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Archive for the ‘doubt’ Category

What if I don’t have a talent for creative writing?

On the other hand – what if I do?

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It was September of 1988, and I had signed up for a creative writing class at The University of Houston.  The teacher was a well known published author and writing teacher from New York City who had agreed to guest lecture for a year.  It seemed like a great opportunity and I wanted to learn more about my craft, so I sat nervously in class with 30 other students.  Oh, did I mention that I was 38 years old at the time?  It felt a bit awkward that I was so much older than most of the students, but I was willing to accept that discomfort to get some depth perception on my writing ability.

In the first class the teacher described our writing process.  We would each turn in a 1,000 word piece every two weeks.  The teacher would select a few of our writings, then the class and teacher would review and critique our work.  Gulp!  I had been journalling extensively, had written some short works and won praise for them, but this was unveiling my talent at a whole new level.

The class was an hour and a half long. The teacher lectured for the first part of class, then read one of our works, and the class would spend 10 to 15 minutes reviewing it.  We reviewed 3 to 4 pieces per class, and the group was very generative in their comments – honest but gentle. The teacher was a bit more incisive – she got to the heart of the matter candidly and sometimes a bit harshly.

My first piece was not read aloud in class.  I worked hard on a second piece entitled “The Hunt,” about an experience I had as a 14 year old deer hunting with my Dad and his friends.  The story was about how frightened I was being with grown men who were combining poker, whiskey and guns in a very unsafe environment.  I really put myself out there, and didn’t know what response to expect.

When the teacher said aloud “The Hunt,” I felt my heart begin to race and my breathing grow rapid.  I didn’t know what to expect.  As she read the class was very quiet.  She finished, looked up and asked for comments.  The class raved!  “Insightful … brilliant … I could feel myself being there.”  I waited for the teacher’s opinion.  She went through the piece quoting passages and showing how brilliantly the story unfolded and was portrayed.  She said it was almost like the narrator was outside the experience, standing and looking on at the events.  At the end the young boy has almost a living nightmare, the men running down the road after a deer, one of them tripping and falling and shooting his father in the back. The teacher was effusive in her praise of this part.  One of her benchmarks about stories was: “Did it earn the ending?”  She was clear that this story really did earn the ending.

I had tensely been listening and taking notes all over my copy of the story.  I finally looked at my watch and realized that 45 minutes had elapsed.  I left class that day with a new appreciation for my writing gift – I had seen it in a way that none of my friends could make me believe.  A published author – a professional – had raved about my work.

I thought maybe it was a fluke until it happened a second time, on a piece I had written entitled “Fight Night,” about my Dad introducing me to boxing.  The teacher took about 40 minutes to go through that short piece, giving it an equal amount of praise as she did for my first work.

I’ve talked to a lot of writers over the years, and it seems many of us share an uneasiness about “someone might figure out that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”  It must be something that goes with the writing talent.  If the teacher had panned my writing, I suspect some part of me might have been secretly relieved at being able to give up this need to write.

What I discovered in creative writing class was the opposite.  I had a gift, and it was my job to steward that gift – to share it in appropriate ways.  In ways, that was a far scarier prospect than the possibility of having no talent. Yet over the years, facing that fear has been much more rewarding.

Originally published in Write By Night

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It was 1971.  I was a newly minted Christian, and eager to share the good news of what I had found.  I had gone to what the Methodist Church called a Lay Witness Mission, sort of a revival, and given my life over to God.  It was phrased as “give as much of yourself as you can, to as much of God as you can understand.”  It wasn’t much in either case – I didn’t understand much, and I couldn’t give much, but I did what I could.  One of the things they had emphasized was the need to share the message of the faith you had found.  They didn’t say much about how to do that, but just had a few lectures on the basics of Christianity.

So there I was one night, sitting in a dorm room at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, trying to share my faith with a friend of mine.  I had gone to high school with Jerry, and we’d spent a lot of time water skiing and hanging out at the lake.  He was at Tech to get a biology degree, and wanted to eventually get a PhD in some specialized type of biology that I didn’t understand.  I had barely gotten through the dissecting the frog course, so I had no idea what he was studying, but I did know he was really smart.

I stumbled through the basic concepts of Christianity I had been given, somehow thinking that to be effective I needed to be sure of what I was saying, and convicted in the correctness of my position.  Only later did I realize that I hadn’t thought through what I had been taught, wasn’t sure if I believed it or agreed with it, and that this made for a less than effective presentation of certainty.

Then Jerry said something that baffled me.  “I think we come to faith through doubting.”  I was perplexed, because they hadn’t given us an answer for that thought in the lectures.  In some vague way, it felt like not being faithful to even question the validity of Christianity.  I ran my stock answers past him one more time, trying to speak them clearly enough that he would understand what I was saying.  I could see he remained unconvinced, and somewhere deep inside me, I felt unconvinced myself.

It took me many years to understand what he had said.  Only after I had gone through doubting phases did I realize the strength of the concept he was trying to share with me.  And the irony of that didn’t escape me.

I reached a point where I had tried all the Bible Studies I could sign up for – to try to better understand God.  I had been very active at our church, involved in singles ministry, working as a counselor with the high school kids.  I had even gone on weekend prison ministries – where we would spend the majority of the weekend inside a Texas prison unit, only returning to our motel rooms late at night – witnessing to the prisoners about our faith.

I later realized that what I was trying to do, particularly with the Bible Study – was to understand God well enough that I could quantify Him, put Him in a box, and essentially, not have to trust in God.  I began to wonder if I agreed with all I had learned, and felt that all the effort wasn’t allowing me to feel more convinced when it came to my faith.  Did I really believe the things I had learned and thought I knew about God?

Somewhere during that time, I also attended a Great Books study group, and heard a wonderful quote by Socrates.  Paraphrased – “the beginning of wisdom is to know we don’t have wisdom.”  I translated that to be free to give up trying to understand and quantify God – because it couldn’t be done.  I relaxed a lot after that.

But I was still left questioning my faith, my direction, and my relationship with God.  As I realized that there were unresolved issues from my childhood that had broken my trust in God, I began to see why I was not giving myself more freely.  The essential question was: “If you’re an omniscient, omnipotent God like I’ve been taught – where were You when the bad things were happening, and why didn’t You stop it?”  I didn’t find a simplistic answer to that question – I’m not sure if one exists – but I made peace with the fact that there had been abuse and violence that had caused me to doubt.  Wait – caused me to doubt?  So did I come to trust more and have more faith, through doubting?  Sure seemed like it.

So now Jerry’s statement took on a whole new meaning.  “We come to faith through doubting.”  I didn’t understand until I had gone through it myself.  But it gave me a whole new appreciation for the faith process.  By questioning what I had been taught, by doubting God because of my past, I had come to that certainty that had been missing earlier about my faith.  By giving up the need to know everything – more accurately, by admitting the futility of trying to know everything – I came to a greater peace about accepting life as it was, and taking faith as “the evidence of things unseen,” and relying on them as I went about my life.  It freed me to a more pure spirituality – not religiosity – that allowed me to connect with God in a way I had never done before.  And if I doubted occasionally – I was fine with that now, and knew it would eventually strengthen my faith.

Photo Credits

“sensitive noise / obvious 2”  milos milosevic @flickr.com Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

“Question mark.”  Marco Bellucci @flickr.com Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

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