June 18, 2012 Permalink
Friday, I submitted my manuscript for Prototype to Tyndale. I have been MIA altogether on the blog front these last few weeks as I’ve been finalizing it, fearing it would be death to channel any needed creative energy into blogs or tweets while I’m on the home stretch. It has been difficult not to blog everything I’ve been writing, which would make having a book at all superfluous! But now that it’s in, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I learned through the writing process itself.
For years, I’ve found that wisdom gleaned from the writing life (especially from Flannery O’Connor in my case) has profound implications for life in general. Now I’m beginning to pick up some new things as I hone my own process. Especially in writing Prototype, which is such an achingly personal and, for me at least, emotional book. I think it’s got hard truth in it when it works best, but it’s also been a fragile, delicate thing to write.
I had written a lot of content, but lived with it long enough to get completely disenchanted with it. It just wasn’t feeling quite right. It was all ideas that I love and that I’m passionate about, but it wasn’t intimate enough. I had to go to a really vulnerable place for the writing to work at all. And the very moment the book started to get outside that zone–if it started to feel academic or preachy or like mere social commentary, I couldn’t stand it. I burned down more than I wrote. But the further I went, I kept discovering that really delicate territory…if I didn’t write from a tender, vulnerable and almost broken place, it would crash quickly. So I kept trying to write from that place, a place it almost hurt to write from.
For example, I wrote my chapter on “resurrection” in one day of intense writing. It was around 7,000 words on a Friday. I went to bed that night, feeling ambivalent about any of it. I went to bed, and woke up that Saturday morning ready to abandon it all. So I ditched almost every word of it and started over. I had a dream that night which I won’t elaborate on here (it made the book, so you can read about it when its out ) that was full of heartache. It was about things and people from my past that I desperately miss, yet colliding with hopes and fears for my future.
Have you ever had a dream where your heart was so on your sleeve you couldn’t wait to get dressed, not just in your clothes, but in your armor so you could distance yourself from it? It takes a good bit of insulation just to get through any given day, and we can’t exactly go around being that exposed to everybody. So you find ways to button all of that up and move on. And that is what I was going to do that morning–but instead felt like I needed to write immediately. So I sat down and started typing. I told about the dream, but I kept writing. 6,500 new words for that chapter. And at least right now, it’s my favorite in the book because it is just so honest. There are plenty of things in that chapter I have thought or taught about before, but writing from that raw and very vulnerable place, it came through me like a symphony, like it was what I had wanted to say all along but never quite could.
There are many sections of that book with blood on them. Like that bizarre story in the Old Testament about the woman who was dismembered and distributed to the tribes, by the time I was done it felt like I was sending bits of me off through my e-mail inbox when I sent the manuscript out. I don’t claim that it all works; there are a lot of moments where it felt like walking a tight rope and I have no idea if its successful or not.
There are moments when I do think it does work though, and it helped me see some moments I have while preaching in a different light. After our service in Fort Mill Sunday (another Sunday with my soul laid bare), I was talking with my friend Jim Driscoll, who is the best gauge I’ve got for what God actually seems to be doing in the room. And he was talking about this–about moments in preaching when I clearly step out on a limb that is shaky because it’s so honest, and how it may well make everybody in the room feel uncomfortable (including myself)…yet how those are the moments when the Spirit is clearly doing the most work.
So now I’m thinking more broadly about my life in light of all of this. I do not think I live as attentively to God most of the time as I do in writing and preaching. I wish that were so, I just don’t live with that level of focus all the time. I am well aware at this point in my life that I wear armor more often than not. There are plenty of ways I have been hurt and plenty more ways I could be by being too exposed to the world, so we all learn how to manage our image just to survive. Same thing as when I write guarded–defenses are up, so I’m a little bit more confident or a little bit more detached than usual so I don’t have to keep my heart on my sleeve. But also in life as in writing, I limit the Holy Spirit’s capacity to work through me whenever I do this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the quote from the 2nd century church father Irenaeus that “the glory of God is a human fully alive.” That rings true for me. And I think being fully alive is not just being full of joy and happiness and wonder, it also involves being sad and lonely and uncertain. It’s not about posturing, it’s about exposing your soul to the world without the benefit of armor or self-protection to keep your distance. You have to live your life more fully from that place, you have to engage the things you don’t want to feel rather than holding yourself back. This is not easy. But if the glory of God really is a human fully alive, then living without armor gives God permission to work in and through you wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
The rather unpleasant and challenging yet exciting notion I am entertaining today is that perhaps what is true for the writing/preaching/creative process may well be true for my whole life. That the more unguarded I become, the less armored, the more available I am to God and to others. And I’m wondering now if I have to be intentional about getting back to that tender place repeatedly as a way of life, not just a way of completing a manuscript. Increasingly I wonder if that’s the only place God can meet me, and thus the only place the power comes from.