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.

PRACTICE

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!

Joe Bunting
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).