The Stories We Live
At a workshop I gave years ago, one participant made clear his disinterest in writing fiction; he wanted to learn how to write only what is "true." I tried to explore what "true" meant to him. A historian, accountant, or politician can use facts to deceive, while a novelist can create a story that reveals truth to its readers about themselves. The gentleman wasn't convinced; he had yet to learn the power of story.
Story teaches us to recognize meaning. When God fashioned us, we were wired for storytelling and story learning. We understand our lives as story: First this happened … and then she said … and then the other thing happened … and so this is how it turned out. I sometimes joke that, for the women in my family, even recounting a trip to the grocery store involves a beginning, middle, and end—we cannot simply supply information. I suspect what seems a family trait mostly is a shared human tendency to view life as a series of events that truly matter.
We respond to story because it imbues meaning to what we might otherwise see as random. Because God created and loves us, what happens to us matters, as does our response. By seeing and reflecting on our life as a story, we string together all the pieces of our experience. And in the process, we can see some of the significance of what we've endured.
I say significance, because I can look at my experience and understand how it's important to me. That doesn't mean I can always figure out why it happened. In a good novel or short story, not everything is completely explained. Such open-endedness is frustrating sometimes, but real life doesn't always provide us with an explanation.
Living by faith often means receiving our experiences and situations without knowing why they're ours. Sometimes we do learn why, but only decades later. The Bible hero Joseph endured long periods of heartache and injustice but was able to say—as a much older man—that what others meant for his harm, God meant for good (Genesis 37-50).
As a result of Joseph's many trials, he was placed in a position to save an entire people from famine. Of course he couldn't foresee that future as a teenager sold by his brothers to slave traders. All he could do then was find meaning in his suffering, to see it as part of his specific, unfolding story. So he learned a lot about trusting God, and about praying, and about paying attention to his dreams, which turned out to be crucial to his survival.
We, too, experience times when we can't make sense of what's happening to us: death of a loved one, devastating illness, financial reversal, divorce. If we learn to see our life as divine story—a series of events leading to our role in God's kingdom—we can still find the meaning even when we can't find the why.
Story teaches us to pay attention. Being a novelist has blessed me in many ways, but what I appreciate most about the writing life is how it's trained me in attentiveness. When I practice this spiritual discipline, I learn to encounter life as it truly is rather than as I want it to be or as others tell me it should be .
As a writer, I recognize that in good fiction, individual characters are never only bad or only good. Even villains have their moments of light and the most admirable heroes have failings. If I don't recognize this complexity, my characters will be one-dimensional and unrealistic. And once the story ceases to be realistic, its power to enhance a reader's understanding and experience ends.
I write truer stories—and see life itself more clearly—when I pay attention to details. And when my vision improves, I see God's action everywhere around me. I also learn to recognize God's presence in situations where I may not have expected to find it, such as on a routine train commute to work, where I'm surprised by a conversation that lifts my heart and redirects my gaze.
Our life story is multilayered and filled with wonder; our task is to stop our activity and anxiety long enough to notice the details. I write multiple drafts of every novel because I know it contains levels of information I can't possibly access the first time, or even the third or fourth time. As I pay attention to the characters and their situations, more about them becomes apparent to me.
I've come to see my life story in the same way. If I attend to this day, this hour, this moment, the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal lessons I need to learn or things for which I need to give thanks. For instance, when a new problem comes up, I might ask for God's help. After I've settled down enough to notice more details of the situation, I also notice more possibilities. And often I discover a solution is already right in front of me. It was only after I paid attention—a practice that involves focus and calm—that I was able to see the answer.
Story teaches us to exercise faith. I've learned that a story has its own process; if I participate with that process, the writing goes well. However, if I try to control the process—manipulating plot and characters according to my agenda—the story stops working; it becomes flat and false. Through years of writing, I've become better at participating without controlling. I have more faith the story will turn out as it should.
One day I realized I didn't have that sort of faith about my life—I kept trying to control the story line by fighting what I couldn't change, trying to "rewrite" what already had happened (a symptom of regret and ingratitude), and attempting to force changes in my current situation that might make me feel better temporarily but wouldn't be best in the long run. Yet if I trusted the process of novel writing to the Creativity overseeing my work, couldn't I trust God to lovingly guide the process of my life? I had learned to allow a story to develop as it needed to; couldn't I simply allow my personal story to develop as it should?
Now I try to let my story unfold under God's watchful care, believing that divine love and wisdom will use all my conflicts and turning points to bring me to fullness of life. And that's the ultimate happy ending.
Vinita Hampton Wright is the author of numerous novels and various nonfiction books and articles. Her novel, Dwelling Places, was named Best Fiction of 2007 by Christianity Today magazine. She presents workshops on writing and creativity, and works as a book editor for Loyola Press.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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The Stories We Live
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