A Storytelling Serial
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Words hold the magical, terrifying power to create reality. I love them for the ways they expand our lives and fear them for the damage they cause.
Both as an organization and as an anthology of stories from famous people who love reading, the concept that The World is Just a Book Away fills me with inspiration.
Yet criminals have written the stories of their crimes before turning words into realized horror. (Because I live down the road from Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold come to mind.)
Writing as Impermanence
My rational brain reminds me that words have no more permanence than visual images. Writing, speech, pictures, and film are just records of fleeting historical moments. They’re not life itself.
I also realize these records can be manipulated—through content choices, editing, optical artistry, photoshopping, makeup, and CGI—to convey any impression the writer, photographer, or filmmaker desires.
This blog is a prime example. I publish it on a website that promotes my business; and while I’m careful to be honest here, I’m just as careful to maintain my professionalism. I reveal a few warts and pieces of my real self—with boundaries. Readers see only what I choose to put on the page.
“Delete” is the most worn button on my keyboard. I’ve been reading and working online for years. I understand the ephemeral nature of ubiquitous digital content.
Writing as Commitment
Still, I grew up when all writing was hard copy, and my first adult job was in the legal field, where written documents were permanent, binding records of word and intention.
Later, when I worked at a large church, our administrative assistant admonished us at every staff meeting that if it wasn’t in writing on her calendar, it didn’t exist.
I agreed. I've long lived by a paper calendar covered with handwritten notations that feel solid and real.
To me, written records matter.
Last month I wrote a post for this blog and polished it to the point where it was a heartbeat from going live. At the last minute, I killed it.
My press stoppage had nothing to do with it not being good enough. When has that ever stopped me from writing or posting anything? I no longer have any idea how to define “good enough.”
Instead, as I came into the homestretch, I realized that my written words committed me to a certain stance, a particular point of view, possibly to a course of action. It was the commitment part—in writing—that I couldn’t go through with.
What if I had put my words out there for public consumption and then changed my mind? Did I really want to have to write and post a retraction, with an explanation of how my perspective later evolved in a new direction?
The theme of the post wasn’t controversial. I was just working out a problem at a specific moment in time (which actually describes a lot of the world’s writing, fiction and non). If I’d read a different book before I wrote the post, I might have come at my blog from a different angle. If my personal life hadn’t felt so full of challenges the past few months, I probably would have seen the issue differently.
Many temporary things influence the words I make permanent on the page, and in the now I may not want to be held to what I wrote then.
Writing as Creation
Joan Didion once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” With respect to an admired author, I’m concerned it’s actually the writing that creates the thought.
Did I love someone before or after I signed my letter with “Love”? Did I hate kale before or after I poked fun at it on Twitter? Did I want to become a humorist before or after I said so in a Zoom chat box? Did I actually think about any of these issues at all, or was it only my snatching and setting down words that made the realities appear?
Does my writing conjure something that didn’t previously exist?
Writing as Permanence
Maybe the real issue is that with age I’m more indecisive, and I want to hold space to move in multiple directions before I choose. It feels as though I’ve made millions of decisions throughout my life, and I’ve seen enough consequences to realize that every decision is crucial, and no decision matters.
My choices have shaped not only me but many others, and plenty of my decisions—especially behind the wheel—were life and death. However, most moments turned on chance. Consequences were usually dictated more by luck or unknown probability than by any type of wisdom.
And in any case, I can’t know what would have happened with another option. If I’d ordered the hamburger instead of the salad, would I have died from E. coli? If I hadn’t changed jobs, would someone else have lost theirs? If I’d bought the green car on the lot instead of the blue floor model, would I have spent hundreds of extra hours and dollars on repairs?
Can I waste time and energy wondering and speculating? Sure, but there’s no point. I’ve made my decisions and lived with the results, intended or not. The only thing I’ve learned along the way is how little control I have over how things turn out.
So now I resist putting it in writing. I don’t want my words to close off a different reality. Maybe I need to explore eternal truths, but they seem in short supply. Clearly, I’m not the right subject matter for that category. Religion? My M.Div. degree taught me that’s a moving target. Health, science, technology? New discoveries every day. Words and grammar? The more I learn about those topics, the more I see how little they stay the same.
Maybe I need to figure out an engaging way to write about numbers, the universal language with constant, logical rules. You know, something that stays the same for longer than a minute.
In my next post I’ll let you know what I decide. Or maybe not.
How do you feel about creating reality with your written words? If you share your thoughts below, I promise not to hold you to them permanently!