On Homemade Art and Stories

Beside my desk, on the wall to the right, hangs a work of art. It is four pieces of construction paper taped together with orange tape; each piece of paper is a different color. The art makes a sort of lopsided and sideways T, and it tells a story and invites the viewer into a world. Across the top is a railroad track, a restaurant below, a windmill and horse and — to the right, where the length of the sideways T extends, mountains and cars and a rocket. My daughter gave it to me on my birthday this year, in the way children have of giving you something they made, and I made a frame for this lopsided T of a picture, stained the wood, hung it beside my desk. It hangs as a reminder, as I write, to make worlds and tell stories. It reminds me, too, of something I would have made as a child. As children we are storytellers and story makers, and I wanted something to remind myself of that, and this was the perfect thing.

I know that “story” is a buzzword now, used in marketing and data analysis, politics and current events and, thankfully, even literary circles. I can’t help but wonder where story has grown so popular because of our loss of it as a culture: that is, the loss of a metanarrative and unifying story with unifying ethics, morals, a unifying telos or end of humanity and each person individually. That is, I am convinced the more society talks about anything — be it story, identity, or truth — it’s a good sign that we lack whatever we’re obsessed about, like a group of starving men and how they will, inevitably, fantasize about food. Our society does not have this unifying story, so we talk about stories without knowing what to do about them, but without a common story we don’t even have a common language to speak to one another.

But we cannot escape that we are storytellers, or we once were, as the picture on my wall asserts. And we know we want stories, we watch them many evenings or binge them on weekends. We also want them, I believe, for our own lives. Or rather, we have them for our lives whether we realize this or not, and we want control over them, and to squeeze the meaning out of them, to realize what this world with its commutes and coffee, email and exercise, sleep and lack thereof, is all for. Yet, we cannot pull our stories out of the ground, fresh and new and ready to take home. Instead, we find ourselves with an amalgam of stories already, bringing the stories of consumerism and success to stories of faith and religion, mixing them and wondering where the narrative lies.

Of course, the consumerist story is one of accumulation. I think of buying a pair of running shoes: I could spend a week’s worth of work on this activity, researching reviews and materials, as if this buying decision somehow validates me. Or, if you’re not a researcher but more of a spender, I think of the evidence of accumulation in our garages and closets, and that self-storage is a $38 billion industry in the U.S. That’s about twice that of the entire music industry in our country. 

And if you are not accumulating products, we are desperate to accumulate experiences, or that seems to be the case form the modest amounts of time I spend on Facebook or Instagram, where our status is measured by the meals we eat and the trips we take. I rarely see posts sitting in meetings or answering emails, which are two activities that take up enormous amounts of my day. This is another story, and a distinctly American one, as if our highest end is to enjoy — or the pursuit of happiness.

This colors my faith, and if I have enough savvy to avoid thinking of God as Santa Claus, which I sometimes do, it’s easy to think of him as therapist or life coach, someone who exists so that I can be fully empowered, fully myself. But whatever truth there is to this, my vision of being fully myself generally falls into one of the consumerist and accumulation camps, with a vocation thrown in for good measure: I no longer have to worry about finances, or meetings and emails, and I have time to write, to sit outside on long mornings enjoying coffee, to philosophize. I find it strange that God isn’t more focused on my own empowerment and, the idea that we often confuse with empowerment, comfort.

A story begins, as I remember a professor telling me in grad school, with what a character wants. Specifically, she said, “To find a story, find someone who wants something and can’t have it.” This is partially why the consumerist-accumulation story is so dissatisfying, apart from deeper issues of what makes a human satisfied: it’s too easy. Any story that can be solved by cutting back at Starbucks and saving up isn’t one that will win our hearts. So, it shouldn’t guide our lives, either.

Think of your favorite stories. I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls this year and was reminded how Robert wanted to fight for freedom and win the war, but he really wanted love. I was recently brought to tears by The Color Purple when Celie’s sister Nettie, who we thought was lost, comes home. The scene was a resurrection, a yearning for life. 

A character wants something. This is where I see the story can diverge from wanting new running shoes and into the realm of faith. After all, this is the question Jesus asks again and again of almost everyone he meets: “What do you want me to do for you?” James K.A. Smith writes that this is the fundamental question of discipleship: what do you want? He goes on to write that our wants and longings are at the core of our identities, but I would amend his statement to say that are what launch our stories. To paraphrase Donald Miller, if we want the kingdom, we live a very different story than if we want a Lexus. Good literature does this. I quoted just two books I read recently, both old books, because good literature re-orients our desires to what is real and true or, if a tragedy, warns us away from those desires that will destroy us. Good stories are not about saving up for new cars, or if they are, the author knows the car means much, much more than a conveyance.

And this idea finally makes sense of the C.S. Lewis quote that we love to bandy about without knowing exactly what it means: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…We are far too easily pleased.” We are too easily pleased because if we do not want enough, we do not live a true and beautiful story. 

There is nothing more serious than a story. We need such stories to re-orient ourselves toward what is real in this world, toward our deepest desires, so that we can live true, good stories. There is much to thinking about the stories we are living but it starts with this: What do you want? So it becomes a circle. We drink stories to orient our desires, and our desires shape our stories, our real stories in the here and now. 

The picture hangs to my left so I remember this, and I remember it, and I remember it. I grew up drawing such pictures and telling such stories — stories of love and hope, of sacrifice and, yes, violence. Today, I want to tell such stories because they are true, because they tell us what is most real in this world, but mostly because I see my desires drift from beauty and love to a new pair of running shoes far too easily. I want to desire more, because my desires shape the story I’m living. I want to live a story of beauty and truth and goodness, of hope and sacrifice and even pain in the cause of the kingdom. But I cannot get there, I cannot get my desires high enough, without a story to reorient me — even if it’s the thick and lopsided story that a seven year old drew hanging beside my desk. 

On Dropbox and Running

runningI was supposed to take this evening to write, but my antiquated computer couldn’t make heads nor tails of Dropbox, so I’m doing a different type of writing than fiction. I’ve been wanting to keep my fiction muscles fresh for my morning writing sessions, so perhaps my Dropbox snafu is some type of divine intervention.

Staying fresh, I’ve realized, is the way that I’m able to write–and write productively–every day. Most days I’ll write for half an hour (I find time to be more helpful than word counts at this stage of my development); though on some I’ll push ahead for twice that. Never, by rule, should I write more than an hour a day.

On one hand, this rule could translate to mere slothfulness: a refusal to push myself too hard. This, doubtless, is the focus of a great many Americans, or those of us who heard about Kerouac’s benzedrine-fueled first draft of On the Road, pumped out in three weeks (at least, that’s how the story was passed down to me). But, since my stimulant of choice is a dark roast of coffee, three weeks is far too short for me to produce anything of substance. Rather, I piddle away for half an hour or so each day, eating the whale of my novel in small nibbles.

I’m also a runner, at a rather slow and plodding level. I’ve been on a running fast this spring, with the load of working on a second draft of my novel and teaching two classes on top of my regular job. Something had to give, and I’ve tried to wiggle workouts into the beginning or ending of my days, with varied success. But as a runner, I can simply go so hard for so long. If I exhaust myself on Tuesday (generally a hard hour’s run at my athletic level) I find my legs don’t have much pick up on Wednesday.

This, I suppose, is fine for running: I’m not running competitively, and I know there’s always tomorrow. But for writing, there is little more frustrating than realizing that I don’t have anything to write: I used all my inspiration and creativity yesterday. My writing muscles are accustomed to half an hour or hour-long bouts. If I push much past that, my writing becomes forced, wooden, mandatory. I squeeze words out of the rock that is my brain, leaving a trail of broken pebbles, void of magic and wonder. Void of life.

On one hand, I’m reminded that, as physical beings contingent upon time, we have what C.S. Lewis terms the law of undulation: “As long as he lives on earth,” Lewis writes as Screwtape, “periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.” We experience peaks and troughs, often from one day to the next, or one hour to the next.

Lewis’ adage is true, of course, because on some Wednesdays–even when I haven’t exhausted myself on Tuesday–I find no spring in my legs. (I found the same tonight but attributed that to a second brownie after dinner). But I’m sure to find it so if I push myself to the limits the day before.

Writing, or thinking, or creating, or whatever it is we do for our vocations (even if it is not our day job), is a muscle. If we exhaust it without growing it, we will find it strained and weak the next day. This can throw off the writer seeking to form a habit, the pastor or musician or designer seeking to bring fresh energy to a project after an arduous day. We must protect those muscles, even if Dropbox sometimes must step in for us.

I’m reminded of the quote, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” which I originally read attributed to Vince Lombardi, but the internet seems to think anyone from Shakespeare to General Patton first said it. The nebulous origins do not make it less true. If I do not rest, if I do not allow margin and space, if I do not put myself in a pattern of exerting and ceasing, I rob myself of the vital energy to let my words crackle and spark. You rob yourself of the energy you need to speak truth and goodness and beauty into your world.

May we be people who refuse to be fatigued, not out of some dogged call to machismo, but out of a deeper wisdom to ensure that we have the energy to engage our strongest loves.