Once Upon a Time – Frederick Buechner

JESUS DOES NOT sound like Saint Paul or Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin when we hear him teaching in the Gospels. “Once upon a time” is what he says. Once upon a time somebody went out to plant some seeds. Once upon a time somebody stubbed a toe on a great treasure. Once upon a time somebody lost a precious coin. The Gospels are full of the stories Jesus tells, stories that are alive in somewhat the way the truth is alive, the way he himself is alive when Pilate asks him about truth, and his silence is a way of saying “Look at my aliveness if you want to know! Listen to my life!” Matthew goes so far as to tell us that “he said nothing to them without a parable,” that is to say without a story, and then quotes the words, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” In stories the hiddenness and the utterance are both present, and that is another reason why they are a good way of talking about God’s truth which is part hidden and part uttered too.


The Carpenter’s Masterpiece

a child's drawingMy older brother and sister were wonderful artists. By the time I reached the age of six or seven, I somehow knew that they were artists … and that I was not. Their artwork has progressed and so has mine. I have realized that my main form of artistic expression is words rather than pictures. But during a phase of experimenting with sketching, when I was 17 or so, I showed my mom my greatest masterpiece up to that point. She looked at it and smiled. “Do you remember when you used to cry because your brother and sister drew pictures you wished you could draw?”

She recalled a time that I wished I could draw something they had copied, and I couldn’t do it. I grew frustrated, crumpled a picture smudged with tears, and threw it away.

I don’t recall that incident. Probably a good thing. But I do remember looking up to them, their art. Wishing I could draw like that. I used the same paper, the same pencil colors and crayons. Why was their work so lovely when mine was so amateur?

I did not understand and stayed away from creativity for a long time. I put aside my art book and picked up a writing book instead … but only years later.

Of course, now I can see that many things take time to come to fruition. Even now I wouldn’t say that I see fruit, yet I know my passion lies in writing. And as an artist – at least of words – my greatest inspiration lies in other works of art. Music, most often; photos, drawings, dance – people choosing to express the depth of their soul through arts of various form and style.

I envision a sculptor, a painter, a builder, standing with bare, raw material before them, knowing what they want to create and that it will only be a matter of time before it is done. Perhaps they don’t know exactly what difficulties they will face in their building. Various things come into play – the weather for a house builder. They pray for the rain to stay away during certain stages of construction. The artist prays for inspiration, that their hands will be sure as they move.

But their material is in front of them and they are familiar with it. They know what they want to create and they are sure of themselves and their abilities. The painter does not grow frustrated with his brush, crack it in half, crumple up the paper and throw it away. The sculptor does not push aside the piece of wood when he is only half done. They know that with perseverance and time, their masterpiece will be complete.

I see a Carpenter who put aside His work of building simple piece of wood structures in order to work with His hands and heart to draw out the very souls of men.

It was then as it is now.

He sees the raw materials of our lives. He sees the laughter and the tears, the frustrations, the anger, the sorrows, the misunderstandings. The hopes and dreams that shattered and scattered. But He does not grow angry. His work is sure and steady, his hands adept. Perhaps the things with which He has to work – the souls of men, of you and me, are not always pliable in His hands.

Often we look up in misunderstanding and sorrow, in weariness at the moldings and the makings and cry out, “Why have you made me thus?” Still He continues to work the perfect work He knows His creation will become. For He makes everything beautiful in its time. We might ask for a little more color, for a greater variety of materials, for a bit of time outside the workshop … or a bit more time in the workshop when we are set aside to weather. Still His hands are steady and sure, His movements deft, His knowledge infinite of what He wants to accomplish within us – the works of His hands.

All creation declares what can be made, what we can become, if only we choose to stop and listen and believe in the works of His hands.

The Power of Children’s Story – Frederick Buechner

To step through the looking glass, to pass through the wardrobe into Narnia, to attend the birthday party of Bilbo Baggins is to reenter the world of childhood more fully than is possible any other way. It is not just a matter of being reminded how strange and new and promising everything was back then, but of experiencing it all over again.

Regardless of how many times you have read the books you loved as a child, the elements of surprise and suspense are always present, so that right up to the last minute you can believe that Scrooge will go on being miserly in spite of everything and that Dorothy may never find her way home.

To us, as to the child, the happy ending always comes as an unexpected gift from on high. It is the deepest truth that children’s books have to tell. Possibly it is the deepest truth there is. – Frederick Buechner

The Best Stories

Ted Dekker quote

There is one kind of literary device so heavily used in the Bible that many people unintentionally take it for granted. Figurative language. Metaphors and similes and other kind of analogies. Word pictures. …The Bible contains whole books filled with poetry. … God is infinitely intelligent, and since he is the one behind all this figurative language, we must assume that it was and is to this day one of the best ways, if not the best way, to communicate and understand truth.

But what is figurative language, except language that allows the reader to see a figure in his mind and imagine that the subject at hand is like that figure? …

God leans heavily on the human imagination when communicating with humanity. In fact, the use of mental images is God’s primary paradigm for illustrating truth, both through the writers of the Bible and through Christ’s use of parables. – Ted Dekker

A friend of mine, an avid reader like myself, commented that his favorite authors are those who write fiction in addition to nonfiction because they make the best use of analogy and metaphor. They paint a picture with words, bringing those words to life in the mind of the reader — whether writing fiction or nonfiction.

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve likely heard the adamant claim that, as a writer, you must “Show, don’t tell.” If you’re in the earlier stages of your writing life, you might still wonder what exactly that means.

Showing instead of telling means painting a picture, using words to open the senses and letting your reader use imagination to fill in the spaces. It means using sensory and descriptive language to wake the reader’s senses. Sights. Smells. Sounds. Tastes. Touches. Textures. It means you’re not using thick, dense wording to explain some vague concept. Instead, you’re telling a story.

If you’re a parent, one of your favorite activities with your children is likely reading them a story, often a story that you loved as a children and are loving anew with your own child. If you look back at that childhood, one of your favorite memories might be listening to your mother or father read or tell you a story, the more realistic and exciting the better. We love stories. It’s in our DNA … or in our soul.

I love fiction, and I’m fascinated and awed by authors who have the ability to portray a story with realistic characters, show the events with sensory language, and weave in truths of life and love, sorrow and hope, loss and redemption, sacrifice and grace. The best stories invoke a glimpse into those pieces of our heart and soul that are so real we recognize them even in the most imaginative tales. They ring with truth. We can see traces of ourselves and of a greater story unfolding all around us. Most of all, the best tales reveal traces of the Author. Of the Greatest Story ever told.

A Story Worth Telling

Frederick Buechner quote

The Christian faith … is not a theological idea or a religious system. It is a series of largely flesh-and-blood events that happened, are happening, will happen in time and space. For better or worse, it is a story.

It is well to remember because it keeps our eyes on the central fact that The Christian faith always has to do with flesh and blood, time and space, more specifically with your flesh and blood and mine, with the time and space that day by day we are all of us involved with, stub our toes on, flounder around in trying to look as if we have good sense. In other words, the truth that Christianity claims to be true is ultimately to be found … not in the Bible, or the church, or theology — the best they can do is point to the truth—but in our own stories.

If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up.

It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling. ~ Frederick Buechner

What we all hope, I think, is that eventually … somehow … we have a story worth telling. We create a story worth telling. But so often what we fail to see is that the story is being created, written, today. This moment. In the meeting that lasts far too long or in the child who wakes up far too early on a weekend (and wakes everyone else in the household). In the perfect job that downsizes unexpectedly or the perfect relationship that is suddenly far from perfect. In the gray-eyed man holding a cardboard sign on a wintry day.

All part of a story. Your story. My story. What is being told? What is being written down?

What am I writing? Do I even recognize it as a story? Or a random jumble of experiences? Sorrows and joys. Meaningless and coincidental. It takes no skill to let the days fly past, turn the pages of the calendar, switch off the alarm and stumble into the morning without recognizing the story unfolding.

But then something happens. A sunburst of sorrow. Or a moonlit moment of magic. And suddenly the words are clear. And the Voice Who speaks them.

But only for an instant. As if a veil was lifted … just for your eyes to see. Just for that moment to experience.

But something about it lingers. A thread hemming the days that continue to fly past. They’re not meaningless, the sorrows and the joys. It is a story. A thousand stories. A million. And yet one. Overarching and underwriting every moment. Every experience.

And in them all, God is present. Or seeks to be. And that presence makes every story worth the telling.

Mid-Conference Confusion

rays of light through the forest

Writer’s Conference Series, Part 2

Four am. I woke up to the van’s alarm. At a writer’s conference in a lovely mountain setting, I knew the sound might disturb the occupants of nearby cabins. I jumped up to switch off the alarm, checked out the window to make sure the van was secure, and settled back into bed. I had a good two hours of sleep ahead, three if possible.

But my mind refused to comply. It was early morning on the third day of the conference. Questions jumbled into my head. “Where do I go from here?” “Is my book ready?” “What else should I do?” “Which agents should I follow up on?” “How do I know I’m making the right choices?”

How do I know I’m making the right choices?

I tend to be a perfectionist. This trait can be good, and it can be bad, depending on what I’m applying it to. When I’m editing the work of another, it is good to have a high level of professionalism. I have never heard back from an author whose book I’ve edited with a comment like, “You’ve given me way too many comments for improvement” or “I think you over-edited my book.” I’ve also never received negative feedback, and clients are usually very happy with my edits and suggestions.

But when it comes to my own writing, specifically my long-term works (aka books), my perfectionism can be a problem. Anne Lamott’s statement in Bird by Bird comes to mind:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life … I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

So I’m not really afraid of dying. But I’m terrified of making the wrong decision about my manuscript. I got the idea for my current work in progress (WIP) in 2012. In 2013, the first draft was complete. Since that time, I have revised and rewritten it after input from friends, other writers, and even an editing client or two. But it’s still not ready. So while finishing the manuscript, I have been thinking about other aspects of the writing process … particularly the publishing.

And I keep drawing blanks.

These days a question for a lot of writers is, “Should I traditionally published or self-publish?” I am not going to delve into that topic here, as it would be a blog post on its own (coming soon). But it is one subject I’ve spent hours of time reading, discussing, and praying about … for the last three years. It still is not clear.

Another question that has risen time and again is, “Should I get an agent?” And on its tail, “How do I know who the right agent is for me?” A fair bit of air time during the conference was devoted to the topic of agents, and my thoughts grew muddied and confused. I’ve been considering the subject for two years now. And it still isn’t clear. (Another upcoming post.)

I had also spoken to an agent the previous day who mentioned that the particular style of book I’m writing is … well, he gave me the word picture of a funnel. Hundreds, thousands perhaps, of writers producing those types of books. They cannot all be published, especially the traditional route.

So that morning, thanks to a rabbit and a car alarm, I tossed. I turned. I rearranged my pillow. I rearranged my blanket. I thought. I prayed. And I grew more confused. I began to cry, as quietly as I could.

“Why,” I asked the Lord, “after so much time trying to find clarity, am I still not sure? I don’t even know how to find the right path for my book, much less which direction to go to publish it.”

It seems silly writing about it now, crying over my book. It’s not like I got a rejection letter or a negative critique. My own thoughts and obsession with making the right choice had me in a tizzy. I knew I had to get to the core of what was bothering me so much. And it came to me.

I was afraid.

Terrified of going in the wrong direction and regretting it later. What if I self-published and ruined my chances for traditionally publishing? What if I signed on with an agent and later discovered he is not the right one? What if? What if?

I was not just afraid; I was paralyzed by fear.

But at least I had seen it. Now what could I do about it? My tears refused to cease as I asked God to help me. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.

I felt the urging in my heart: Go back to the beginning. The beginning of what? And then I knew. The beginning of my writing journey for the book. It was an experience that had left me in tears in the parking lot of my college campus. That day, sitting in my car, I had begun to write. And those words were the dawning of the book.

A promise was its core. “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me.”

Self-publishing. Traditional publishing. Blog posts. Facebook posts. With an agent; without one. My mission remains the same. It isn’t really about the questions. Yes, study. Yes, research. Yes, do the homework and the cost-counting. But when all is said and done, I am called to one purpose.

I write to lift up the Cross.