Religion is the most emotive subject in all of history. Even today, with all of our advancements in other aspects of society such as medicine, communciation and human rights, no other topic of conversation can spark a debate like which God is the “true” God.
As an intellectual, I am reluctant to consign myself to any religious label (especially any that require me to discriminate against others for some archaic prejudice); however, as an artist, I also like to believe that there is something more to life than the world we see, hear, taste, smell and touch everyday.
Most readers know Mitch Albom for Tuesdays With Morrie, one of the top selling memoirs of all time. I was first introduced to Albom through his first foray into fiction, the Five People You Meet In Heaven. My best friend had read it while on holiday in the US, and she recommended it to me upon her return. I read it in one sitting. In a pay-it-forward kind of way, I recommended it to my mum, who then recommended it to a friend, and that friend recommended it to a friend, and so on…
Basically, the hauntingly profound message of the novel isn’t just felt locally, it’s universal – since its publication in 2003, the Five People You Meet In Heaven has sold over 12 million copies in 38 territories and in 35 languages.
Below is an examination of the skills and techniques that make Albom one of my writing role models. Warning: may contain spoilers.
It takes one very brave (or one very reckless) author to unabashedly examine the philosophical themes lingering along the thin line between liberal spirituality and traditional secular beliefs.
Most writers choose to hide the religious themes of their writing behind the safety of symbology and metaphors set in a fantastical or dystopian world. Albom chooses to present his themes plainly and openly, not because his intention is to force his beliefs down his reader’s throat like a pesky door-knocking Jehovah’s Witness or to condemn his audience for having differing views like a holier-than-thou Christian; but because his intention is to allow his audience to exercise their own interpretation of the themes.
This open-mindedness allows Albom (who was raised in a Jewish household) to explore some deeply philosophical concepts that even agnostics and atheists have contemplated, such as the perception of time, what you would do if you had one more day with someone you’ve lost, the importance of granting forgiveness, and the purpose of sacrifice.
However, it is perhaps the central theme of The Five People You Meet In Heaven that resonates loudest with even the most scientifically-minded among Albom’s readership.
It is a basic human need to be accepted by our peers, and we subconsciously seek out validation from society that we are good, that we are valuable. The question of why am I here? is one that everyone – from Catholic and Muslim, to Hindu and Jewish, to Wiccan and Agnostic – ponders at some point during their lives, and although he doesn’t profess to know the answer to The Ulimate Question, Albom gently submits the comforting premise that no life is a waste.
2. SHOW, DON’T TELL
Show, don’t tell is the storytelling equivalent of actions speak louder than words, and it is the mantra of all authors. We mutter it in our sleep.
The mark of a good writer is the ability to make the reader feel as if they’re actually in the story, and Albom understands that there is no need to use overly verbose gushes of emotion, double-dipping adjectives, or paragraph upon paragraph of four syllable words in order to accomplish this; he adheres to a modest vocabulary and trusts in his themes to speak for themselves.
3. PARAGRAPH AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE
A paragraph should contain an idea, the information to support that idea, and no more. Long sentences should be used when the action has slowed down, but can become exhaustive to read if they’re overly long; short sentences are used to increase tension and emotion or to make important information stand out, but when used too often they lose their impact.
Albom has this balance down to an art, and as a result his writing flows in a steady rhythm.
Additionally, the epilogues in Albom’s novels are clean-cut; sharp and succinct. Some novels end too abruptly, or contain unneccessary synopses on what has happened to the characters since the conflict was resolved. There are no sudden or unbelievable character growths concluding Albom’s novels, no loose ends, or mini obituaries; life carries on, but the reader leaves the characters feeling satisfied, content.
In the dedication for the Five People You Meet in Heaven, Albom wrote – “Everyone has an idea of Heaven, as do most religions, and they should all be respected”. If the other side is anything like what Albom has described, our ending is also our beginning… we just won’t know it at the time.
© Tara Jenkinson 2016
Tuesdays With Morrie, 1997, Hyperion Books, New York City, USA
The Five People You Meet In Heaven, 2003, Hyperion Books, New York City, USA
For One More Day, 2006, Hyperion Books, New York City, USA
The Time Keeper, 2012, Hyperion Books, New York City, USA