without thumping it. Allows there to be philosophical discussion that is more than just superficial political correctness. The characters talk about God because they’re talking about themselves. It was very pleasing to read, and has given me hope that the reconciliation of science and religion may not come through philosophy texts and televised debates, but through the next big sci-fi novelist.

  • Dear Kyle,

    I know you really hate me for making your mom leave and getting a new wife for myself, all within a year’s time.

    I know you think I’m a useless father who never stops womanizing and drinking recklessly.

    I’ll be honest – I’ve never really been a good father to you. All I’ve done was make you hate me even more.

    But I understand that that was my fault. And I don’t blame you for leaving me after Jean left me too. I think I deserve to be alone and see how rotten life is without love.

    I understand that now, after being locked up in a four-by-four cell for over eight years. I understand that I was never a good father to you and I was never a good husband to your mother.

    Jean told me you were getting married. You must be surprised that she even told me, after what I did to her before I got shipped to prison. She said she still loves me even after I beat her and almost killed her.

    Your fiancé, Isabella is her name right? She’s a really pretty gal. You look good together.

    Take good care of her. Pamper her. Love her. Smile at all the jokes she makes. And tell her every day that you love her, before it’s too late.

    Don’t yell at her. Don’t say things you don’t mean – especially when you’re having a bad day.

    I know I’ve done the opposite of what I’m saying to you know but I really don’t want to see my only son end up in jail just like me.

    I was a bad father. I am a bad father.

    I’m not asking you to forgive me for what I’ve done to you, your future and everything. I know it’s not easy to forgive me.

    But I hope you won’t forget what I did, Because those will remind you how to not treat your future wife and children.

    I’m sorry and I wish you all the best in life.

    Your dad, Cole

    • Anonymous

      Oh these stories are depressing! This guy is odd though, because his tone is not angry, and I would expect more anger from someone who is a wife beater. I guess that’s just my penchant for stereotyping criminals though. I like how you use simple clear sentences and statements. I wonder if you made it longer, and the guy got out of prison would he revert to his wife beating and whatever else earned him a four by four cell? I don’t trust him. I would love to see how he talks to the other prisoners. This is very interesting Chua.

      • I was actually thinking of a character who finally realized that being angry all the time isn’t actually a good thing. After being in prison for a long time, and probably anger management counseling too (if I remembered to add that!), he’s realized that he no longer wants to be angry. He just feels that he’s an utterly useless person.

    • Gord Mayer

      The simple clear statements really drive home the defeat in your character. It’s cold like the cell – that works really well. It also makes the descriptions of love his (however minimal) expressions of it jump out – like they’re incongruent making it work even more. Great job.

    • Diana Trautwein

      I guess I should have read the comments/contributions BEFORE I wrote my letter! There is a theme of darkness and unforgiveness in the two I’ve seen thus far. Both of them are well told, but they make me sad. Especially after reading Joe’s reference to “Gilead,” which has to be one of the most beautiful and rich stories of family ties ever written. You’ve done a good job creating this character – but, as I said, he makes me very sad.

      • I’m sorry if I made you sad! 🙁 I really didn’t mean to.

  • Son, I’ve screwed up.
    I should have told you I love you more.
    I tried my best to always show it, but I’ve fallen short.
    I wish I could have taught you to been more handy around the house,
    to fix the car yourself.
    I did treasured every moment with you.
    Even when you screwed up too.
    We are not all that different.
    You will do so much more than I did;
    I know it.
    Do NOT take no for an answer when you really want something.
    Life is tough and will knock you down.
    You will fall on your face so much that you’ll think blood and bruises are your normal skin tone.
    Keep getting up.
    Don’t give in.
    Keep getting up.
    Find what you love and use it to help others.
    That’s all I can tell you to do with your life.
    It’s not about’s about how you help others.
    It’s alright to not have the answers.
    It’s alright to be scared.
    It’s alright to cry.
    Pursue what you love with passion and you will live.
    If you just go through the motions, you are really not alive.

    • Gord Mayer

      “It’s alright…” that’s a great expression of love we all need to hear. Thanks!

      • Thanks so much Gord. I really appreciate it!

    • kati

      Hi Jim! This practice is packed with tons of treasures, in great dad-style prose. I love the poetic imagery in the one about falling on your face so much “you’ll think blood and bruises are your normal skin tone.” when i read it i had to stop and see it in my mind. whenever that happens, i know that the writer has captivated me because he took time to craft the perfect combination of words…to show rather than tell. Cool!

      was this an autobiographical piece?

      • Thanks so much Kati! I really appreciate it. It’s just what I’d tell my son. I don’t have a son, I have a daughter..but I’d tell her this as well. It’s also kind of what I’d like my dad to of told me, but he has never expressed this to me in words; more in actions.

        • kati

          i hear ya. when i was writing my piece, i realized my dad never gave us kids much direct advice based on his observations of our lives. so, i know i nailed his ‘voice’ but i’m not too sure if all of the content was what he would be thinking about each of us today.

          note to self: perhaps i need to ask people direct questions so they feel free to give me their advice! and like in your case, be willing to express our thoughts to others in words as well as actions. makes it so much easier for them to benefit from our experiences! i’m sure your daughter will thrive growing up with an insightful writer, dreamer, guitar junkie as a dad 🙂

          • Thanks so much Kati. I really appreciate the kind words 🙂

    • Diana Trautwein

      What great advice in this letter! Sounds so very dad-like. And from “you will fall on your face” until the end, I LOVED it, loved it. Thanks for this.

      • Thanks so much Diana. I really appreciate it!

  • kati

    Hello dear children!

    Now that I’m dead, I’d like to speak the things that often were in my silent thoughts. My purpose is to encourage you to continue becoming the people God designed you to be.

    CHERYL: My first. You are earnest, brave and strong. Your children are beautiful and they don’t need you to be perfect. They just need you to never stop striving to be your most happy, extravagant self.

    KAREN: My second, my shadow for so many years. You have such a big heart and your brain nearly bursts with countless bright thoughts. Try to relax sometimes and just soak up all the things that are almost just right in your life.

    JONATHAN: My first son, whose miracle birth so late in life brought tears to my military eyes. You are strong, and handsome, and your enthusiasm for life reminds me of you when I was your age. Please always serve your lovely wife from the deepest place of your spirit.

    DANIEL: My youngest, the one who looks most like me. You have become a man. And I am proud. Thank you for all the sacrifices you made to be with me as I suffered during my final years of life.

    Each of you is an honorable representation of me and the values I held dear while with you. Please take good care of mom, and know that I eagerly await your arrival here in paradise.


    • Kati, I love how you broke this down into separate captions for each child. The details are fantastic as well. The section for Daniel was really touching and moving. All of us take care of our parents at some point..and that is really nice to hear from the parent’s perspective a little bit there.

      I think some of the wording could be tweaked a little to sound more masculine to sound like a dad- for example “hello, dear children” or “your children are beautiful souls”- that just sounds like a bit more like a mother talking to me than a father.

      Nice job Kati, thanks for sharing.

      • kati

        hey thanks jim for the input. i adjusted those phrases, and i think it’s much better now. thanks!

    • Diana Trautwein

      Love that you had your dad speak to all his kids – and I feel like I learned a whole lot about who he was as a person just from your thumbnails to each one. Well done!

  • That’s so interesting. I write and speak about God openly in real life and on my blog. Yet as I read this post I realized how much I write in metaphor as well. I recently wrote a post on the word tender ( that falls into that gray area more than I probably realized. The novel I’m writing is about a community of women, a sisterhood. I thought I would write more about God in it than I have. Mostly my ideas and beliefs have come out in their relationships. I don’t agree completely with everything Ms. Egan has to say, but it’s certainly food for thought.

    • I think metaphor is good as long as you delve into the specifics, avoiding generalization. The best metaphors in fiction, in my opinion, are the ones you can barely tell are metaphors at all. One example that most people know is the turtle at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath. Everyone knows that turtle is a metaphor for the American people trapped in poverty, but it’s also just a turtle crossing the road, trying desperately to get to the other side. It works as both, and if it wasn’t so vivid it wouldn’t be nearly as effective. On top of that, never once does Steinback actually tell us the turtle is a metaphor. It’s implied. He trusts the intelligence of the reader to make the connection.

  • Dying Love

    Tyler cupped his hands around his eyes as he peered through the window from the hospital corridor.

    “How’s dad been doing?” he asked his mom.

    “Not very good,” mom answered. Tyler looked over at her, detecting a quiver in her voice. “He really took a turn for the worse after you headed back to school in September.”

    “But the doctors told us that he was improving and that I should go on back to school! What happened?”

    “No one really knows: it’s almost as if he just gave up.” Mom spoke softly while glancing through the window. “He’s been asking for you. He has something he wants to talk to you about…alone.”

    “You’re not coming in with me?”

    “No, he just wants you. Go on, it’ll be okay. I’m fine waiting out here,” mom assured her son. Her eyes sadly glistened with pride as she watched the young man walk to his father’s bedside. The large window in the room created a silhouette of her two men against the backdrop of the winter’s first big snow. Tears flowed as she witnessed what was most likely their very last conversation.

    “Dad?” Tyler said with a touch of hesitation. His dad opened his eyes and smiled.

    “Hey, Tiger,” Dad answered. His dry mouth gave out a weak cough as he choked on his swollen tongue.

    “You need some water?”

    His dad nodded. Tyler went to grab the cup of water sitting on the hospital tray but in his nervousness he overshot his reach and knocked the cup of cold water over, spilling it on his dying father.

    Tyler froze. It was his natural reflex after all, waiting for a scolding or a whack on the head from his angry dad whenever he messed up. But the scolding never happened. The only thing his old man was able to manage was a wimpy, weak squeal.

    “Dad! Are you okay? I’m so sorry.”

    Tyler’s eye widened as he realized his dad’s hospital gown was soaked with ice water. He glanced around for a towel, but all he could find was the Gideon bible on the nightstand. In his rush to clean up his mess, he ripped out a page and started trying to sop up the water that was still dripping off the tray and on to his dad’s big, bloated belly that was trembling and convulsing. As he looked over at his face; he saw his old man laughing so hard tears were streaming down his hollow cheeks. Tyler looked a bit surprised but kept trying to clean up his mess.

    “Son, it’s all right.”

    Tyler reached for another page from the bible.

    “No son, really, it’s all right.”

    Tyler apologized again, but he couldn’t help but let out a chuckle as well. He was so relieved at his dad’s unusual reaction.

    His dad grabbed his hand. “Son, I’m trying to tell you something. It’s all right. You’re all right.” Dad’s eyes were fixed on his sons. “I want you to know, you are better than all right. You are the most right thing I’ve ever done in my life. In spite of my bad temper, and my sorry ass job as your father, you turned out right. I’m so proud of who you are and what you’ve become. I love you.”

    “You too,” was all Tyler could choke out. Tears began to well up in his eyes. He hadn’t realized it until that very moment, but he had been desperately waiting to hear those words for over 20 years. His father thought he was all right.

    Mom finally came in the room to see what all the commotion was about. She could see the tears in her young man’s eyes. But she also saw something else. She saw a new man, a blessed man. She then turned to her dying man and saw the tears in his eyes as well. But she also saw a blessed man, a peaceful man.

    As the family gathered their belongings to make arrangements at the funeral home, one of the nurses found the wet and wilted page torn from the Gideon bible.

    “Is this yours?” she asked Tyler as he was headed out the door.

    Tyler took the page and looked at it. “I think we found the scripture passage for dad’s memorial service.”

    He handed it to his mother. It was 1 Corinthians 13, “…and the greatest of these is love.”

    • Nancy

      Your last line says it all. Isn’t this what we all crave in the end. Isn’t love what gives our lives meaning and substance. If this is such a universal human need, why do we feel so bereft of love. Your essay made me ask myself–is it the passer or the receiver who is responsible for the fumble, or is it just a disconnect (mixed signals) between the two? My entry was asking for the same resolution: the son needs to have evidence that he was loved. Was love really missing most of the son’s young life, or did the father just learn how to throw a good pass at the end? So many people of my generation feel that the father sloughed off the love duty to the mother. Is that true?

    • Gord Mayer

      Tom, I love the picture of the room with the two men in silhouette you painted. The winter backdrop gave the scene some real depth – awesome setting! I didn’t expect the spill either – I was preparing for “son ministering to dying father moment” but instead got the accident. Loved that! THe ending is near my own heart and I felt the challenge to express my love now before it’s my final moments for it truly is the ‘greatest of these’. Thanks for posting.

    • Anonymous

      This is so much more than just the father son thing. You descriptions of the physical place make this so much easier to see, to listen too. I wonder how many people really get to tell others what they think before they die. I like the part when the son says “You too”, meaning he loves the father too. And I like the part when the father says to his son that the son is the rightest thing he’s done.

    • Diana Trautwein

      VERY cool story, Tom. Thanks so much for this. There is something really powerful in the passing of a ‘blessing’ from father to son, isn’t there? And if it’s done with heart, the blessing goes both ways, as you have so beautifully described.

    • Wonderful, Tom. This is such a good scene. Interesting twist in your story. I’m excited to read all these pieces together.

      When you edit, make sure to look for phrases like this to cut:

      “He was so relieved at his dad’s unusual reaction.”
      “His father thought he was all right.”

      You do a great job showing both of these things by Tyler’s behavior that you don’t need to tell the reader.

      Nice twist at the end, too 🙂

  • Nathan

    “You’ll bore us all and convince no one.” – True Statement

  • Rebekah Marenda Burder


  • Gord Mayer

    Ok you’re on – it’s been too long 🙂

    A Father’s Letter to His Son

    It’s a foregone conclusion my boy that there will come a day when all that will remain of me with you is a memory. This is a troublesome thought. Memory has always played a cruel game with me, dragging the loud and painful out in the open while tucking the beautiful and best away. Trying to remember for me has been like taming a wild dog; you kneel down and stretch out your hand with a morsel hoping it will come near and take it, tail sweeping with long friendly back and forth strokes, but the danger is always there that it will snap at the offering and take a chuck of flesh with it. So I haven’t remembered as much as maybe I should have, don’t make that mistake my boy, even if you lose a fingertip or two.

    A part of me really wants to list off all the good bits and times that I got it semi-right as a Dad just to help you along the memory road. But I know that is one place where I cannot lead. Suffice to say I hope you remember the good times and that somehow they out-manoeuvre the bad to find a place at the front. For what it’s worth I will say that I remember some, and when I do it’s my best and favourite time. If only I could replay those and only those. “I got my boy!” I remember shouting when you arrived just like my Dad did when I was born. For the record your sisters are Daddy’s girls and I would give my life for them still, but there is something about a Father being presented his Son that holds an ancient and sacred joy. You had a full head of black hair and yelled out your greeting with health and vigour. Your mother and I wept shared tears of joy and you grasped my pinky finger in your hand. I vowed protection. I vowed love. I vowed patience, kindness, time and presence to you. I vowed and failed, but I never forgot my vow. Please remember that one thing. I never forgot my vows.

    There’s arthritis in my hands and a frog in my throat now that if I didn’t know better I would say is Karma. You were spanked like I was and hollered at like I was and grounded just the same. Falling close to the tree you tested every boundary and rule not to mention my mettle. What you might not know is how I pleaded with the Divine that you would not be like me. Every moment I placed my thumb over you was a vain attempt to squash out my poor DNA. Every restraining command and action was to keep you from plunging over the precipices that had scarred me so badly. It hurt me more than you if you can believe it, maybe I hope you never do, but it did because I know the price, the consequence, the agony of mistakes and regret. What I didn’t know was how to teach you about it. What I couldn’t know was if anything I did or said would ever be effective to keep you safe, to keep you well. I did what I could and I’ll gladly pay whatever is due for the attempt.

    It was all born of love my boy, my only son. Love too deep to describe in words too grand to live out in a single lifetime. My prayer now is that it will live on. That as you remember you might know it. That you will pass it on to those yet to come who will know you and maybe even be like you. That you will know, despite the dogs of memory, that my imperfect love was my only kept vow.

    • Debbie Haas

      WOW! love the analogy of memory and biting dogs. Your description of fatherly (parental) love is faithful to our trials to get it right when we know we can’t possible….except for that vow to love. Thank you for a beautiful, apt, piece.

    • Anonymous

      Your idea here of having good memories and bad memories vying for prominence in the sons mind or in the writers mind even is compelling. I had never thought about memories like that, but now that I read what you wrote it’s clear that we do have either dismal or cherry thoughts depending on what we let take over, and maybe sometimes we aren’t’ in much control of our memories anyway. I also love your dog analogy. I like this father who was so committed to his “vows’ but knew all the while that he couldn’t always keep them. He seems very honest to me. The writing is clear especially considering how many concepts you covered and how difficult this topic was. Did you think the topic was hard? I could barely write on it at all.

      • Gord Mayer

        Thank you for the all the wonderful comments! I’m very encouraged.

        Marianne – I’m not sure why but the idea clicked with me so it wasn’t hard. This was 15 minutes of writing over something that I’ve had bouncing around in my head for a bit… is that cheating? 🙂

        – writing about God or big ideas does come across as daunting for sure.

    • Diana Trautwein

      Really, really like this one, Gord. Thank you for painting such a vivid picture. Man, you got a whole lotta words into 15 minutes. VERY impressive.

      • Gord Mayer

        I thank Mom every day for making me take that typing class in high school 🙂 Thanks for the kind words.

  • Debbiehaas

    Dear Son,
    How can I write this knowing you’ll never read it? Maybe someday I can tell you everything that’s in my heart, but will it matter then? When glory comes and we have met God face to face?
    Maybe this is for me more than for you. I need you to know how much I have loved you …always. I know those last months had been so difficult for you have and made worse by our inability to hear your truth. You wanted to talk about your limited future, but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear the truth that I would bury you, or more to the point incinerate you to the few pounds of ash that I would sprinkle into the desert breeze.
    I wish I could turn the clock back to the early summer day when you dropped your head and sobbed. You were alone even as I sat across the room from you. I couldn’t let your pain in to my heart that day. I thought we had time. I refused to see the signs that were all over your frail body. How I wish I would have simply held your hand and listened. Listened without platitudes, without denials. Would your heart have been lightened?
    I am so sorry for shutting you out that day, effectively robbing you of the chance to share your burden, lessen the heavy load you were forced to lock away into your own heart. Please forgive me, son.


    • Anonymous

      What can I say here. This is heartbreaking. You made me cry. I guess that’s good.

    • Diana Trautwein

      Oh, wow. This is such a sad, sad twist on the assignment – and so very well done. We all wish we could turn back the clock sometimes, but this dad? Oh my, such pain. You have captured it well.

    • I wondered while reading this and for many moments after whether this was true or not. If it’s fiction, you have something here that would make the beginning of an incredible story, one you should continue to write (perhaps after reading Gilead).

      I can only hope it’s fiction, because if it’s true it’s incomparably sad, and I’m so sorry.

    • Joana Brazil

      I really liked this story. And the twist as well. Please, when you write the book, let me know! 😉

    • Gord Mayer

      I’m speechless… Joe’s right – I hope this is just REALLY great fiction. If not you’re in my prayers.

    • Debbie Haas

      Thank you all for your encouraging words! But, no. It’s not fiction. It is one of my greatest regrets. My son died about three months later, complications of diabetes and kidney failure. He was 31. That was in 2003, and by God’s grace I am so much better now. I am writing a book, though I don’t know if it will ever see a book shelf. The editing is taking longer than each draft takes.
      Your stories are so great, touching on so many aspects of parenting and passing learning to our children. I’m so happy I found this site!

  • Joana Brazil


    All my life I never thought myself as good enough. Not a good enough son, not a good enough friend, not a good enough student, not a good enough brother. Simply not good enough. That doesn’t mean I was a bad person. I wasn’t. Looking back now I can see I tried my best. I was there when people needed me. But inside all I was was “not good enough”. I thought people would only love me if I was perfect. And since I was not, I believed no one loved me.

    Son, It took me too long to see how wrong I was. That thought caused me so much pain that I promised myself that if I had kids I would make sure they would never believe to be unloved. I’d tell them every single day how “enough” they were. I made you this promise long before you existed. And I’m so, so sorry to break it now.

    That’s why I’m writing you this letter.

    When I’m gone (and you can read) I want this letter to be a reminder that you are loved. That you are enough. And you always will be. Even when you fail. Even when you are alone. Because you are never alone. My love will always find you.

    Even though I won’t be there in person for you, even though you won’t remember me and even though I’ll never even see your beautiful little face, always know this: your daddy loves you. Everyday. Never doubt that you ARE loved, Buddy.

    I love you,


    • Anonymous


      This is again, so well written. I do wonder why he is saying goodbye to the baby. Is the child even born yet? I would like to know more about the situation here. This is a hard exercise though. Why is he “breaking” his promise. He isn’t going to kill himself is he? That feeling of not being enough is sad and it makes me wonder if he is going to kill himself. This was such a hard exercise. I wish you would write more on this topic. Thank you Joana

      • Joana Brazil

        Thanks, Marianne! Your feedback is always so good.

        My idea was that “buddy” was not born yet and the father was sick and probably would die before the birth so he was trying to convey his most important feelings.

        This is a very hard exercise! Also I’m a girl and not yet a mother. All the hardest. I guess I could’ve written more, but I always try to just stay on the 15 minutes.

        Thank you again for your words. All of them. 🙂

    • Diana Trautwein

      So sad. And well done – we know this is a young dad with a young son, and somehow that seems so much harder to bear, doesn’t it? Thank you for this.

      • Joana Brazil

        Thank you, Diana. Yes, I imagined he was a young person. Actually, I was surprised to start this story because I’m a very upbeat person! Would never guess all this sadness in me. That’s why I’m loving this exercises so much! 🙂

  • Anonymous


    Congratulation on your new son! I wish I could be with your mother on her way to see you and Sylvia, and to see Andrew. You named him after me, thank you. I hope he’s a better man than I, but I’m proud just the same. Your mother didn’t want to leave me to visit with you but I told her I would email while she was gone, so that you know I’m not dead yet. Ha ha!

    I’m not feeling too bad, but the pills make it hard for me to stay awake. I am excited about little Andrew though, more than I’ve been in a good while. I feel alive. His birth makes it seem like my life has been worth it somehow, like the show will go on, you know. Does this make sense? They just gave me a shot so I don’t have long before I’ll be asleep again.

    I need to tell you some things that seem important now, maybe they really aren’t. It’s hard to tell what’s important, hard to tell what to do. Nobody really knows how to be a parent, but I think you will have fun.

    Show him the world, Jason. Show my grandson the world.

    Take him with you every where you can. Take him camping. Show him the trees, the different ones you know the sweet gums and the maples. Make sure he wears his shoes so he doesn’t hurt his little foot by stepping barefoot on a gum ball. Show him how to make a fire and put up a tent. Does Sylvia like to camp? I hope she does. He should not play with matches though. I think I slapped you once for that, and I saw your face, how amazed, and how frightened, and how sad you were that I would hurt you. I’m sorry.

    And make sure you go fishing. Don’t let him near the motor yet though. He needs to have on his life jacket and he needs sit in the bow, not too far forward but not in the stern. Take Sylvia with you. She can keep an eye on him. He will probably be very active. Isn’t that how they say it now, active? We said you had ants in your pants. You just couldn’t sit still and that reminds me of church.

    And church, don’t forget that. That’s most important. He needs to listen and you need to show him how to help others. Take him to the food pantry with you or to Habitat for Humanity of whatever. It’s not just the going to church and listening that’s important. It’s the doing.

    And listen to him Jason. Show him your world, but be interested in his. You taught me more than I taught you. I know that’s the truth.

    You have given me more than you will ever know Jason, let you son give some of that back to you. Love is what’s important.

    Tell you mother I’m going to take a nap now. Tell her not to worry and tell her to give that little boy, that new little John a kiss for me.

    • Debbie Haas

      I read this with a smile….though I was with the man in his room, laptop under his shaky fingers, wanting to tell his son so much he seemed to bounce around. I know that before he succumbs, there will me more emails, more all important “mundane” advice. That’s where the living takes place…in the mundane. I could feel the ernestness in the dad’s advice. Well said.
      Of all the beautiful pieces I’ve read here, this is the one that made me want to write to each of my children.
      Thanks You!

      • Anonymous

        Debbie – Thank you very much. This was a hard one for me, and I’m really glad you liked it, liked that man, who is much like my own, now deceased father.

    • I loved this, Marianne. You capture a little bit of Robinson’s tone, which I liked. Although John Ames would have never written about email, of course 🙂

      This was particularly great, “Show him the world, Jason. Show my grandson the world.”

      • Anonymous

        Thanks Joe. I kept noticing that I was using a tone like Robinson’s, and I tried not to, but I finally just gave up because I am so behind on these exercises and I wanted to get it done. The person who recommended I read Gillead had heard me talk about my father, and when my father died he recommended Gillead (which had just come out), because he felt like John Ames sounded like my father. Actually my father had a lot of John Ames’ warrior grandfather in him for a long part of my life, but reading the book did comfort me at that time, and that’s probably one reason why it stays in my mind.

    • Joana Brazil

      I really liked, Marianne. And, even though he is sick it is a happy letter. And that’s great!
      Actually, it got me thinking on the amount of sad letters in here. And for me it is funny. My dad email me every time he is eating a mandarine popsicle because he knows how much I love them. And that’s one of the many reasons I know he loves me. Hmmm, I guess I should have written something happy!

      Anyways, rambling now. I do love your style in this. I actually can feel his excitement!

      • Anonymous

        Thank you so much Joana. I’m glad you have a loving dad. My heart breaks for those who don’t.

  • Diana Trautwein

    My son,

    I sit here, looking at the fire, knowing that I will not look at such wonders much longer. Life is full of wonder – I so hope you know that. From a well-built fire, spreading warmth through a room, to the bird’s nest at the top of the drain pipe, to the long, low angle of the light on a winter afternoon. I have wanted you to know wonder, dear boy. Wonder.

    I haven’t done that perfectly, though, have I? Too often, I was too distracted, preoccupied, laden with the task of the moment to stop and really look with you. To really look at you. I’m sorry, truly sorry, for all the times I didn’t hear you, I didn’t see you.

    Because of all the wonders in my world, you are the grandest. Such a big strapping man you’ve become. I remember like it was yesterday when your mom pushed you out into this world. You were wailing at first. But then you gasped and opened those eyes, searching for a face to connect with the voices you’d been hearing all those months you were growing in darkness. And you found us, too. You looked at your mom, and you looked at me.

    Can I just tell you that my life changed in that instant? Irrevocably, delightfully. The greatest gift I’ve been given in this life has been to love your mom and to have her love me. But that look, that look that passed between us on your birth-day? That has to be tucked right up there next to the wonder that is our marriage. I find myself wanting to thank you, to thank you for being born. That’s a little crazy, isn’t it? And no, it’s not the morphine talking! I am deeply grateful that you were born to us, that you entered our world and brightened and enlarged it. Thank you for picking us to be your parents.

    All I can hope for you, my son, is that your life continues to hold the rich gifts that you and your mom have brought to me: curiosity, insight, go0d humor, thoughtfulness, a solid relationship with that beautiful wife of yours, perhaps children of your own some day. Because I think we’ve learned together that love comes in the details, doesn’t it? In the daily grind, the nitty-gritty, the fold-the-laundry, pick-up-the-groceries, balance-the-budget, plan-the vacations kind of stuff. Standing together at the end of the day, sipping a cup of tea or coffee, quietly sifting through the pieces of a life.

    You have been a treasured piece of my life. I love you more than these paltry words can even begin to describe and I pray you will always know that.

    Your Dad

    • Anonymous

      This is really beautiful. I like how you start out with the details, very well described details and end with details that are not particular but are the “nitty-gritty”. It’s balanced but not in a corny way. The main thought that a child is a life changing and wonderful gift comes through so well here. When the father says he feels like he should thank his son for being born, I think he speaks for many parents. I know I feel that way about my daughter. I like the pace of this. It’s a short piece but it has the richness of something longer. You really write great prose.

    • Debbie Haas

      You’re so right! Life is, of course, about the big things–birth, marriage–but also in the minutiae, those things we do to keep daily life running smoothly and allow the love to flow.
      Thanks for a beautiful piece!

      • Diana Trautwein

        Thanks, Marianne and Debbie, for your feedback. I can’t quite seem to get signed up for comments on this blog – I think I’m asking to get them in my inbox, but they never show up! I’m so glad I came back to peek – you are both so kind.

  • R. E. Hunter

    My first post here, a couple of days late, and I couldn’t stick to 15 minutes (more like 30), but here it is…

    Dear Son,

    I have so many things I want to say that I’m not sure where to start.

    I know I wasn’t there for you many times when you needed me. Maybe physically I was, but not emotionally. You have to understand my background. I came from a culture where you had to be tough. Weakness of any kind was not allowed. I was sensitive and trusting as a child and they felt they had to beat that out of me. Not physically, but by humiliating me. The few times I confided in someone they always used it against me later, to embarrass me or to blackmail me.

    My parents never told me that they loved me or that they were proud of me. So I never felt good enough. I became a perfectionist, never happy with myself or anyone else. They never showed any love for each other, either. So I copied their example in my own relationships.

    So I built a wall around me. I learned to never trust anyone, to never reveal my feelings, to be emotionally distant. But that led to many battles with depression. And it led to drinking too much, trying to run away from the pain I was keeping bottled up, or at least numb it for a while.

    Your mother had worse scars than mine. We were drinking buddies first, both trying to hide from our pasts. That gave us a connection, that we could understand each other. I thought we would be able to help each other. But instead we tore each other apart. And you were caught in the middle of it.

    It’s a sad fact of human nature that when we become parents we often copy the things we hated most in our own parents.

    But I think, I hope, I did a little better than them. You certainly turned out better adjusted than I did. I don’t how much credit I can take for that, but I’m thankful for it. I want you to know that I am proud of you, and I do love you, even though I always had trouble saying it or showing it.

    I hope that you can forgive me and your mother for our many mistakes, for your sake. There is nothing worse than carrying this pain and hate with you through your life. It’s poison to your soul. Try to let go of it and move on. Allow yourself to love and be loved. Accept that you will make mistakes. And never try to drown your problems with alcohol.


    • kati

      no worries about posting after the fact. i do it all the time. sometimes the prompts have to ruminate in my soul before i’m ready to speak.

      wow. what impresses me most about your piece is its clarity. if i was the son, i would truly appreciate the “sorting” Dad had done, so the message is not jumbled or hard to follow.

      you talked about copying. i think that’s one of life’s hardest things, not to copy those who have come before us.

      i love the final paragraph. it seems to be the culmination of the letter. it’s as though all that came before is simply setting the stage for Dad’s simple requests: FORGIVE. why? carrying pain is poison. LET GO. MOVE ON. ALLOW LOVE. ACCEPT MISTAKES. NEVER DROWN PROBLEMS. these messages, because they are direct, and simply stated, would be difficult for a son to ignore.

      welcome to our warm and thoughtful community! i hope we see much more from you!! i find that the work i do here is therapeutic, and fun. i hope you experience the same.

  • Reading Gilead was one of the life changing events in my life. John Ames’ letters and words were so filled with meaning and love, or no love, that one was forced to look inwardly very deeply to determine in your own mind what he meant.

    • And by John, you mean Marilyn Robinson, of course. She was actually at the conference I just attended and I missed her because I had to leave early. I was so bummed. She’s incredible.

  • Lex

    I really like your rumination. However, a correction needs to be made . I believe the word you intended to use was tenets not tenants.