Writing And ‘Real’ Life
My friend Michael Reneau is visiting us right now. We’d corresponded via e-mail for a bit, then we met on my book tour. He enjoyed The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and asked for a meeting while we happened to be in the same city on my book tour. After a conference last week in Dallas, he flew down to visit St. Francisville. It was a poignant time to visit Ruthie Leming’s hometown, given that his congregation back in Colorado just learned that the young pastor’s wife, Kara Tippetts, has Stage IV cancer. Michael, who is a young man with a wife and children of his own, has been discovering a deeper empathy with Kara through reading her blogging about cancer — this, even though he knows her personally. On his own blog today, Michael writes:
I’m spending two days with a new friend and his family in Louisiana. This place I’m visiting is the backdrop for my friend’s book, in which he chronicles the story of his sister’s cancer, the community here that supported her, and how on the day of her funeral, he decided to permanently move his family back to his hometown.
I’m writing this sitting in the chair on the cover of his book. Last night after dinner, he took me to his parents’ house, who figure prominently in the book. As we headed up their drive, with my friend pointing to his sister’s house across a field, I said, “I’m nervous. I’m meeting characters from a book.” But these folks here are not characters — they’re real, flesh-and-blood people. People whose hearts were broken when their little girl died and left behind a grieving husband and three daughters. I walked around the historic town this morning on my own and found landmarks from the book: where my friend’s sister’s best friend lives; the church where her funeral was. Tonight we’ll visit her grave. It’s sinking in: this woman wasn’t just so much ink spilled on paper. She was real. These people are real. The hurt, bewilderment, and healing are real.
I’ve known Kara was real, because we knew her before her cancer. Yet it’s reading her blog that I come closer to empathy and some shadow of understanding what she, Jason, and the kids are going through, which I’m sure says more about me and my own callousness than anything else.
On the drive to dinner tonight (at Hot Tails, of course), Michael was talking about how strange it was last night to be sitting in my mom and dad’s living room, talking with people he’d only read about in a book, and hearing them talk about Ruthie, their daughter. They had only existed in his imagination before, because he’d read about them in Little Way. But here they were, in the flesh. How odd that is, he said, to encounter people concretely that you had only known abstractly — and, as in the case with Kara, vice versa.
I think I know what he means, but I can’t articulate why. I can understand easily why one understands another person better from having met them, as opposed to having read about them. It is less recognized that we can know someone better from their writing (or their art) than from their person. Whenever I give a talk, people often are surprised by how laid-back I am in person. If they only know me through my writing, they expect me to be a lot more combative. This always surprises me, until I realize that all my training and experience as a writer has been in argumentation. I want to write things that are convincing, or at least moving and provocative — not for the sake of provoking anything but thought and conversation. I assume — wrongly, as it turns out — that most people understand I throw some things out there just for the sake of “get a load of this crap.” (Thus, the concept of Dreherbait). I’m thinking now that this is probably a rhetorical mistake, because it alienates people who might otherwise take me seriously. They think they know how I really am in person through my writing, but when they meet me, they are surprised that I’m a lot more irenic. Truly, I would a thousand times prefer to have a beer and tell funny stories than argue with people. Arguing is my day job.
Yet you really do see the “real” me on this blog, and not in person. I genuinely like meeting new people and being with them, and I hate conflict. Ergo, I will avoid saying things in person that are likely to start an argument, because in person, I find I want to befriend people, not treat them as sparring partners. So: if you want to know me, you have to read me, but also to meet me. If you want to know my parents, it’s great to meet them, but encountering them in the book tells you things about them, their character, and their inner lives you wouldn’t learn from conversation. Michael is learning more about Kara Tippetts from reading her writing about living with Stage IV cancer than from seeing her and talking with her at church. Sometimes I meet people who tell me they aspire to write, because they feel deep inside that they can’t express the “real” them in daily life, and this frustrates them greatly.
Why, other than shyness, do you think that is?
Here is a recent Kara Tippetts post about the day of her diagnosis. Maybe she could have told people these things, in this detail, at coffee hour after church. Probably not. But there it is. There’s something about passing strong things through the medium of art that make them easier to take in — like how my son puts a powerful filter on his telescope that allows him to look at the sun, and see things that he couldn’t see without the mediation. And yet, if the only way he knew what the sun was like was through the filter, and not perceiving its unmediated power by a more direct observation, he wouldn’t fully understand the sun either.
I’ve had this argument with some readers of Little Way, who felt that the book was as much about me as about my sister. Two things here. First, Ruthie wasn’t here to interview, and I did the best I could reconstructing her life by talking to those who knew her best. Second, and more importantly, this was a book not about Ruthie Leming per se, but about Ruthie’s way. That is, what was it about the way she approached life that was so powerful that it touched everyone who knew her, and affected her brother so strongly that he returned to the home he never thought would ever be his? What lessons does her life and her death have to tell all of us about what matters most in life? As I’ve told people who don’t understand why so much of the book is about my journey, writing about Ruthie directly is important, but you tell the story about the real power of Ruthie’s life by telling how her own story affected the stories of others: her students, her friends in the chemo ward, people of the town, and finally, her brother. Some truths have to be approached indirectly if they are going to be fully grasped. But if all you show is indirection, you have only half the picture.
I’ve beaten this point into the ground. Anyway, read Michael Reneau’s blog; I wish I had written as well as he does when I was his age. You’re going to be hearing from him in the future. And pray for Kara Tippetts and her family.
Oh, one more cancer story: this morning, right after I poured my coffee, my phone went ding-ding, and there was a text from my Dutch friend M., whom I’d gone to visit this summer before she started a new round of chemo treatments. “Guess where I am?” she said — and the photo was M. standing in front of the west face of the Chartres cathedral, with a big smile on her face. Cancer lost today! Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but it did not steal M.’s day today, Deo gratias.