Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, it pays to start with the problem, so here it is. When your writing is mostly concerned with abstract, high-minded concepts, it has the chance to better your reader – even the world – but it may also fail to connect with them on an emotional level. In contrast, when your writing is mostly concerned with concrete, everyday concerns, it can feel incredibly relatable, but it can also fail to impart any significant ideas, making it easy to forget.
The solution, obviously, is a healthy balance of the enlightening and the earthy, but what does that mean in practical terms, and how can you apply it to your writing? Thanks for asking, because that’s exactly what we’re here to discuss.
The sacred and the profane
When we talk about the sacred and the profane, we’re borrowing the phraseology of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s theories on the sacred and the profane are no longer held in much regard, but at least his vocabulary can be useful.
To Durkheim, the ‘sacred’ constituted that which society as a whole held apart, separate, in the realm of high-minded ideals. We might understand the concept of justice to be sacred – it doesn’t have a concrete form, but by discussing it, we try to grapple with an abstract concept that’s important to who we are as a society.
In contrast, the ‘profane’ is that which is everyday – the purview of individual people figuring out their normal lives. If justice is sacred, then the conditions of a given jail are profane; a practical problem that’s still important, but important in a practical, individual sense. It is a sacred concern that people not be found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit, and that concerns me as a member of society, but as a profane individual, I’m also worried about how many people are going to be sharing my cell.
Durkheim went to great pains to point out that ‘sacred’ doesn’t mean ‘good’ and ‘profane’ doesn’t mean ‘bad,’ nor is one more essential to our lives than the other.
All of this is true of art (even as it was a simplistic approach to sociology.) Engaging with the sacred is one of the main things that attracts us to art, which offers us a way to grapple with huge, often abstract ideas, but a little profanity helps us actually relate to the fiction we consume.
This is why Shakespeare’s plays about revenge, love, and fate tend to include bawdy characters and crass jokes, why The Canterbury Tales really commits to its flatulence, and why Ulysses contains this oddly beautiful passage about the bathroom:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that, as authors, it’s easy for our personal style to tip us too far over to one side. Of course, different readers want different things, and there’s an audience out there for the most enlightening, philosophically dense ‘sacred’ writing and the most baldly entertaining, relatable ‘profane’ writing. The problem arises when writers aren’t aware they’re making these decisions – when they lack the sacred or the profane by accident, and thus ignore a vital aspect of the human experience.
Interestingly, the problem isn’t usually what you might expect: unthinking authors pumping out pure profanity without any sacred insight. Sure, that happens, but lots of people like being entertained. Moreover, when skillful profanity makes us feel connected to a fictional character, a little of the sacred can be brought along for the ride, even if it’s just the sense of a society’s shared values or concerns.
No – more common, and far less engaging, are the authors who work on the level of the purely sacred. All big ideas, all generalities, and nothing to actually give the reader a stake in the story they want to tell.
This problem was perhaps best described by Flannery O’Connor, so I’ll let her take it from here:
The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstraction. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.
…One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.– Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’
How to embrace the sacred and the profane
Harsh words from O’Connor, but she’s right – many beginner authors launch into their writing with the intent of grappling with the great abstract ideas of the time, and while that’s admirable, it’s often uninviting.
Because of this, it’s worth embracing the profane even if your chief concern is the sacred. Just as principled, idea-obsessed Don Quixote had practical Sancho Panza to watch his back, your ruminations on the nature of life need some down-to-earth details to make them feel relatable to the reader.
Similarly, if you’re a proud profane writer – someone who just wants to spin yarns about amusing characters or entertain your readers – it’s worth considering how sacred concepts like love, sorrow, anger, regret, or joy can be expressed in your story. In short, how you can (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) look up at the stars, even if you’re comfortable in the gutter.
So, how do we marry the sacred and the profane? Well, O’Connor’s advice is to begin with the senses:
A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.– Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’
Mastering the profane is about grounding your writing in real experience. Practically, this can mean employing sense writing (which we’ve covered elsewhere), but this can also be done on a conceptual level.
Ask not just what ideas your character represents, not just the philosophy they live by, but what profane necessities they engage with in their normal life. Ask this not just of characters but of situations – the character in the dock is worried about losing their freedom, but what else is troubling them? Are they hungry, do they need to use the bathroom, are they concerned about who will feed their pet? Someone who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions once bragged to me about how he always wore sneakers on the day of sentencing, because going to prison involves a lot of waiting around and a lot of travel, neither of which you want to do in the dress shoes you wore to court to make a good impression.
These are the small details that marry your higher concerns to a grounded reality, and making sure to consider them will enhance your writing in a hundred little ways.
Bringing the sacred into your writing is a little harder, because while everyone can plumb the depths for profanity, it takes more insight to sense the sacred in everyday situations. Just as the profane makes your characters feel real, the sacred can make them feel important. Considering what a situation means on a higher level – what a character’s individual experience says about the human experience – can lodge your writing in the reader’s soul.
Commonality is the order of the day, here – finding ways to show how a character’s individual challenges bind them to the wider human experience. Doubling is a good place to start, and what do you know, we’ve written about that before too! This is effective even if you’re writing broad comedy; a little pathos invites readers to relate to even the silliest characters.
Apes and angels
Terry Pratchett famously wrote that the point of stories is to allow humans to ‘be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.’ This is as good a description of the ideal sacred/profane combination as you’re going to get. Every writer (and reader) should seek out their own combination, but the goal is to write something sacred enough to contribute to your reader’s understanding of the world but profane enough to speak to their understanding of their self.
Do you lean more towards the sacred or the profane in your writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem and Why You Need To Write With Authenticity And How To Do It for more advice on balancing these crucial types of insight.