Sarah Emtage on telling truth through storytelling and finding meaning in the mess

Sarah Emtage is an artist, poet, and scriptwriter based in Kingston, Ont. She has recently finished an audiobook for her poetry book Paperscape (2018) and published a picture book called The Time Wager (2022). Emtage is the creator and writer of a radio play series called The Sound Castle, which now has two episodes available through the Shortwave Theatre Festival. She has also published another poetry book called The Second-Rate Poetry of S. M. Emtage (2018). She was interviewed by Love Is Moving’s intern, Emily LaRose.

Are there other storytellers who have inspired you? What about them or their work has inspired you? 

Definitely the Inklings. C. S. Lewis especially. When he writes there’s a closeness and kindness that I feel with him as the author and storyteller, that brings you to the whole world of storytelling. Stories were such a big part of my life growing up, especially Narnia. My mom read aloud to us a lot, and everything my sisters and I did was surrounded by the story concept.

I’m taking a course this week on the Inklings, so that’s been neat to explore more about how Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, influenced each other, and how their friendships and collaboration contributed to each other’s works. A lot of the time, we have this sort of myth of the lone artist creating out of their own identities and free will, but so much of what we do is based on community, and art is part of that as well. We’re not meant to be alone, even in creating things. 

Narnia is seen by many as a sort of Christian allegory. Do you have any underlying meanings in your own poetry and stories? 

I feel like in the purpose of writing and making art, with the intention of telling the truth, it’s always going to have meaning. I think the best stories and works of art have layers of meaning; things that aren’t obvious at a first glance. 

Tolkien and Lewis didn’t like the term allegory, but I feel like almost everything is on a spectrum of some form of allegory. We’re talking in class about allegory versus myth. You may find specific applications on the more mythic side and basic truths about the universe are going to be in there. 

But on the other side of the spectrum is something like Pilgrim’s Progress. Even though you know what it represents and it’s an obvious metaphor, you still get absorbed. You can also go further into that, like in Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, where if you stop to think about it, you can see the lessons that apply to your own life. Because Lewis and Tolkien were trying to tell the truth in this secondary world, they were able to make it much more powerful. 

Sound Castle is not obviously Christian in any way, and it’s interesting because I’m collaborating almost entirely with non-Christians in making it. There are, in trying to tell the truth in the world of this story, elements of my faith or the truth of who God is that come through. That’s something I pray about. I love that I can talk to God and say, “I want everything I make to tell the truth and to be in line with who you are.” 

How does creating in order to bring glory to God and reveal truth impact your own creations and stories? 

I took a spiritual formation for artists class recently, and one of the key concepts was this idea of whatever you’re doing, remembering that God is there with you. I feel like that applies both to making art and just going about your day. When you know that God is there with you it affects how you do something, specifically when it comes to creating things, because it’s a part of us. It blows my mind whenever I think about this, that we are created things that can create and the fact that God could do that. 

There’s a sense in which making something allows you to have this perspective where you can see a glimpse of God’s relationship with you on a much smaller scale. I have this kind of fondness for something I’m making, despite its imperfections, and seeing its potential, but also for what it is right now and what it will be. Sometimes seeing that helps me understand God’s love a little bit more and in another way.

Art by Sarah Emtage

I noticed a lot of your work incorporates curiosity, fun, playful word choice, as well as unique and entertaining characters. What other ways do you try to evoke this joy and delight in your creations, and why do you do it? 

I like bright, vivid colours and using them in my creations. There’re so many things that God has given us, and a lot of the things I’m drawn to are the things that give me joy, and I want to be able to share that with other people. I love the sense of play, and I feel like that’s a great gift from God. Play comes out of a place of peace and safety and having that foundation in God makes that security in who you are possible. 

Once you have that safety, you can explore and learn new things, whether that’s playing with language or trying new patterns and puns. As God has made order and meaning in the world, then making order, meaning, patterns, and repeating lines and structures can be fun to play with. 

You mentioned creating order and meaning. Could you speak a little more about that? 

In one sense it feels hypocritical because a lot of my life is chaos. But there’s a pattern, which is what meaning is. There’s a reason for things, and when you find that, and learn how to line things up in a way that it reflects that reason, it shows this universe isn’t just chaos even though sometimes it feels like that.

I’ve been playing with this piece of plasticene the whole time we’ve been talking but I haven’t made anything out of it, it’s still just another blob. Yet, the Earth was formless and void and God spoke and made it into something. We’re all living with entropy, and everything falling back into chaos, but at the same time we’re going towards the arc of everything being where it’s supposed to be, and we can have peace in the midst of all the chaos. 

Eventually, God is going to put everything where it’s supposed to be, and He lets us be part of that. When we plant a garden, when we make a meal, when we make a friendship, we’re all part of putting things back where they’re supposed to be. That’s something I need to continue to learn and grow in, and I really appreciate God’s order. 

What are some dreams and goals that you have for your future and the future of your creations?

I would like to be a poet laureate someday. I want to create a children’s poetry collection. I already have the name “Clay Castle,” and have a lot of the poems I want to put in it and some of the clay art to illustrate it. I’ve started a radio adaptation of The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald, and I have a novel I want to write. 

I’m not good at finishing big projects, but overall, I want to be more patient and be able to slow down and do things that are worthwhile but take a long time. I want to grow in patience and in trusting God day by day, being aware of His presence more and more. 

Interview edited for brevity and clarity. Photo credit: Lorna Rande.