Friday, February 9, 2018

Holding on to the Narrative

Back in October and November, I threw myself into my annual writing project, with the ambitious goal of writing an epic novel about the last days of Babylon.  It's a tale worth telling, something I'm even more sure of now than I was when I started.  

Babylon the Great fell because it was torn apart from within by disinformation and propaganda produced by the brilliant Cyrus of Persia.

Not that this is relevant to present day America.  Not at all.  Ahem.

Anyhoo, my goal wasn't small, and for two months I wrote towards it ferociously.   And when the smoke had cleared and my carpal tunnels began to cool down, I had a great big honkin' manuscript.  Over ninety six thousand words, which translated into 498 pages of double-spaced, twelve-point, Times New Roman goodness.

Everything was there.  History.  A wildly diverse cast of characters.  Intrigue. Romance. Battles.  Everything.  

As William Goldman might have put it, “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes. Spiders... Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

It had everything.  Well, not spiders.  I don't think there are spiders.

And that, as I discovered when I shared it with my first beta readers, was the problem.  

Not that there weren't spiders.  But that it had everything.

I'm blessed with a literate wife who's perfectly willing to tell me what she really thinks, and an older son who inherited that same gift.

Both of them read the manuscript and said: Honey/Dad, there's just too much here.  Too many characters described in too much detail.  Too many narrative sub-threads.  Diversions and excursi and wanderings, oh my.  The core personal narrative...the tale of an introverted Persian scribe and mystic who finds himself drawn into a massive conflict between lost in the noise.

Hearing them, I did what needed to be done, and cut with ferocity.  Four hundred and ninety eight pages became four hundred and eighteen.  Eighty pages of sub-plots, the work of weeks of writing, chopped away to give the central narrative room to breathe.

The resulting manuscript was vastly better.  Not perfect, but good enough that it's worth sending on to those who might actually be part of the process of turning it into a book.

Because a story without a compelling and sustaining narrative just doesn't work.  It comes apart.  It doesn't hold our interest, or keep us engaged.

The same is true, I think, of faith communities.  A church that has no honest sense of its own story, or where there are a significant number of competing narratives?  It can't cohere.  There's nothing to carry it along.

As tempting as it can be to clutter the story of a community with whatever's on your mind right now, whatever clamor and shout and hulabaloo is consuming #twitter this morning, that leads nowhere and does nothing.  It is one of the surest recipes for a failed narrative.

And what is true for congregations, I think, also tends to be true of nations.

It was certainly true for Babylon the Great.