How is a story written? A good story—a real story.
I have some experience with the interplay between reality and fiction on account of having written 150 pages of an autobiographical memoir. I’ve been journaling nearly every day since I was ten years old. Saved on my computer are detailed accounts of my entire last year of high school and the five years thereafter—conversations, descriptions, the aroma of relationships cherished, small tender moments that memory might otherwise have drowned in time’s engrossing waters.
Writers will tell you that the best way to describe true events is through fictional stories. A novelist trying to tell a non-fictional story faces a gargantuan task: he or she must reimagine the past in inventive and challenging new ways while being faithful to its substance. The way we do this is by pushing aside the dry, ossified weeds that have grown up over the original experience and threaten to obscure the reality of what happened. Ignore the reality, and ornament will crush you.
You know what it means, for example, to love your wife: it’s an overwhelmingly emotional reality with a long history of relational encounters behind it. But if you want to write an essay about loving your wife, you don’t rely solely on previous essays you’ve written about loving your wife. You don’t lean dependently on all the other books that have been written—however helpful they might be—by other men loving their wives. You don’t sit in your room and debate whether sonnets or sestinas are the most capable means of expressing your affections. This is what you do: you let your soul inhabit the reality of what it means to love your wife. You live in that substance. And the truth will flow out of you volcanically through the eruption of unforced feeling.
So, for example, when Belle & Sebastian sing:
I spent the summer wasting
The time was passed so pleasantly
Say cheerio to books now
The only things I’ll read are faces
We understand that the writer is conveying the essence of a reality encountered, regardless of whether or not he did in fact spend seven weeks walking alongside the river (as the chorus claims). And into that description—so concisely, so vividly portrayed!—he weaves his own paradigms. In context, the underlying conviction implicit is that there’s healing to be gained in relational encounters that we’ll never find in words alone. Words are but the medium through which the substance is conveyed. Stuart presents us this intriguing and hopeful belief in the context of a story. If he were to dispense with the story and just articulate these views directly, the song would be in danger of collapsing into platitudes and so-called “timeless, universal truths” that turn out to be neither timeless nor universal when ripped from their context—as, for example, if the whole Bible were nothing but proverbs. Truth loses its trueness when divorced from relationship and story. The combination of the three, as here, produces art.
Poets, like prophets, are engaged in the business of exploring and expressing reality.
The writers of the Bible, by and large, were both writers and prophets. (Abraham Heschel compellingly argues in his masterpiece, The Prophets, that the two vocations are connected in ways that most of us have never imagined). They were open to reality on a level which is rare in our Western, Enlightened experience. In that respect they were vastly superior to the songwriters for Belle & Sebastian. Chesterton famously marvels at the three tiers of metaphor, each stacked perfectly atop the others, that Jesus employed in His speech about the lilies in the Sermon on the Mount:
… He seems first to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colours into all the palaces and pavilions full of a great name in national legend and national glory; and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels into nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away: “and if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven—how much more…” It is like the building of a good Babel tower by white magic in a moment and in the movement of a hand; a tower heaved suddenly up to heaven on the top of which can be seen afar off, higher than we had fancied possible, the figure of man; lifted by three infinities above all other things, on a starry ladder of light logic and swift imagination. Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in the libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pull a flower.
Jesus wasn’t just capable of such literary feats because in all of His omniscience and wisdom He possessed the mind of God. He was capable of performing these too-often-overlooked miracles of metaphor because He relentlessly inhabited reality. Indeed, He never left it, even at the bitter end when He seemed to have been forsaken by everyone. To the very last, He was the truest and the deepest of all men.
The same was true, although to a lesser degree, of all the Bible’s writers. And for that reason, what we find woven into the fabric of even the Bible’s most mythical-seeming stories is 100 percent eternal, living substance. These were great men. Weak men, broken men, occasionally foolish men, like us, but men of depth and character. They had oil in their lamps. And they took that oil and they went up to the top of the mountain and they came down with the living fire of God burning in and all around them, and His words on their lips and their hearts. And out of the depth of those encounters they expressed in startling, primal, and iconic language truths about God and His people and the simultaneously horrible and glorious world we inhabit that were forged in eternal fires and hammered on the anvil of a crushing but unstoppable pursuit. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. And the Lord said, “Who told you that you were naked?” His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like pure wool. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.