The Next Thing

You guys, blog entries don’t always solve my problems like they should. That’s why I write them, you know: I get upset and thinking about something and I start composing like mad in my head, then within a day or two I get it all out on the page in a big hunk of cathartic vomit, then everyone tells me how nice it is and I pat myself on the back and feel much better and go on my merry way. Unfortunately, a few weeks later I realize I’m still pretty screwy in the same old ways, and I already wrote about it, so there’s nothing else to do now. Drat.

One particular entry has continued to sit in my gut, though I wrote it months ago. It is the one about living up to my own expectations, making a dreadful little god of the woman I think I ought to be.

This tendency has all been especially apparent lately with my attempts to write fourteen novel pages every two weeks for my independent study. Somewhere along the line I’ve convinced myself that not only must everything I write turn out brilliantly, but it must be wonderful from the first draft, that the plot of an entire book must knit itself together seamlessly in the first attempt. So, with that in mind, I sit down to write every day and vacillate routinely between terror and despair.  I mean, if I can’t do a simple novel right on the first try, what am I worth?

I’ve been stumbling along anyway, sending weak kicks in the direction of the imaginary-Alice-who-can-do-all-things, and gratefully soaking up encouragement from Dr. Potter, and the book I’m reading on fiction writing, and the friends who say I’m over-thinking it.

And yesterday my mom sent me an essay in the mail called “The Judgment of Memory,” by a man named Joseph Bottum, who was, at the time, editor of First Things. It was mainly about memoir writing, about our tendency to write about our parents and childhoods (my parents are brave to encourage this habit of mine), about the way in which we dilute our own memories, about the way in which modern writers shy away from story and myth and substance, and instead give marvelous little detailed descriptions of things between which they are ultimately unable to draw a connection.

This conflict between focusing on details or plot is not just present in writing, in the way I squeeze words onto a page, but in my own life, in the way I spend my time, in the way I occupy my mind, in the way I rest. It is comfortable to look at small things like myself and my words and my to-do post it note for the week. It is uncomfortable to try to fit grand archetypes and ideals into my compact, inelastic life.

Details come easier because they can be added unto the all-powerful vision of ideal-Alice. The story comes hard because it is His. She does not exist in His story: there’s only Him and me. In fact it’s mostly Him. He was in all these places first. He “father’d-forth” all I see and all I know. Joseph Bottum writes that “In the end, every sentence with the word I in it is a lie: self-justifying, self-righteous, self-conscious, self-sick.”

So, what to do? How to follow along as He tells the story?

Way back freshman year, I wrote a frustrated little entry called “Weather and The Woman Question“ and Mrs. Liebmann commented and told me not to worry, just to “Do the next thing.” (That advice immediately skyrocketed right up there with “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” and “Say what you mean.”) It is not really as hard as I like to pretend to figure out the next thing. The next thing after this is to practice my cello, to write a page, to finish my laundry. I know how stories go. I’ve got lots of examples of lives well-lived.

For Christ, the next thing was usually something like eating dinner or going to bed or praying or talking to his mom or making a table. Sometimes, though, the next thing was healing a lame man, or casting out a whole horde of demons, or overturning a bunch of tables. One day the next thing was to be forsaken and to die. On Sunday, the next thing was to get up and walk out of a tomb.

Which means that the next thing for you and for me is really, simply this, from Luke 8: “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.”

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