Grace Is Where I Live
Book Excerpt: Introduction
When I was a student at Wheaton College, Chad Walsh visited campus to read his poems and to lecture. I was impressed. He was the first poet I’d ever heard read, and his performance was masterful. Not only did his poems hang before me in the air like mist in sunlight, but his commentary on them opened the life behind the poems to me. During the question and answer period after his reading, he was asked how one became a Christian writer. I’m surprised I can’t remember the exact words of his answer, for I have come to live by its logic: if one is a Christian, one will be a Christian writer; it is impossible for it to be otherwise.
Those brief remarks constituted the full extent of the instruction I was offered as I tried to find my way to maturity both as a Christian and as a writer. Wise as they were, and adequate to me as they are now, they were not enough when I was twenty. I wanted and needed to hear more. I needed to hear what it might mean to submit my life and my words to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I needed to hear extensive testimony from those who had gone before me about the struggles, trials and rewards of the vocation of writing. I needed good news.
In writing this book I have remembered my difficulty as a student, and with my students in mind I have consciously written the book I didn’t have thirty years ago when I needed it. Had I been given it then, I probably wouldn’t have liked it; I would have found it too conservative. But I would have read it and fought with it, and that is what I hope my students and other readers will do with it: read it and fight with it. I have written personally; I am not a theorist—my experience is not definitive. In these pages I offer one writer’s testimony to be placed beside the testimony of other writers, men and women, and tested by comparison. I believe in what I have written, but I know I have written only part of the truth. Much remains to be discovered in practice.
Parts one and two of the book treat questions of vocation. The first three essays consider particular relationships. What does it mean to live a holy life? How does one’s craft contribute to that holiness? What is the meaning of witness? How does one use language to a purpose without compromising its integrity? What is the meaning of place and community? How does one speak for and to that community? These three essays are reflective and tend to be summative with strong conclusions suggesting I know what I’m talking about. They are essays to be argued with. “Giving Up Everything,” the last essay of part one, is a retrospective discussion of what, at a particular point in time, I understood I was personally called to do and to be.
Part two is an edited version of a journal I kept for two or three months immediately following the completion of “Giving Up Everything.” The struggle recorded in these pages belongs in this collection because it is partner to the surety expressed in the reflective essays. Only by placing the two side by side can I begin to say the dynamic of my experience.
Part three explores what working in three literary genres has meant to me. Implicit in the discussion is my sense that each genre inclines a writer to a perspective unique to it and a sense that all genres are necessary to a full expression of human experience.
Part four was originally going to be titled “Continuities.” In it I intended to tie together the themes of part three and make a comprehensive statement about what I have been trying to do in my writing. I have a clear sense that over time and over genres my concerns have been guided and focused by the Spirit I have sought to follow. To testify to that is important to me. But as I approached actually saying what I think they are and making some kind of summative statement, I felt a great reluctance. Such a statement is not mine to make; it is a critic’s. For me to sum up in absolute fashion a process that is continuing would be both presumptuous and deadening. But I did want to think about the direction such a statement might take. Consequently, I turned, as I have in the past, to the journal format to explore an open topic. Here, however, I have done something slightly different from before. Rather than setting out over a period of time to write on a theme, I have gone back into my notebooks and taken stories and excerpts that connect small but formative experiences with my growing understanding of my themes and concerns.
The story may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that Mickey Spillane once said to Edward R. Murrow, “I write the kind of books I want to read that no one else writes.” Whatever one may think of Mickey Spillane, he has a point. In one way or another, all writers write what they want to read.
If in writing these essays, I have been writing for my students, I have also been writing for myself. Like Mickey Spillane, I have been writing the book I want to read now. I still need to hear, no longer what it might mean to submit my life and my words to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but what it means to have tried and to be trying. I have written to explore and test what I think I know and to discover what I don’t know.
Writing this way, I have made a marker for myself that reads, “This is where I am.” I have made a marker that reads, “This is the place from which I proceed.”