I love to read, but I have never been one of those people that can read a lot of books all at once. I just can't do it. It feels like literary adultery. Yet that's exactly what I've been doing the past couple of weeks. I know. The first step is admitting you have a problem.
Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird helped me greatly when I was stuck in a massive writer's block a few years ago and I figured that I would revisit it as I am beginning to take writing more seriously. A few days after I started re-reading Bird, I picked up Nish Weiseth's Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World. EA mentioned that she wanted the book, so I actually bought the copy for her. I was planning to eventually get around to reading it, but was in no rush. I have really liked Nish's (I can call her Nish, right?) work on her blog and at A Deeper Story, but I was tapped out on the idea of our lives being stories.
Yet I started flipping through Speak and liked what I read. So I broke my rule and read through even as I read Bird by Bird. To my pleasant surprise the two books made great companions; Bird's witty instructions for writing a story dovetailed (haha) nicely with Speak's affirmation that stories are critical to transforming the world. So I began to read Speak through the lens of Bird by Bird. Here are a few of things that jumped out at me:
"The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a worship is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 3
"I am part of a generation on the brink of exploding in frustration. We're fed up. We're leaving the church. We've been injured, and we're growing more cynical by the day. We're tired of the heated, bloated rhetoric of those on opposite sides of political and theological divides. We're tired of oversimplified answers to nuanced questions, and we're tired of being apathetic."
- Nish Weiseth, Speak, 19-20
That paragraph was the point at which I decided to carry on with Speak. I read that passage and actually said, "Yes!" out loud (but still kind of quietly; I was at a Starbucks and didn't want to be one of those people that talk out loud to inanimate objects). But in that paragraph, she captured how I felt. She was demonstrating Lamott's mark of good writing: she was telling the truth.
As a millennial, I can tell you that we are frustrated. We are daily in a tooth-and-nail fight against cynicism. We don't want to be hardened by all the crap that goes on in the world, but it is incredibly difficult not to be. We don't want that. Despite what magazine headlines may say about us being the "me" generation, most of the people I know want to bring goodness, hope, and joy into the world.
Yet Nish does not linger on this frustration, but continues to share why she believes stories can bust through our cultural gridlock. Acknowledging that "story" is a bit of a fad in the church right now, she writes: "The power of story becomes evident when, as we share, another's eyes light up and they say, 'You too? Me too!'" (27).
Yep. One of the major things that has helped me hold onto my faith through my 20s and early 30s has been those "You too?" stories of friends and strangers in books and blogs. Those stories help you feel like you are not alone. They help you feel like you can be a bit more bold, a bit more honest, a bit more vulnerable in how you live out your life.
It helps that Nish is funny, smart, honest, and vulnerable in her stories. She does not pretend that she has everything together, which Lamott points out is critical in a writing: "They (the narrator) shouldn't be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting." (50) Though I've read much about our lives being stories, I can promise you that Speak is not shallow, unreal, or fatally uninteresting.
"You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and some surprising connections appear."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 84
"There's something to be said for looking a person in the eye when you're talking about sensitive issues. Unlike the anonymity of the Internet, when you share a table with someone, it's impossible to forget you're speaking to an actual human with real feelings. You're forced to treat others as though they're the real people they are."
- Nish Weiseth, Speak, 62-63
Anne Lamott is writing of the importance of stripping characters down to their essence. You can tell when the writer is overcompensating as you're reading a book or watching a movie. The writer just throws all they can on the character to cover up that lack of essence that exists. The character is too loud or too quirky or too crazy. They're cartoons.
Nish writes about how a lot of "dialogue" these days is a cartoon. We yell or we do all of these intellectual gymnastics to cover up a lack of substance; a lack of soul to what we are arguing. Yet here's the thing about all the arguments and disagreements we have: They all involve people. These people have hopes, dreams, and fears. Generally, the person on the other side of the argument believes what they do for a reason and not just to annoy the crap out of you.
Speak reminded me that if we sit down and listen to the stories of those with whom we disagree, we can remember the human pulse beating underneath. I may not come to an agreement with that person, but I won't paint them as some gross caricature in my head. I'll remember that they are a beloved creation of God. By the same token, that vulnerable sharing can give what I believe a better voice than the arguing into which our culture tempts me.
"This is our goal as writers, I think ; to help others have this sense of--please forgive me--wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 100
"We need to recalibrate our passions to begin with a person. That happens when we start seeing those stricken by poverty as one of us rather than the other...The problem with eradicating poverty is the rampant disconnection between the haves and have-nots. So when we sit with people and listen to them--about their needs, desires, dreams, expectations, hurts, and experiences--that's when things change."
- Nish Weiseth, Speak, 84-85
What we write with our lives ought to break into the small, bordered worlds of those around us. In Speak, Nish shares how sharing the stories of those she met in Bolivia connected people back here in the United States with the issue of poverty. Just by sharing the hopes and hurts of those she encountered, many individuals were compelled to help those in need.
We need to understand that there is a world outside of our personal bubbles. We need to understand that the world is bigger, more cruel, and more beautiful than we realize. We are called to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we hear how God works in ways beyond our borders, we are more in awe of God. When stories of those outside our bubble come to us, it expands our neighborhood and broadens who we see as a neighbor. When we see the wider world, it can compel us to act in new, more life-giving ways.
On the flip side, we need to tell these stories: our stories, the stories of those that we have met, the stories that have touched us. You can never have enough stories. One of my favorite stories to tell is about a Cuban church that I visited on a service learning trip. Their passion, their love, and their vision for what a church is supposed to be changed the way that I saw ministry. It filled me with wonder and I can't but help but share that story with others.
"I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that is so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, xxiii
"Here's what you were meant to do: be faithful. If that looks like finishing your lab work in your chemistry class, then be faithful and finish. If that looks like putting your kid in time-out for hitting the dog for the tenth time, then be faithful. Do it eleven times if you need to. If being faithful looks like filling out one more spreadsheet in your boring paralegal job, then be faithful and fill out that spreadsheet. These are the stories we need to begin to recognize."
- Nish Weiseth, Speak, 185
Yes. A thousand times yes. And that is why I am thankful for these books. They challenge me. They tell wonderful stories, but most importantly they encourage me to do the day-to-day stuff; the stuff that doesn't feel like it is important or will make for an interesting book. The encouragement to press on with the everyday is an encouragement to hope.
As I have left a job with a ministry, I sometimes get asked what I am going to do next. And I sometimes feel embarrassed with the truth. I am going to finish my last semester of seminary, I'm going to be a dad to two young boys, and I am going to write. I don't have this great plan for what God wants me to do in the ministry next. I'm just going to try to do what I can with where I am and what I love. That is sometimes difficult to do: trying to write while Jim freaks out because Liam is looking at a toy dinosaur. I feel at times like a butler. It does not always feel exciting.
The point of Speak is not to make your story more exciting. If that were the case, it would be just like a ton of other books out there today (some of which are still good). Yet it seems to me that the purpose of Speak--and why I would encourage you to read it--is simply to encourage the reader tell his or her story as it is. After we continue to live and tell our story, we then get to watch what God can do with what seems like an ordinary tale. That's a good reminder. We could always use that encouragement to be faithful: to wait, watch, work, and don't give up.