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How I Write, How I Live
July 04, 2011
It has been several months now since The Next Story released and already I am fielding questions about my next book. I find that I am beginning to think about it as well and this got me thinking about the time after the release of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. i went looking for some of my reflections at that time and found that my thinking was heading in the same direction then as it is now.
I graduated from college in 1995 (Or so. To be honest, I don’t even remember exactly what year it was), having earned a degree in history. That degree did not open up the world of possibilities I had thought it might when I first chose history as my major three years before. With few options available to me, and suffering from a lack of motivation, I decided I had better find some kind of employment, even if it did not incorporate my training. I learned that a new Starbucks was opening nearby and quickly made my way through the interview process. The day the store opened I was there, and I stayed at that job, putting in my forty hours a week, for what must have been a year—possibly more.
I’m not sure if this is still the case, but back then every store was required to select one “Coffee Expert,” the one person on staff who would receive a bit of extra training in the world of coffee and who was required to know more about the various flavors of coffee than anyone else. This person had to be able to identify the differences between the types and to teach others how to do the same. He was responsible for brewing different kinds of coffees in order to educate both the employees and the customers. Through some strange twist of fate I was appointed to this position by the manager.
There was just one small problem. I hated coffee. It curdled my tongue, made my eyes water, and left me gagging. I found it utterly revolting. It was only a few months ago that I finally succumbed to the inevitable and learned to like it.
And yet I was the coffee expert. When customers wanted to know about the different kinds of coffee we offered, it was my job to lead them through the various options available to them and to help them select the coffee that was suited to their tastes. A customer would choose a package from the counter and I would say, “Oh, now that’s a great choice. It’s a delicious, full-bodied roast that you can taste all over your tongue. Look for the flavors of oak and a subtle hint of the spring flowers that grow in the mountains of Peru.” I had the routine down pat and helped sell a lot of coffee—more than anyone else in the store, I’m sure. The facts were all true; it’s not like I was some kind of used car dealer covering up a vehicle’s flaws and hoping to make a sell to some poor sap who would be stuck with a useless hulk. I simply relayed information I knew was true. But I hated the product. Had I been entirely forthcoming I would have said this: “It mostly tastes like burning. When I drink it I detect mostly the flavor of charcoal mixed with dirt—and not the nice dirt I used to eat as a kid, either. It tastes like burned, charred, nasty, ugly hot dirt. It’s loaded with caffeine and I’m sure it’s going to shorten your life. If you enjoy the smell or taste of manure, I’m sure you’ll love it. Would you like me to grind it for you?” It always struck me as just a little bit odd that I would champion something I disliked so much.
With another book complete and on store shelves I am now facing the question, Do you intend to write another book? And, indeed, I do hope to write another book. But I’ve become convinced that I can’t write a book until I first live a book. When it comes to writing it is always a temptation to relay information I know is true, even if I have not incorporated it into my life. I’ve had to confess that I’ve done this in the past right here on this blog. I can sometimes content myself with knowing that something I am writing is true and biblical, even if it has little resonance in my life. But when it comes to writing a book, I know that I need to live it in order to write it.
When I worked at Starbucks I had absolutely no passion for coffee. Though I could talk a good line, I always felt a bit like I was lying. Customers would ask, “What’s your favorite?” and I would just blurt out a flavor based on my favorite packaging. I had no favorite coffee anymore than I had a favorite flavor of cough syrup or a favorite kind of kick in the teeth. I don’t want my life to be like this. I want what I say and what I write to be a reflection of who I really am—or who I really want to be through the power of the Spirit.
I want to be a Christian who doesn’t just do a smooth job of selling the Christian life. I could probably sit down and write a book that would say all the right things and make me feel very happy when I had typed out the last word. But it wouldn’t satisfy because it wouldn’t be genuine.
I recently found a couple of quotes from Samuel Johnson and took them as a challenge:
It is not difficult to conceive that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives. For, without entering into refined speculations, it may be shown much easier to design than to perform. A man proposes his schemes of life in a state of abstraction and disengagement, exempt from the enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear, and is in the same state with him that teaches upon land the art of navigation, to whom the sea is always smooth, and the wind always prosperous…
We are, therefore, not to wonder that most fail, amidst tumult and snares and danger, in the observance of those precepts, which they laid down in solitude, safety, and tranquility, with a mind unbiased, and with liberty unobstructed… Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory.
So having said all that I’ve said, I do need to realize that the book I write will always, on some level, be better than the life I live.
So then this is the trick: As I begin to write again I need to either find a topic I can research and begin to live and then write about, or I need to find a topic that, by God’s grace, I’ve already begun to live. I just don’t want to be the coffee expert who hates coffee.