Charissa Fryberger has been working on a book of some kind since she was in fourth grade. Now she’s almost completed her first book, A Breath of Fresh God. Fryberger, who is currently teaching composition and speech courses at SWU, describes her new collection as a “written mosaic which explores the mystery of living with the Creator of all the universe who is far beyond our understanding or experience, and at the same time is as intimate and close as our next breath.”
In this conversation, Fryberger discusses the books that make her want to write, her process of reading scripture and how it informs her writing, the origin of her book’s title and some of the collection’s stories, and some basic writing tips.
Jonathan Sircy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Charissa Fryberger: I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer.
When I was in the fourth grade, I had read some things about animals going into extinction. I gathered and created a little group that was what you would call now an environmentalist group of fourth graders and decided I was going to write a book. I started writing essays to go into the book, and eventually it kind of expanded away from the environmentalist thing and became actually the basis of what became my degree. The 1972 Summer Olympics was going on, and I wrote an essay about Olga Korbut, a Russian gymnast. I was a gymnast, and as I wrote this essay on her and got very taken with her, it eventually led to me majoring in political science, emphasizing in Eastern European affairs, when I was older. That was my first experience writing.
I wrote a lot of stories, a lot of dialogue, a lot of fiction in the sixth grade, published a poem in the seventh grade, and was writing for a newspaper by the time I was 16.
When I was in high school, I got hold of a Writer’s Market, and I would just sit for hours and pore through the entries, but I never quite had the guts to actually mail something until I had a college professor in a creative writing class hand me back an assignment that just said “Mail it!” at the top.
JS: Very cool. So, what is your first inclination when you’re at home: are you going to reach for a pen or are you going to reach for a book?
CF: Probably a computer keypad.
JS: If fourth grade is the first time you remember organizing people to put together essays, you’d probably read some stuff. Can you remember a book you read that made you want to be a writer?
CF: Back then? I don’t know of any particularly then.
I find now that anything that catches my attention makes me want to write and I draw ideas and conceptualizations from other books.
So, you know, I read C.S. Lewis, and I want to be able to craft analogies of God the way he does. I read Sigmund Brouwer, and I want to be able to weave a story the way he does. I read Augustine, and I want to be able to articulate what it’s like to be introspective the way he does.
JS: How are reading and writing connected for you?
CF: I just think that everything that I’ve read becomes part of my thinking and part of who I am. Sometimes specific pieces will grow out of what I’ve read. I think a lot of times it’s just the way what I’ve read informs everything and contributes to all of it.
I used to teach classical literature. I’ve done a lot of reading of the classics and classic devotional materials. I find that I really love allusions. I will allude to something often, so I really enjoy when I find it reading someone else. Allusion uses just the mentioning of someone else’s work to say all kinds of things you don’t have to write because it brings in everything that is carried in that name.
JS: Is there an experience you’ve had with a book that you would want for a reader of your own work?
CF: Yes. It’s an experience that has happened in a number of people’s books. Probably the first time I identified it was in reading a novel by George Macdonald. So it’s just Scottish stories, and then a character comes in the middle of it, and there’s this line that just appears: “Oh….God!” And it’s like suddenly in the middle of this story about people and stuff going on, just a story, God appears in there, and it stops me as I’m reading. And I go, “Oh, yeah, God’s here!” and I recognize Him in in the pages.
I mean I can hardly read Augustine without having it happen. It happens in Lewis all the time. Thomas Kelly is another one who’s encouraging people to be aware of God’s presence. And in his writing, I often find God suddenly there. And that’s what I want to happen with my book, that people will find God while they’re reading: “Oh, yeah. He’s here, too. I’m not alone. God’s here with me! Okay!” That’s why my book is called A Breath of Fresh God.
JS: So that’s a really good segue to thinking about writing as a spiritual practice. How do you think your zeal for writing, your desire to write, is connected with your discipleship and your relationship to God?
CF: Here I have to step away from what I’ve tried to publish that’s necessarily for other people.
I followed and tried all kinds of Bible study methods that people had recommended. I had a pastor in Colorado who recommends you read the Bible through in a year, and I had done that a number of times. And just finally, I said, “This is not what I want to do. It’s too fast.”
So I developed then this writing-way of studying. So, I take a chapter, and I read the same chapter until I have finished it. It might take five or six days if I’m busy. And if it’s not every day, it takes longer. I write a set of verses, whatever makes sense in terms of the content. So it might be six verses, or it might be ten. I copy it out, usually in four versions, three English and one Russian. And so, when I have copied it, I then turn my notebook on my side. So I write diagonally across it so that my words are different than the biblical words, and I just respond.
After having written the passage four times where I captured the nuances of the different versions, I’ve given myself permission to respond very honestly. So sometimes I’m arguing with God; “This does not make any sense. Why did He do this?” Or sometimes it’s stepping in between the lines of it and saying, “What was He feeling? Where did this come from? What else is in the circumstance here?” Sometimes it’s just asking questions: “God, I don’t like this part. Why is this here? What are You doing?” And I just respond, usually for five or six pages. I’m just talking back and forth to God. I’m amazed how often in the midst of that, I uncover something that I have written that I didn’t know. I learn something in my own writing, and God will form ideas in my own writing where I go, “Oh!” And suddenly the scriptural passage makes more sense in a different sort of way, or I see a different perspective on it because I’ve just let the words flow.
JS: I want you to talk about the title of your book and the experience you want the reader to have because it sounds like you’re constantly catching a breath of fresh God in your own writing as you’re writing it even apart from what the reader may see. Maybe you can give us the shorthand for what the title of your book is talking about, and then how long that particular idea has been brewing for you and how long you’ve been meditating on it and practicing it and hoping that other people catch it too.
CF: The idea behind the book is just that catch. And you’re right, it happens as often as I opened myself to be aware of God pointing it out.
So, I actually just wrote one little article in the cafeteria. It’s been a really strange week and my daughter’s in the hospital and I’m behind in my grading and worrying about a variety of things that have to happen. And I was kind of spinning in all of that kind of stuff and sitting there, and I looked up and across the room, a young man stood up from the table and turned his back to me. And across the back of his shirt it said in big block letters, “BLESSED.” And it pulled me back out of all of that fussing and worrying.
And, you know, I had to sit and agree for a second and say, “Yes, I am blessed, God, and this is all little stuff. And that’s what really matters.”
So, it’s those kinds of moments when we stop and recognize God’s presence more than all the things that usually fill our lives. We get so busy with the details and busy with what we have to do that if we are able to stop and say, “Oh! God!” and take a deep breath, then we can move on with the details and the things that we do recognizing His presence with us. Because we forget.
As far as the book’s concept, the oldest piece was actually written before I had the concept of writing the book and actually published in the magazine about 30 years ago. I’m pulling it forward into the book because I like it, and I wanted to. It’s a piece about God as the artist from all over the country.
But the first one that was that really was the seed piece for the book was originally called “The Kings, the Worm, and the Knight,” and it was an oratory. I was running a speech tournament and created a coach’s event, and I had to create an oratory so that I could speak as well. So, I wrote this piece about coming before the king and who I am before the king and who He makes me to be.
That kind of turned to something called “An Audience with the King, and that was really my working title for a long time. Somewhere five years ago as I was walking, I came up with this phrase about “a breath of fresh God.” And I really liked it, so it’s really just in the last six months that I changed the title to be that. I have been keeping that in the back of my mind.
JS: Well, you did a wonderful job reading last week, and the pieces they were meant to be received in a way where I could actually hear your voice. If I was reading it on the page, I’d want to sort of be able to hear your voice, too. What’s the difference in trying to write something there that you knew was going to be performed out loud versus something that somebody is interacting with on the page?
CF: I hope it all works on the page when someone reads it. I think in a way that’s oral. Many years of speaking and speech training probably affects that. But it’s also often the way things come to me.
I walk a lot. My husband and I are mountain climbers. I walk five miles a day. Oftentimes I’ll just be walking, and paragraphs will come fully formed. I will start speaking them and coming up with them. There are times when I’ll pull my phone and speak them into the phone so I don’t lose them. So, a lot of times they come that way, or they come in my head so that I hear them as I’m typing and they’re oral as I’m transcribing them into words on the page.
I want them to be easily read. I want the theology to be real. A couple of the essays that I didn’t pull out for this recent reading are dealing with hard questions of theology and dealing with answers to things people say in opposition to Christianity. I want it to be real, and I want it to be right theologically. But I also want it to be easy to read. I want to be accessible so that people can even in playful ways be dealing with real theology and the question of what it means that God allows suffering in the world.
I’m working on an essay that sort of started happening six weeks or so ago, maybe longer than I don’t know, that is an analogy to Dr Who’s TARDIS and the response from people who meet me and find out I’m a Christian and tuck me into this nice little bucket. They kind of write us off in that stereotypical way. So it’s talking about how my faith is larger on the inside than it appears on the outside.
JS: That’s a rich answer. So, it sounds like you’re still working on the book.
CF: It just keep developing. I’m not sure when “done” is. We’re in the process of doing the publishing work, so I was talking to a cover designer the other day trying to get the design work in place. I’m looking for who the editors are going to be, so once I have those kind of things in place, I’ll just have to kind of call it done.
JS: Do you have a particular favorite in the collection right now or an essay you particularly like to read out loud?
CF: It’s hard to pick a representative piece because the pieces cover so many genres. You know, some of them are pretty hardcore. Some are essays. Some are poems. There’s a whole series of letters. There are three trip reports; two of them are climbing reports from mountain climbers where God steps in. So, they are analogies and ways that God spoke through the mountain.
But my favorite piece is one of the imagining pieces. I didn’t read it last week because it probably would have taken 20 minutes or so to read out loud. It’s about receiving an invitation to dinner with the king and having no idea what that means. And it goes into imagining being picked up. There’s all kinds of biblical allusions kind of stashed in the experience of going and arriving at this grand place with crystal floors, but then opening the door into the dining hall and finding that it’s not grand at all, with a long table that could have been drug out of a carpentry shop. Then it describes people around the table. When I first wrote it, I populated it with typifications, and it was really, really boring. So, I came back to it and made them all real. That makes them kind of odd, because some of the people I know are a little strange. It describes a number of people coming in and sitting down at this banquet with the king, and eventually his son joins him and they serve communion around the table from their hands.
JS: Who gets to read your work first? Do you have a first reader?
CF: My husband. Sometimes as he’s falling asleep at night.
JS: What’s one thing you learned from writing the book that you’d like to share with other people who feel called to writing or are working on their first project?
CF: Never let an idea get away! Writing doesn’t happen on our schedule. The Greeks used to call it the muse, but I think it’s the Holy Spirit. Things happen, and they happen now. You have to grab a notebook, and at least get the idea down so that you can recognize it again and recreate it, because if you let it go, it goes away and disappears. I can’t recreate them. Sometimes I’ll ask, and sometimes God will give it back to me. Sometimes not. Sometimes it’s gone.