Chris: Writing your spiritual story: There are multiple ways to do it. One way could be to get an experience you’ve had that has had some sort of spiritual meaning or impact in your life into a form that someone else could also engage with. I’ve limited mine to story, but it could be art, it could be dance, it could be any expression. In the widest since, it’s an expression of the meaning of a spiritual experience. I’m limiting this to story which can range from that one moment in life when that thing happened, whatever it was, and writing down a story about that, or it could range all the way to a full autobiography—the spiritual story of my life. How much of the story do you want to tell? The ‘bigger’ story is going to be punctuated with multiple events that will connect to each other and likely show some progress (“progress” is not the right word because that implies that as you go on it keeps getting better and better and that’s not typically how people’s spiritual stories go, there are ups and downs…but there is often a depth of maturity that could be tracked that gets deeper over time.) The ‘smaller’ story would be a moment, a season, and maybe it was the birth of your child.
I was talking to someone yesterday about Myers-Briggs and he said I changed from a “thinker” to a “feeler” after my first child was born and it changed how I viewed the world. He said, “in my adult life, I hadn’t shed a tear, and now if I talk about it too much, I’ll be crying talking to you.” That wasn’t just a personality shift for him. That was a spiritual depth shift for him, but it happened in this season of pregnancy, leading up to the birth, and then to holding his child. If that person were in my class that I was teaching, I’d say, “let’s unpack that. That sounds like it has deep spiritual implications”.
Reasons for Writing: A couple of reasons for writing; One, so people can have access to it. It’s important to hear other people’s story because it helps give definition to my own story and if I can relate to it I can feel like I’m not alone in my own story. But I think there’s an even more foundational thing about writing your story—I do not believe people know their story until they’ve expressed their story. When it’s inside them it’s an experience they’ve had, it’s a memory, but I think there’s a misconception with people that a memory is fully formed inside of us and its immutable and unchangeable, and I don’t believe that happens. The process of moving it from inside to outside in writing or whatever expression, prompts all manner of thinking. What I tell people is, I write in order to think. Not the other way around. Thinking might get it started but once I’m writing, I’m having to choose words that are going to carry the meaning to another person, so I’m doing quite a bit of thinking as I’m writing. If someone’s going to read it, I want it to be worth reading and I want it to be really good, and I want the language to matter. In that process, other things about that story come to bear because I’m now working on the story. I’m converting a memory to a story—which are not even close to the same thing.
The work of converting a memory into a story involves writing or painting or dance or music. Converting a memory into a story is where meaning is assigned to the experience, and I think one of the things that makes humans human is the power to assign meaning to an experience. I don’t think animals do that. They have experiences and instincts, they eat, live, and reproduce, and I don’t have a sense that animals assign meaning to that, but humans do. That is a quantum leap in what it means to be human. I also think about it in the sense of what it means to be divine. God created and it went from thought to stuff—to all of creation, so I think when we take a memory and we express it and assign meaning to it we are in some small way reproducing the process of creation. We are created to be creators. So, part of “spiritual story” is that story is spiritual. Story is creativity. If we are imprinted with the image of God then we have to create something. What that looks like is going to be different for each person because we are each a different kind of impression of the image of God. So, I think all writing is spiritual. Spiritual writing (autobiography or story) is going to have some additional intention to shape and craft how this honors God or ‘where was God in this or how did this refine me to make me more purely human?’ But even the unintended creation is already spiritual.
Alyssa: What does this look like practically with classes that you teach? Is it different for everyone? And how do you decide between the autobiography and the event format?
Chris: I’m teaching a lifelong learning class on this at Lipscomb [University], and it’s called something like, “Making your Life Write”. My assumption is I don’t have creative writing students in this class. They may be writers, they may be keeping a journal, but they’re not academically or professionally writers. So, my goal is really to meet them at the point of identifying a story of their lives, calling it a story, and elevating it—to give it value and meaning. Some people will come to the class and say, “I wish there was a way for my children and grandchildren to know what God did in my life”, so I’m going to help them identify what they already have through internal exploration. And then, I want them to be able to write a very short story about that. This is not devotional writing where there’s a formula–there’s a Bible verse attached to it and a pithy saying at the end, but there is some structure like a word count and some ideas about how to convert that memory into a story that’s meaningful. I won’t be doing novel length autobiography with anyone.
Alyssa: Do you have any suggestions for the writing process?
Chris: Yes, a lot of writing is editing, but you have to have something to edit so there’s going to be a lot of brainstorming before that, and I’ll give a lot of brainstorming techniques. Some people do lists, some do a circle with the main theme they want and extensions off of that, and some people just free write. I invite them into at least 3 different ways of converting because a lot of that memory is emotional memory—there aren’t words yet. And then we do peer editing in groups of 3 or 4 and invite them to provide feedback. The parameters for that are, as a reader, how can I understand this better? Even with the best writer, the reader could understand it better if they’d done ‘this’. So, not evaluative feedback, is it good or bad, but ease-of-reading feedback. We would probably go through a brainstorming draft, a first draft of the story itself, and then a strong draft, and we’ll do group read-arounds.
Alyssa: How long have you been doing this?
Chris: I have done 1 or 2 of these before. This is a new thing for me—I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and I’m eager to get it going. I have been writing my own stories for a long time.
Alyssa: What kind of impact does writing one’s spiritual story generally have on a person?
Chris: The Impact of Writing on Self: For me, I have to write. It helps me understand. Let’s say I watched a movie, I could tell you about it. If I watched a movie, and I wrote about what I saw, I could tell you better. Writing is creating. Writing is learning in a deeper way. I have so many unassigned experiences in my life, and what I mean is that I have more experiences than I can say “that’s what that meant” and life goes by so fast I can’t make sense of it all. So, for me to write, I’m capturing that moment and saying you’re not going to get away from me and that’s going to mean something for a long time. In a sense its preservation. It’s like if my life is a river rushing by, my writing is when I take a glass and I scoop some of it out and I’ve got it. Otherwise, it’s gone, and the new water coming in is new life and that’s great. You can’t document everything, but you’ve got to document some things.
To punctuate your life with the most meaningful things and put them into writing is how I make sense of myself. If I don’t do that, I’m kind of lost. And if I go a couple of months without writing, I’m more stressed out, fidgety, frustrated; I don’t sleep as well. So, for me, it’s not just therapeutic, which it is, but its sanity. Its putting a peg down and saying this thing matters. If I don’t do that, no one’s going to do it for me. It’s no one else’s job to make my life mean anything, so if I don’t do it, it isn’t going to get done. And I’ll have gone and not be able to answer the question, what did my life matter? My assumption is that I’m not the only one who’s like that. I don’t think everyone’s like that—I think other people have other ways of making meaning, but [writing] is a common way. I think more people are like that than know that they are and they get a chance to do it and feel the value of it, not because there’s an audience out there, but because they’re an audience to themselves. They’re a witness of their own life. When I write, I get to be a witness to my own life instead of only a participant. That totally changes it. I get to say how that mattered, and I have some agency in my life and some control and some power and its nice because I often feel like I don’t have a lot of that.
Impact of Writing on Others: How that could benefit another person–they may be able to relate to it, its inspiring, it opens up a new way of thinking. In fact, I just wrote something the other day for a group I’m in that’s talking about race relations. The assignment was to write 2 pages on the intersection of your life and white privilege which I’d never written about. I was able to gather this whole string of things into 2 pages, read it aloud to a 20-person group, and it really resonated with some other people who had a completely different experience. Some of the comments I got were that it was inspiring, when you said that I could see how you were navigating how you’re Gonzales and you have darker skin but you grew up completely white but not completely white and you had choices to make and the way you wrote that I could see that was a hard choice. And this was coming from a person who was a dark skinned African American man who was probably in his 60s and he didn’t have any of that choice. He couldn’t choose whether he could pass for white or not, but it affected him that I had that choice and then the choices I made with that. So, if there ever is an audience, which is a rare moment, it can develop empathy and compassion, they can relate and feel not alone, there’s beautiful things that can happen when you’ve written your story honestly and then you have another witness to it.
Alyssa: In your class, what will your students do with their stories at the end?
Chris: I’ll provide some suggestions, but it will be up to them. I may invite them to make a decision about who they’ll share it with or if they’ll share it, and then they’ll share those decisions with each other. Some people may use a social media outlet, send it to a child/grandchild, and it may just be themselves and God which is a great, satisfactory audience.