On craft

Fred Bahnson on “The Priest in the Trees”

Perhaps it was all those campfire stories I heard as a kid growing up in Montana, but I’ve always loved the intimate tone of a lone voice inviting you to lean in toward the flame, to listen closely for mysteries that would soon be divulged. That tone is something I’ve tried to achieve in my writing.

The biggest challenge writing “The Priest in the Trees” was finding the right authorial voice. In early drafts I had a more active narrator. He was present with Rev. Blackmer, walking through the woods with him, commenting on various things he said or did, and occasionally providing little reflective asides for the reader. But thanks to my insightful editor at Harper’s, I realized at a certain point that such an involved narrator wasn’t really needed.  And not only was my narrator not needed, he was potentially distracting. My narrator’s presence in various scenes might prevent the reader from coming to her own conclusions about Church of the Woods. So I made myself disappear.

The finished version clearly features a voice telling the story. With one notable exception, it’s a kind of New Yorker magazine voice, disembodied, dispassionate. All that changes in the final section. By then the story has been told, and now the storyteller turns to address his audience directly. Campfire time. The voice moves into the mythic register. At first the cadence is biblical. Then the voice shifts into a ruminative mini-essay on trees, loss, and the role of faith in the Anthropocene.

Whether the different voices work in tandem or not is for the reader to decide. My hope is that if nothing else, they will at least want to lean a bit closer toward the fire.

Fred Bahnson is the author of Soil & Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith (Simon & Schuster). His essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Sun, The Oxford American, Image, Orion, Washington Post, and Best American Spiritual Writing. His writing awards include a Pilgrimage Essay Award, a Kellogg Food & Community fellowship, and a North Carolina Artist fellowship in creative nonfiction from the North Carolina Arts Council. He teaches at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and lives with his wife and sons in Transylvania County, North Carolina.