Monday, September 3, 2012

writing a great story

Iona Abbey, August 2012
The fall school term begins tomorrow.  This semester I am in the theatre department and in preparation for a course in playwriting, I have been reading a few books on the craft.  Writing a play is telling a story by showing instead of telling.  In a well-written and well-performed play, the story will naturally be handed over to the audience at different times to interact with, respond to, and make decisions about.  If a play spells out exactly what it wants the audience to do and refuses to let people come to the discovery on their own, it is not a very good play; it becomes rhetoric or propaganda.

While I was reading The Elements of Playwriting by Louis E. Catron (Waveland Press, 1993), I could not help but draw some parallels between crafting a compelling story and crafting a unified, dynamic life.  Let me point out two principles that I believe are worthwhile exploring whether we are budding writers or budding disciples of Jesus.

1) Writing leads to writing.  The principle here is that good writing happens through bad writing, mediocre writing, uninspired writing, and even by writing about nothing.  Repetition and practice not only develop skill, but can help a writer process their underlying motivations and get past blocks.  On a trip to Scotland this summer we visited Iona Abbey which has been the site of a prayerful and worshipping community for over a millennium.  The land is soaked with the prayers (and blood) of those who devoted their lives to God and as a result, there is a tangible spiritual presence in that place that even unbelievers acknowledge.  Prayer, day after day, whether inspired or not, whether the monks were tired or energetic, filled with joy or quarrelling, has led to this presence.  There is something concrete about this principle of faithfulness, about doing something day after day after day without fail, no matter what the circumstances.  Athletes know its value, as do performers and mothers and students and anyone learning a new skill.  Pitiful prayers (over time) can lead to prayers of faith.  Someone may deliver a horrible first homily but over time become a clear communicator of God's love and truth.  A small act of obedience leads to more courageous obedience. I  think you get the point.

2) Don't write what you know, write what you believe.  This principle surprised me, but the author pointed out that what you believe will come through in your story anyway, so start by writing about those things you are passionate about, that you feel you must express.  Mr. Catron is onto something very important here:  that what we truly believe will come through in what we write, whether we set out to do so or not.  The traits we admire and traits we dislike will exhibit themselves in the stories we write and become clear to anyone watching.  If I may translate this principle into the realm of spiritual formation, we live out what we believe.  A teacher may insist that students complete certain readings before class, yet if she shows up in class obviously under-prepared and a bit late, the students are learning that preparation and consistency are really not that vital.  We may want to formally teach certain principles to others, but our actions and interactions are telling the true story of what is important to us. 

One of the challenges I face as an introvert is to strengthen my belief that people have a very high priority in my life.  Very often "people fatigue" causes me to want to withdraw from social situations and it sends an unspoken message to those around me that they are not valued.  I must be aware of this subtext and incorporate creative means to reinforce the value of relationships in my life, whether that is making time for meaningful (even if short) conversations, writing emails, sending cards, giving small gifts, praying for someone (this always increases my compassion for others), or inviting an acquaintance out for a drink.  In other words, I must become deliberate about what story I am telling with my life.  And then I must tell it every day.  Like a writer, I must trust that this daily exercise (telling my beliefs through action) is leading somewhere good, even if I do not see or feel it at the moment.  This is the not only the key to being a good playwright, but at the core of discipleship.

Let the Spirit guide our writing and our living....Matte from Montreal
  

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