Learning to Live by Learning to Write
If you would like to read more about how the tales we tell reveal the life we long for, grab a copy of Reality and Other Stories. I'd love to hear what you make of it!
So, I’ve written a book.
It has been a real joy to write Reality and Other Stories together with Pete Dray. He and I are both convinced that as well as being central to the way we understand the world, the stories we tell and enjoy are also like compasses. If we look along the desires to which they point—whether it’s a whispered hope that some monstrous hardship will be overcome, or the unspoken longing for the home we’re sure we belong to, but have never fully experienced—we’ll find that they converge on one point. Jesus is the culmination of the life we long for, revealed in the tales we tell.
Along the way I asked a few people for advice and tips on making writing smoother. I wasn’t overly surprised to hear the same answer over and over: “just get writing, it’s the only way.”
“You only learn to write by writing” they say.
Clever, really. There’s only one way to prove or disprove that isn’t there?!
I’m not sure if many other things in life are like that—where we can only learn to do something we cannot do by doing the very thing we cannot yet do. Walking, I guess. And there are sure to be some stumbles and bumps along the way.
Or then again, maybe most things have a hint of that. I remember walking onto a hospital ward as a freshly minted doctor, and being hit by the realisation that I knew… nothing. I had no clue how to be a doctor.
But then again, it wasn’t really like that. 5 years of medical school training do count for something. It was at least important to know what I didn’t know.
But this isn’t actually a post about writing. It’s about living. Although they’re connected.
‘Life is a story’
That’s another of those phrases which ‘they’ say. It’s even become pretty cliché—maybe a parody of itself. Take a sip of your double-shot-skinny-soy-cappuccino, lean back in the faux-leather chair, pause just long enough that you might be about to say something profound, and repeat after me:
‘Life is story’
Or maybe tweet it, or instagram it. Add a soft focus landscape or a photo of the cappuccino you’re drinking as a background.
But when a truism becomes a cliché it’s only a matter of time before it appears to be as fake as the curated social media pictures it adorns.
The thing is, this truism is actually true.
Life is a story. We explain our actions and their consequences by telling stories. And we tell and retell ourselves stories all the time. We spot patterns and weave narratives. We know that the black shape we’re walking towards is a hole to be avoided because we’ve seen that sort of thing before, and we know how the story ends if we don’t step around it.
Some might say that’s because we can’t survive in a meaningless world any other way. We have to impose meaning. Take a pinch of pattern recognition, add an ounce of creativity, and stories are the result. Of course we needed to develop them: it’s an evolutionary necessity. It doesn’t mean the meaning is actually there in any real or objective sense.
Except, that’s a story itself, isn’t it? According to it’s own argument, somewhere along the line we noticed a story-telling pattern in ourselves and came up with that story to explain it. Meaning that by its own rules it can have no more basis in objective reality than all the stories it claims to explain.
Ask an author, though, and they’ll often describe writing a story as being more like discovering something than building it. Stephen King describes himself as a fossil hunter. His stories are waiting to be dug out of the ground, as it were.
"Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms."
In the end, all we can do with our creativity is rearrange meaning that was already there.
Which makes sense, and adds a whole load of weight to that line, “life is story.” We’re not just wondering through a sea of meaningless matter, clutching at dust moats and desperately trying to stick enough of them together to build something substantial. We are substantial already.
Life's Author, and Life's Reader
Life is a story because it has been written, or better, spoken, by an author. No, the Author.
And then, shock of all, he passed the pen. In his unfathomable wisdom he formed little sub-authors, writers within his own (hi)story. They all spill their ink and smudge their work, their plots are winding, repetitive and usually contradictory, but in the end they do produce actual stories.
And—get this, because it’s mind-blowing—because he’s the infinite Author, He’s also the infinite Reader—which means he pays equal and full attention to every single one.
No one gets to be his most-read. Your story means as much to him—and even delights him—as anyone else’s.
All of which is to say, life is story because life in God’s world is happening to us. We’re inescapably storied.
But life is also story because we’re happening to it—we’re inescapably story-telling too.
Which brings me back to writing.
If “the only way to learn to write is by writing” and it is actually true (which it is) that our lives are actually stories (which they are), then it turns out that the only way to learn to live is by living.
There are sure to be some stumbles and bumps along the way. But it’s the only way there is. You can’t read up on living at the library before you get on with it. There’s no preparatory course or training program. You just start, and start learning.
Is that really an earth-shattering revelation? Probably not.
But then again, I’ve been studying a lot of Ecclesiastes lately (can you tell?!). I’m pretty sure that one of the big reasons that God decided to include such an enigmatic book in his Book is because we need to understand this.
We can only learn to live by living
It occurs to me that we Christians have a problem here—often of our own making.
Here’s the problem: We have our theology of history all sewn up. We know things went badly wrong, and we rejoice that God has done something to put them wonderfully right. So we look back at the start of all our problems, rooted in our sin, we look around and groan at the effects of all the problems, and then we look ahead to the end of all the problems, knowing that one day it will all be put right.
It’s true, it’s wonderful, but it’s also got a huge chunk missing.
Can you spot it?
One of the other first lessons authors always teach is that every good story goes beginning, middle, end. We know this. It’s true of literally every story we’ve ever read or heard or watched. And we know that without the middle there’s no story. The princess is lost, the princess is found. Aladdin is poor… then he’s not. The Empire’s bad then the Empire’s gone. Ordinary citizens are going about their ordinary lives with no idea of the danger they’re in, then… they’re going about their ordinary lives with no idea of the danger they were in. Those aren’t plots which will form the next bestseller or box-office smash any time soon.
So why do we so often cut the middle out of the greatest story of all?
It happens all the time.
We struggle with a particular pattern of sin, always seeming to trip up in just the same way, and begin to imagine there’s no hope for change now. So we give up fighting, or plunge into despair. We forget that we’re still in the middle of the story of God’s grace towards us now.
Or, life feels like it’s going wrong. We start wondering if we messed up somewhere along the way. We know God is our Father, and we may not doubt his love per se, but we suspect that he’s constantly just a bit disappointed with us. Maybe he’s even given up on us for now and we’re relegated to the waiting room. We might still be (fairly) certain of salvation: we know what Jesus did in the past, but now all we can do is wait until the future finally comes, convinced that there’s nothing much to do until then. Again, we forget the middle of the story, God’s grace happening right now.
Or, we long to feel valued, so we look to our education, work, families, hobbies, or pleasures to provide some sense of significance. Only, we find that the best we manage is to come away with a fistful of wind, and our yearning only grows. This time we forget the middle of the story by assuming that we’re already at the end, and we mistake God’s good gifts now for the ultimate thing itself.
God’s grace is writing one enormous story onto the pages of history. But it’s made up of billions of smaller stories, all overlapping, all in process, all being witnessed and co-written by his sub-authors.
So, if the only way we learn to write is by writing, and if life is a story we’re co-authoring, then the only way to learn to live is by living as we keep going,
onwards to glory.