I recently had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop at the National Cathedral taught by Barbara Brown Taylor, author of An Altar in the World and Learning to Walk in the Dark and Nora Gallagher, author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic and Things Seen and Unseen.  Attending this workshop was exciting yet intimidating at the same time because we would have to actually write and share our writing during the workshop! It’s one of those things you know is coming and you wonder why you signed up, but then you are really glad you did.  Otherwise, how else do we learn?

Barbara and Nora talked about the nagging voice most of us has in our mind: the voice that tells us we can’t, we shouldn’t, who are we to even try to write something someone else wants to read?  To hear these famous writers admit they still have the nagging voice, at least occasionally, was comforting, yet it doesn’t make the voice go away.  Nora told us to imagine this voice being a person you meet at a party; they would be an absolute bore.  “Who would talk this person?   Nobody, so why are you letting them talk to you?” she asked.  Good questions!

They talked about the difference between the situation and the story.  The situations are the things that happen. For example, a young poor man falls in love with a wealthy landowner’s daughter and they run away. The parents never speak to them again. They endure a life of hardship and yet they are together happily until they die.  The situations make up the necessary pieces. The story, on the other hand, is the thread, the big takeaway, it’s what the reader is left with and it can change his or her life.  In this instance the story might be that true love defies all obstacles and can last forever. The story is the ultimate gift to the reader.

They encouraged us to start with the situations that are speaking to us as writers and let the story evolve into something that needs to be read.  Sometimes the story starts out one way and ends up a story you never saw coming, but this is the creative process. For these writers, this is where God comes in as the partner in the writing. Barbara said, “Behind each jewel are 3,000 sweating horses.”  She also said, “You can decide to be provoked; there are no useless provocations in writing.” That locked in the concept for me - good writing is really hard. 

This separation between situation and story made me think of our Lazarus Emergency Financial Ministry and the Lazarus Food Pantry.  We hear the details of the bad and good situations our guests are experiencing, and we can help fix those situations with financial assistance and food.  In some ways this is the easy part. But the nagging voice for many who come to us has come from outside of them: people telling them they couldn’t, shouldn’t, and will never. Here is where the hard work comes in. More important than the situation at hand is listening for their story as the thread to their lives. We listen for their stories to emerge because their stories are what make them human and significant. I believe when they leave us they feel their story is understood by another and they have experienced Christ’s love. It’s in the telling and receiving of their story that God comes in and transforms lives. Yes, sometimes it is really hard, yet, it is always worth it, because the gift of their  story will endure long beyond their situation.