Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Living a Better Story

I am submitting this blog post to hopefully win a trip to Portland to the Living a Better Story seminar that Don Miller is hosting. You can learn more about the conference here: and there is a video at the bottom of the entry.

I said in my book Introverts in the Church that if someone were to write me into a story, they wouldn't make me the protagonist or the antagonist or even a major character; they would make me the narrator. My introverted tendencies often locate me at the side of a room, on the fringes of the action. The disadvantage of this is that some consider me standoffish or antisocial, but the advantage is that I get a wide-angle view of the action. In many stories the narrator is omniscient, knowing more than the players do about the plot, their relationships, and even the inner workings of their minds. While omniscient might be a stretch, I think that my tendency to observe before I engage gives me some insight into situations and cultures and people that those who are in the center of the action might not have.

It's not a coincidence that I have become a writer. There's a reason why so many writers are introverts. From our little corners we see things that others don't, and we have just enough physical and emotional distance in those situations to look on with a little objectivity. We can watch it all and make the connections that others cannot see, reading people in ways that others can't. Then we can tell the wide-angle story, which we often prefer to do in writing rather than in speaking.

But seriously, who really wants to be narrator?? Would you prefer to be the hero of the story, who saves the town, defeats the villain, and gets the beautiful girl, or the old guy who sums up the exploits of the hero as the sun sets? When little kids watch the Super Bowl, do they dream of growing up to be Peyton Manning or do they fantasize about being Jim Nantz?

I had a conversation with a fellow writer recently about the insecurities we deal with in our callings. We compare ourselves to others - generally more extroverted types - who are out leading the charge and mobilizing people and planting churches and generally getting their grooves on, and it's hard not to feel inadequate. We're the ones who watch the movers and shakers and then narrate their movings and shakings. We know that we're necessary parts of the whole process, because often the movers and shakers can't write worth a damn, but it's a fine line between doing the essential work of a narrator, telling the story to inspire others, and watching life pass us by from our room-corner view.

One solution I've heard for this tension is that writers need to do more than just write. Sometimes we need to immerse ourselves in the action and we need to go out and buy ourselves some experiences. Take risks. Travel to exotic locations. Make more friends who are different from ourselves. If we don't, we risk becoming flat characters, two-dimensional people who are as thin as the pages we tell our stories on.

And no doubt there is truth in this. But I don't think there should be a dichotomy between "writing" and "living." Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think that writers don't need to go elsewhere to find a good story to live but that the writing life is a good story in itself.

In A Million Miles Donald Miller says that a story involves a person who wants something and who overcomes conflict in order to get it. Two years ago I was laid off from my rewarding but exhausting job as a hospice chaplain, and I was spent. I had emptied my emotional reserves praying with those who were dying and comforting their grieving spouses and relatives who were watching them die. I just had nothing to give people for several months. My book manuscript was due in 3 months and so I took this unexpected turn and devoted that summer to writing.

It was the best summer of my life. For the first time in my career I found a lifestyle and a personal rhythm that fit who I was, and it was exhilarating. I was peaceful and joyful and had emotional energy to give to my wife and my friends and my other interests. I knew, when that summer was done, that the writing life was what I wanted. God was in those pages.

But since those initial months of my writing awakening, the conflict has set in. My book is selling very well for a first time author, but hardly enough to sustain my livelihood. I make less money than a front-yard lemonade stand. On top of that, the publishing industry has fallen harder than President Obama's approval ratings. I imagined that when my first book was published, all the doors would be open to me, and I would just have to choose which one to take. Instead, the things that looks like doors are just rectangular shaped gobs of paint on a brick wall. People tell me to give it up and get a real job.

But I can't stop dreaming of the writing life. I want to know how I can center my professional life around writing and what practical steps are required to thrive in this dangerous calling. Not just for my personal job satisfaction but because I know my potential to do the greatest good for the most number of people includes a corner view and a laptop. And I know that God is in the pages.

Living a Better Story Seminar from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.