If I see too many “buts” in a story by one of my students I circle them and ask for a rewrite. But I put my pen away when it comes to the “buts” in my life’s story…many times those interruptions or contrary circumstances have changed the course of my life.
I would have bought the other house but for a reluctant seller. I love the one I’m in.
I would have run for re-election but for a nagging voice telling me I’d had enough. Now I’m following a different call.
You fill in your blank: “I would have _________________ but for ________________. Now I’m ________________”
There is a big BUT in the Bible that not only changed the course of a life, but of history. Joseph discovered his betrothed was pregnant. He wanted to “do right” by Mary, so he considered privately divorcing her. His plan was an extraordinary act of kindness, because by rights he could have made Mary into a public spectacle.
BUT, and a big “but,” an angel showed up to change his plans. God had another idea. Joseph was sensitive enough to listen, abandon his plans and follow God’s.
How often have you had a “BUT” in your story? Does that “but” represent an act of God in your life? Was God trying to speak to you through a series of “buts?”
I’ve needed every one of the many “buts” in my story. I bet you have too. No rewrites at all. God’s “buts” are the rewrite. Everything after is a revision, a much better revision than I could ever achieve on my own.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye was the guest reader at Gannon University‘s (where I teach) English Awards night recently. Like most poets, she shared anecdotes between each poem. But she didn’t change her posture or the tone of her voice to ready herself or establish a boundary between her life and her poetry. What pause there was seemed natural, like the pause your uncle takes before telling another story at your family reunion. One hardly knew where her storytelling stopped and her poetry reading began. She extended her personality through her creative work, both through her products (her poems) and the process of reading them.
I approached her afterwards at the book table and shared my observations. She said, “You know, I’ve been criticized for that.” I said, “You don’t adopt a different persona to read like so many poets do. How you read pulled me into the poem because you’ve established a personal relationship with me.” She put her hand out, “That means we’re friends.” I took it and replied, “That could be dangerous, you know.” We laughed.
I’m sure Naomi Shihab Nye, throughout her illustrious career and worldwide travels, has shaken lots of hands and laughed with many fans. But in that brief drop of time, both during her reading and our chat afterwards, I learned about a means of self expression that isn’t narrowly narcissistic. Naomi’s self expression extended a hand to touch an audience. She extended her artist’s personality into and through her creative work. The highest form of “self expression” focuses on the craft, not the artist, because the artist is lost in her love of the craft.
Naomi Shihab Nye loved her craft more than she loved herself.
That’s the kind of “self expression” I can emulate.
I’m not very good at “improv” games. I’ve heard it said that writers usually aren’t because they’re trained in careful, disciplined choices of language and “improv” encourages spontaneous dialogue and interaction. “Improv” doesn’t have rules, or judgment, or make room for “error” because there isn’t any. There are no criteria to live up to or judge by. The only requirement is the willingness to participate and openness to spontaneity.
But it takes courage to play “improv.” You have put away self-consciousness, trust yourself and the other players, “be present” in the moment, and follow the process where it leads. It’s also not a “secret” process or one accomplished in your prayer closet. It’s out in the open, public, usually with an audience who participates and responds by approving (or not) through clapping, hooting, laughing, friendly yells, yawning in boredom or checking their cell phones.
I am a good audience for “improv.” I usually catch a joke, or see the possibility of one when it wasn’t intended. I laugh well. But I can also see where I can add some “improv” to my life. I can recognize the many areas of life where I can be spontaneous and make decisions purely for the enjoyment and pleasure they offer. Not everything in life bears a heavy moral or ethical dilemma or is reason to be “outraged.” I’ve blogged about Eric Liddell and feeling God’s pleasure. Maybe it’s time for me to discover more of my own!
An important gift we writers can give another person is renewed confidence in their ability to tell their stories. Once I collaborated with a South African painter friend to teach the arts in a mental health program. Clari van Niekerk was showing adult students how to paint scenes and objects from their lives and I was to help them write poetry about their work.
I tried to chat them up while admiring their paintings, but soon realized my task would be difficult. The students could visualize with a paint brush, but “seeing” in language and getting it on paper was a whole “nother” thing.
I sat down with one lady, and to buy time, made small talk. Then I had a flash. “Lucy, (not her name), talk to me about your painting, I’ll write down what you say, and we’ll get a poem.” Each painter told me the story of their work and I shaped their words into a poem, keeping the freshness of our conversation while adding line breaks to emphasize certain ideas. The poems were mounted beside the paintings in a gallery and read to an appreciative audience.
Jesus calls us to a life of giving. Maybe sometimes our call as artists and writers is to give someone the gift of trust in their own artistic abilities and make a way for their expression. Clari helped each student visualize their life story through painting. Then a writer helped them articulate their internal musings for a new audience in a new way. I got jazzed creating life stories with these artists and finding internal resources (both theirs and mine) that had been buried or forgotten. What have you discovered about giving through writing and the arts?