I have to admit that I am having trouble with these blog posts, and by extension, my articles, essays, stories, and book. I like to explain things and make connections between life experiences and faith and the Bible and stories. I like to fit things together like the puzzles that are always out on the table at my parents’ house. Perfectly straight edges and corners without any pieces in the dog’s stomach or the vacuum cleaner. And above all, a box with the picture on it so I know the conclusion before I even start.
When I work on a jigsaw puzzle, I study each piece carefully, sorting them by object or color, fitting the the individual images together, one at a time, then creating a bigger picture. When all that’s left is sky and the least identifiable pieces, I look for irregularities in the color and shape of each piece and each empty space before nestling it where it belongs.
This is how I treat much of my writing. I like looking at a jumble of seemingly random pieces and creating order and perspective.
I also deeply enjoy explaining things I care about. I once cornered my sweet, sweet friend Kelly at a party when she naively asked why I like Lord of the Rings so much. I wrote a 25 page paper on the use of folk music in establishing hobbit cultural identity in the extended edition films. So basically, when I paused for breath, it had been at least 30 minutes, and I was just getting warmed up. I released her, dazed and probably sorry she asked, to find conversation and solid footing elsewhere.
I find myself in writing about life to try to provide some sort of lesson that ties everything together neatly, one theme that brings clarity and certainty. But because my best writing is experiential, and because ambition and presumption can only get you so far when up against questions that have stumped theologians and philosophers for years, I find myself frequently dissatisfied. Life is messy and doesn’t lend itself to having the rough edges trimmed. It’s more like a puzzle one might find at a lost and found filled with a random collection of pieces from different puzzles. What if the theme that connects everything is not what I want it to be?
I like many things about this “story-telling” rhetoric that is so prominent in marketing and self-help and even the church (aka the culture at large) these days. I like it because my order-seeking brain thrives off of what American culture has done to the idea of story. Who wouldn’t want their life to fall neatly into the arc of exposition-development-conflict-resolution-denouement? I keep trying to wedge my stories into a Michael Bay-style cheesy action film, when it feels more like a German Expressionist film starring Michael Cera.
We Americans love our tidy resolutions. We love to watch tension work itself out and character flaws to magically disappear, or at least be explained, in a neat 120 minute feature film while stuffing our faces with popcorn.
I’d love to give you that. I really would. Kind of. But human interactions don’t actually work like that, and I write about real life human interactions.
There is a role in society for fiction, but I don’t write fiction. I want to write my stories in the past tense, that every tension is resolved and I have it figured out now. But I cannot do that, because I write in the nebulous world of non-fiction. In trying to find my voice and writing style, I’m also figuring out how to shake off my lazy, cliche pat answers and dig past tidy, superficial lessons and smooth resolutions. I’m learning how to write in the present tense.
I think there is a way to make connections and offer perspective without doing the reader’s work for them, namely, making sense of life and figuring out how to be ok with ambiguity and grey spaces.
I had to write a manuscript proposal a few months back. It forced me to think about what my book wants to be and how I want to address the issue of singleness in the church, specifically how women are talked about in more conservative church cultures. What do I have to offer to this big issue that is only recently (to my knowledge) starting to pick up steam?
I wanted my book to be prescriptive and I wanted to have answers. I wanted to put the puzzle together and counter every misconception. But every time I tried to write them, the words felt flat and superficial. I worked with an editor friend through the process and I realized that I had to stop trying to force pieces together from somebody else’s puzzle-my idea of what a Christian writer should sound like. In the end, my words and stories will (ideally-the book isn’t finished yet) come together in a way that is not easy or neat necessarily, but still beautifully connected, perfectly real, and totally mine.