Storytelling is a central element of the Christian faith. From the story that unfolds over the thousands of years recorded in the Old and New Testaments, to Jesus’ use of parables, to the common practice of sharing testimonies among believers, storytelling is crucial. And yet, in contemporary evangelicalism, storytelling is more often a means to an end than an end in itself. That is, what we talk about when we talk about stories are actually anecdotes — little more than attention grabbing introductions to a larger argument we intend to make. Our stories need to come packaged with a “takeaway.”
I say “we” here, not simply to seem like I’m including myself in this misstep, but because I, too, have found that I’ve fallen into this routine. I tell a lot of stories in my writing, but they’re not very good stories. That is, they don’t have fully developed characters, or a true central conflict, or, often times, even a particularly compelling narrative arc. Rather, many of the stories I tell, like many of those I read or hear in sermons on Sunday mornings are not really intended to do much more than grab a reader or listener’s attention, before I hit them with my actual point.
Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of crappy about this. My educational background is English Language and Literature, a major I chose at Gordon College because I wanted to read and eventually to tell stories. When I went on from Gordon to the University of Massachusetts in Boston to study creative writing, I fully immersed myself in the work of great storytellers, and even tried my hand at a collection of short fiction. But, sometime between then and now, I’ve let my love of story give way to my love of exposition.
I used to blame this on my shift into journalism, until I started teaching journalism and began to realize (or remember) that the best journalists are first and foremost effective storytellers. In fact, the most basic elements of any journalists’ toolbox, the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of a piece of reportage are designed to insure that no important part of a story is left out.
So, recently I’ve began looking elsewhere to explain why I’ve let my love of story fall subject to strict argumentation (or pontification, in some cases) in my writing. It could be because I do so much blogging, but then there’s no rule against storytelling in blogging. Rather, I think it has more to do with the space in which I write mostly. That is, I often write to and for evangelical readers and evangelical readers expect a certain formula. It has various manifestations, but it typically goes something like this: introductory anecdote, argument, and application. We see this everywhere from Sunday sermons to book-length works. As I look back through a lot of my writing, it fits that formula more often than not.
Seminary students and graduates (or, for that matter, attentive church goers) will recognize this formula as basic sermon material. That is, many of us have taken to writing and reading mini-sermons. And, for me at least, I think this is regrettable. I think it’s regrettable that I only tell stories in service to a larger point, that I’ve reduced real life events that are in themselves imbued with deep meaning, to story sketches so that I can cheaply capture a reader’s attention. But if stories are so good at capturing attention, doesn’t it follow that they should also be good at keeping attention? Of course! There’s no need to keep a reader’s attention in a well-written novel. An effective film maker isn’t terribly afraid that you’ll leave the theater before the movie has ended.
The counter argument, of course, is that in Christianity the point of all our storytelling is a greater message. The Bible is stripped of a lot of its power (though certainly not its intrigue) if we try to read it without a sense of the larger truth it points to. In fact, it’s probably impossible to do so. And all great stories come equipped with meaning. Whenever words are written on a page and then subjected to interpretation, meaning arises. The difference, I think, is in intent. Do we tell the bare amount of a story to communicate a meaning? Or do we tell the full story, let the characters come as alive as they can, imbue the settings with a very real sense of atmosphere and depth, and try to make the reader feel the true turmoil of conflict?
These things are harder to do, which might be another reason that so many of us choose not to write this way. It’s easier to offer an anecdote, the illusion of a story, and move on to exposition. But if we were to tell stories the way they’re meant to be told, I believe, the reader’s sense of the meaning, not to mention his or her enjoyment, would increase.
These are the kinds of stories I want to tell. I’ve begun working on a memoir that tells the story of my family and my own relationship with alcohol. But even as I exult in the feeling of being free to simply tell a story again, I hear a voice in the back of my head asking What’s the point? After all, I’d like a publisher — and probably a Christian publisher — to publish my book and I can hear a future editor prodding me toward exposition, toward telling instead of showing.
This is the exact opposite of what I was taught in grad school when I was studying creative writing, but it is the kind of writing that dominates evangelicalism. I think this is unfortunate, and so I’m issuing a call back toward storytelling — slow, deep, descriptive storytelling. And for my part, I’m going to try not to subject a story to the belittling service of anecdote.
I recently had the opportunity to write a 3,000 word story for a newspaper’s Sunday magazine (coming soon!). It strikes me that not once after the pitching/proposing stage did the editor ask me what the point was. On the contrary, he constantly encouraged me to fill in the gaps with description, to show rather than to tell, and to really let the characters come alive on the page. I’m proud of the piece that resulted. I think readers will take plenty away from it, and I’m even willing to be unsure as to what exactly that takeaway will be. Ultimately, the takeaway wasn’t why I told the story. It probably goes withouts saying that the publication isn’t Christian, but I’m hoping I can bring a bit of that experience with me back into the Christian sphere.
Certainly anecdotal stories have their place in exposition. A little story is better than none. But, I miss big stories. I miss writing them and reading them. I’ve cut back my RSS and Twitter browsing in favor of longer works, and now it’s time I try the same in writing. Starting…now.
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