On telling the truth and seeking The Truth.
Ever since my ever-so-gentle literary rejection, I’ve been struggling with what to do with my manuscript. Do I relegate it to indefinite languishment on a musty shelf (or, more realistically, sandwiched within a precariously misaligned pile of books on the floor as is its current languishing status)? Or do I share it serially on my blog, vaulting it out into anonymous cyberspace, all these raw and real and sometimes ugly words that I must admit were sometimes bled from an open wound rather than carefully curated from the scar of a healed one.
Was it too tender, too fresh, too soon? It is just my “personal journal,” as some wise and well-meaning friends have suggested? Or is it truly meant to make its meandering way into the world, as some other wise and well-meaning friends have suggested? And, like that, my mind raises an unending volley of objections, clattering down reprovingly like one of those Jacob’s Ladder toys I loved as a kid.
And… I’m paralyzed.
Is it okay to tell the truth? What if our truth conflicts with someone else’s? What if our truth is painful for someone else? What of the voiceless dead, and their truth, those who never got a chance to tell and now don’t have the chance to object?
Please know, I’m not sliding into the morass of relativism here. Ultimately there is one truth: God’s. You know it when you hear it by the sting of tears, the dawning of wonder, the stultifying silence of awe, the goosebump-raising frisson of beauty that is beyond, somehow, that whispers of the garden. But we each have a lens. That in itself is a thing of unfathomable beauty: God is telling and has told and will tell His story in billions of different ways in the lives of those who love Him, each refraction shining luminously from these precious vessels of our bodies and our very lives.
God made me, as I believe He made all of us, as meaning-seekers. When we seek the truth, when we seek meaning, we are really seeking Him because true meaning comes only from Him. As Eugene Peterson says, “mystery is not the absence of meaning. It is the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” Oooh, truth. See? You know it when you hear it.
Meaning emerges for me perhaps more powerfully and lucidly through writing than any other discipline, even art. Words run deep for me, they rive me to the marrow, wresting truths from my gut I didn’t even know were there. Yet in the judicious love-light of Jesus, even truths painfully birthed in a glut of agony yield unspeakable beauty. More and more often as I sit down to write with my own paltry agenda, prepared only to wade in the shallows and tidily and painlessly tap out some cute and trite and totally stale truth of my own making, He disrupts me completely and lovingly shoves my boat out of my safe inlet and into the roar of the rapids.
And I remember: deep doesn’t call out to shallow. Deep only calls out to deep.
I believe in telling the truth. I believe in digging deep, past the roots that remain only for a season, into the soil of death because the soil of death is the only ground fecund enough to yield new life.
I believe truth-telling is the very thing which, surrendered to God, allows the kaleidoscopically ramifying patterns of His beauty to emerge. God loves truth. He is truth.
But here’s the hitch: our stories do not belong to us alone. Our stories are entwined with the stories of those we knew, of those we walked with, of those we hurt and who hurt us, of those we loved and were loved by in return, all of it so imperfect and winding and colored by a thousand different hues of emotion and memory. And each of us has our own hues, our own angle, our own wounds, our own glories. And while there is immense beauty in that, there is also potential for injury. Our stories are just that: ours, a collective and not singular narrative. And most of all, they belong to God, who is the ultimate Story Teller.
Write naked, they say. (You can’t walk around naked ALL the time, Steven says, a bit of analogous writing advice that doesn’t necessarily resonate with me but apparently does with him, who, if we should ever get a bit of land one day as we hope, has clearly stated that it will be his prerogative to stalk about unclothed upon said land) But don’t write from an open wound, they say. Write descriptively, they say, and show instead of tell. The road to hell is paved with adverbs, they say (to which I sound a rich and emphatically sassy WHATEVER. Looking at you, Stephen King).
Maybe this is hubris, but I’m not much for writing advice, or at least for hard and fast rules. My only writing “rule” is to let the Spirit flow and if the Spirit leads me to a voluminously rococo run-on sentence dripping with jeweled adjectives and festooned with baroque adverbs and subordinate clauses and gleefully strutting along with an ostentatious disregard for the “rules” of punctuation and grammar, well, then who am I to quench it?!
Yet for all the contradictory writing advice the world offers, there ultimately seems no parameter to which I can defer as far as *how much* to share, how much is too much, how much to hold back for the sake of others. There is no absolute parameter which will absolve me of the responsibility of vulnerability or remove the risk of it. There is only trust, there is only the Spirit to lead me. And the Spirit is enough because the law brings death.
I was hoping traditional publishing would be the law. I was hoping that getting an agent and a publishing deal would somehow legitimize the risk by putting a stamp of approval from higher and wiser literary powers, powers well-versed in cost-benefit analyses when it comes to the dizzying dance of privacy on one hand and the deep human thirst for stories on the other, real stories that search vulnerably, desperately (and sometimes nakedly) for the fullness of God’s redemption in what seems impenetrable darkness.
The thing is, He called me to write a book. I know He did, even though I can count perhaps only on one hand the number of times I have heard the voice of God as loudly and startlingly as a clap of thunder. I’d been writing overlong articles and blog posts for a couple years but He whispered to me of long-buried dreams in that one emphatic sentence: it’s time to write a book. And that was what I always wanted, wasn’t it? It was what I wanted when I submitted my first overly wordy short story for the Young Author’s contest in the 4th grade (it was totally unoriginal and derivative of one of those horse series books, yet my sin was not so grave as my classmate who won first place in the poetry division by directly plagiarizing the spoken-word bridge of the 1993 Michael Jackson hit “Will You Be There” from the Free Willy soundtrack. For shame! I knew she didn’t know what the word “tribulation” meant!)
It was what I always wanted as I moored myself in books on the weekends throughout middle school and high school instead of going to parties (it’s not like I was invited, but still). And finally, when I read “The Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr at 18 and her prose glowed like burning coals, all warmth and dynamic light and mesmerizing movement, and her unfettered truth-telling paid off in a fevered ecstasy of realness and depth and life. I can do that, I thought. Well, maybe not that. But I knew I was a storyteller, and I also knew I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction. But I could hold up my lens to life, drawing God’s stories out of it one by one, like one of those little quarter-machine-prize viewers that fractallize the world into a bunch of diamonds.
And so I did it, I wrote a book last year. But now I’m at an impasse. And I think of Lia, my late sister: what story would she want me to tell? Now that she rests forever in unspeakable glory, or has fallen asleep in Him awaiting the resurrection (Paul could’ve been a little clearer on this account in the New Testament), what story would she choose to give light and color and redemptive dimension to her thread in His tapestry of kingdom come? I know she wouldn’t be embarrassed by the past. But what serves the kingdom and what doesn’t?
And what story would my late father want me to tell, and most importantly, what story does God want me to tell?
I’m beginning to think perhaps it was both, this book, the one which sometimes flowed from me irrepressibly and which God sometimes wrestled out of me, words which He only won when he broke me like Jacob at Peniel. It was both my personal journal… and something to offer to the world (or, really, my meager but much beloved readership). And God always has multiple purposes in everything, which seem to keep unfolding ever more majestically like that clattering Jacob’s Ladder: the writing was precisely the thing through which God emboldened me to see Lia’s life as praise and not as ruin, to see that she, too, was beloved, and she loved, and she did her best. It was precisely the thing that allowed me to see exactly how love covers a multitude of sins, including my own.
So I’m going to, tentatively and with great trembling, share some of it with you over the next few months, knowing full well that nothing mitigates the risk except the promise of His glory, except the promise that it would serve, and reveal something of His beauty. And that is everything.