Creating a Good Story

May 4th, 2011
Image © Ilya Genkin |

When I was a senior in high school, I had an assignment to create a short memoir. I wrote about liking a girl and being young and terrified and not making my move when I had my chance, then kicking myself later for my lack of courage, or awareness really. For someone who was frequently told I was smart, I spent a good deal of my growing up years clueless.

The teacher’s advice had been to “write about what I know.” This was difficult to comprehend. I figured I didn’t know much. Other people, it seemed, had more exciting lives. I wasn’t orphaned by a gunman. I didn’t float on a raft in the Pacific. I didn’t blow the whistle on a powerful Senator. My life was a perpetual act two of checking off todo items and doing the dishes. The only plot twists I could identify involved moving too much as a child.

So I quit writing for a few years as I pursued other cool things such as learning to make film and video. I saw writing and filmmaking as two sides of the same creative palette. When I started writing again, it was non-fiction, and not very good. I was fortunate enough to be published solely because I was first to market on the new field of visual technology in the church, which I will certainly not complain about. While not exactly lucrative, writing church professional books has worked out pretty well.

Along the way, though, I never let go of the idea of story, and its relationship to not only what I was doing with media and image in the church, but to our core understanding of how to follow Christ. I understood myself primarily as a storyteller and not as a producer, a speaker, a “techno weenie” (thanks Larry Ramey) or any other label that limited. Yet I felt inadequate in expressing my connection with story. I knew its power but lacked the words to defend it with vigor. I have seminared and workshopped in many different cities with a solidly milquetoast support of story: “It’s really great!”

My dad tells a recurring joke, as dads often do. His is about preaching. When asked about an upcoming sermon topic, he will say that he is preaching on sin, and when pressed, he will admit he is coming out against it. This is about the level of insight it sometimes felt I brought to the power of story. And yet, God continued to stir in me. In many ways clueless, I slowly learned to talk about story with meaning.

The reason is the instruction to write what I know. I have learned to see the instruction not as being knowledgeable or experienced, but being honest. While it would be fun, I don’t have to go on an adventure like Hemingway or Hunter Thompson. A good part of writing, or any creative act like making a short film, is gaining confidence in the voice in your head. “What you know” is not about knowledge or experience or craft. Any of those can be acquired with research and practice. The knowing is depth of honesty. It is a conviction telling me something that is not a given for everyone else in the room. The voice in my head, in other words the combination of ideas and reactions and preferences that form my view of the world, is unique. This is what makes me a storyteller. This is what gives me words to talk about the power of story.

Your story is the story you need to tell. That is crucially important. You can appreciate other people’s stories, and tell them for practice like a band playing a cover song. But they have been done before. Your story hasn’t. You are the only one who can tell it, and if you don’t, it’s not going to get told.

Len is Senior Leadership Editor for Abingdon Press, the publishing imprint at the United Methodist Publishing House.

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