I stumbled across a quote by Ernest Hemingway approximately five years ago that has haunted my writing—in both Casper the Friendly Ghost ways and Poltergeist ways ever since. Hemingway said, “In order to write about life, first you must live it.” When my writing has excelled, it’s because I have been living. Not merely surviving, but capital letter L, italicized, bold, underlined, 16-point font, Living.
My best storytelling involved visiting 52 churches in 52 weeks in 2009. I called it The Church Experiment, but my experiences included mosques, synagogues, temples, an online church, the Church of Scientology, and even an atheist gathering. I also picked up a prostitute once (not for sex) and visited a hole-in-the-wall strip club (not for sex) because I was fascinated with both careers. I interviewed two women—a prostitute and a stripper—and was blown away by their life stories. That was pretty good writing too. Not because I’m a great writer, but because I was living an interesting life. (Technically, I realize they were actually living the interesting lives, but getting off my couch and talking to them felt pretty interesting at the time.)
I wrote a couple of fiction novels along the way that I thought were okay, but neither had the same heart as my amateur ethnographies. Years passed, and somewhere along the way, unbeknownst to myself, I stopped living. (Not literally, of course. Writing after crossing over would be a helluva hook for publishers, but they’d probably still reject me in favor of Paris Hilton’s latest finger painting.)
I stopped living metaphorically. I stopped taking chances. I stopped exploring. I stopped getting to know people with radically different life experiences. Instead, I went through the motions. My life was great—beautiful wife, fulfilling job, nice house, fun vacations, a few dollars in the bank—but something was missing. The gnawing feeling in my gut was inescapable, but I couldn’t identify its source.
Then, Joe Boyd (President of Rebel Pilgrim) and I began discussing the idea of creating a space online for like-minded storytellers to spark hope and action in the world. Over the course of a couple dozen conversations (in which we were later joined by Rebel Pilgrim’s Chief Creative Officer, Brad Wise), Rebel Storytellers was born.
I was excited. Joe was excited. Brad was excited. So, I got to writing. And that’s when it happened. They say it affects all writers, but I had never experienced that level of writer’s block. Not only could I not form coherent sentences, but writing became painful. My brain turned into mush. I would literally put myself to sleep while proofreading. It was like trying to force a square peg into nothingness. There wasn’t even a round hole to cram it into. I was perplexed. I’m no Hemingway, but I had successfully put pen to paper in the past. Why had I suddenly lost the ability to write effectively?
Then, it hit me. Hemingway. “In order to write about life, first you must live it.” I had stopped capital letter L, italicized, bold, underlined, 16-point font, Living. And if I ever wanted to have something meaningful to say again, I had better get back out into the world and live a life that’s worth writing about.
Every great story begins with an interesting life. The author Lived, and through his or her adventures, readers were entertained, or saddened, or angered, or inspired, or filled with hope, or motivated to act. Anyone with the passion to put pen to paper must do the same.
My wife and I recently sold our 3,000 square foot house and moved into a 1,100 square foot apartment in downtown Cincinnati. We did it because we knew living downtown had something to teach us about ourselves, each other, our faith, other people, and life itself. But mostly, we did it because we wanted to Live. Over the next year, I’ll be writing about some of those experiences at Rebel Storytellers under the heading, “My Year Downtown,” if you’re interested in journeying down that path with me.
By the way, I am incredibly thrilled that one of our Storytellers, Natalie Shaw, is doing the exact opposite! She moved out of her small apartment in the city and moved into a yellow farmhouse in order to get unstuck and start Living.
What is it for you? What has you stuck? What steps do you need to take to start Living? And what are you waiting for?
Photo (Flickr CC) by Andy Spearing