I’m an avid follower of the great metaphoricals, the bold believers. A follower of fantasists that, through their writing, create reality in strange and unique ways. Dante is one. Milton is another. Both wrote about hell, the loss of earth, and heaven. Both are immortalized as non-canonical influences to our religious perspectives.
When someone says, “Tell me of Satan,” most people talk about red horns and tail, cunning and beautiful and exotic and evil. This perspective didn’t exist before Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet it is rarely attributed to the writer. It is assumed, somewhere in the Bible, a description exists to vitalize this image. It isn’t true. Most divells in pre-Milton literature were impish things, grotesqueries, like goblins or bats.
But this post isn’t about hell. It’s about a much more difficult subject to write well: heaven.
Apart from religious self-help, the random self-important Anime, and dystopic science fiction, heaven is rarely written on. Dante also wrote Paradiso, or his trek through heaven. It was a shorter book, and the average reader knows nothing about it. Why? It isn’t edgy. It isn’t visceral. It isn’t conflict. Heaven isn’t a conflict. It is bliss.
My good friend Emily and I recently had a discussion on how a writer such as us could possibly write a compelling story about heaven. Her unique perspective, from across the religious pond (I am Christian. She isn’t necessarily religious), brought us to an interesting middle ground that began with what if.
As all good fantasies go. As all good novels go. What if.
We began by observing the premise of heaven and hell, as an umbrella. Or, as a pair of umbrellas. One up, one down: hell, a catch-all; heaven, a lofty aspiration.
How does one write a compelling novel about a place of bliss without drenching the reader in religious dogma or the vitalization of The First Sin in heaven (thus creating a dystopia)? (If you’re asking, it’s curiosity and doubt)
We chewed on several perspectives. One, from me, came from a discussion I had with a priest in high school: when people die, he said, we receive a choice. Two doors. One is dark, tumultuous. One is calming, peaceful. The door we feel most comfortable living in is the one we choose. If we pursue peace in all things, we ascend. If we pursue conflict, or believe we deserve the darkness, we descend. His perspective, in a nutshell, is we are given one final choice, after death. An offering. Needless to say, this man is no longer a priest because he lost his faith in the corrupted hierarchy of man.
One of her perspectives is a hierarchy in itself. “Maybe you build your way to heaven through positive action-helping people, standing up for good things, etc. Maybe hell is more of a place you go to by omission-by not doing anything. By letting things happen and standing aside. It occurred to me, people don’t do evil things because they’re evil. It’s usually because the evil thing is easier to do. If you were to go to a hell of omission, I wonder if it would be much different than life.
“It would also mean that someone who isn’t a ‘sinner’ per se could wind up in hell.”
I see the barest line of a story eking its way out of that statement.
Another perspective is, when we die, we exist in a bubble of memory, thought, whatever. We die, give up our earthly coils, and go to a place of where we are at peace. Given everyone’s “peace” is different, it could mean reuniting with an abusive lover, or being on a battlefield of glory, or sitting in deep thought under a bodhai tree. When we become curious about “what else?” or another question arises we want to answer, pop, we are reincarnated.
The idea of removing all our humanity is difficult to understand, as well: if we were still human, while in heaven, our curiosity and doubt and intrigue would continue. Pure soul means the removal of self, all the way to the core. Inhuman things floating in bliss is an impossible premise to write an interesting, striking novel. Let alone a humorous one, or a satirical one. (I’m thinking Good Omens: Pratchett and Gaiman)
Where does this leave us? A final thought. I believe many people write about heaven without labeling it as such. Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is a striking, simple, poignant book about finding heaven on earth. Rothfuss’ most recent publication, The Slow Regard of Silent Things has a particularly compounding take on the same thought.
I feel, from a writing perspective, I’d write heaven as a place where you exist with yourself, alone and full. Where characters are memories, where a person has no need for anyone else, because he is complete and full without such a social need.
Of course, if I were to go to heaven, I’d want someone else with me. Perhaps for this reason I’m going to “hell.”