I grew up in a super-conservative religious tradition which taught me that GOD WAS IN CONTROL. The good the bad and the ugly—it was hammered into us lil folk that He was orchestrating it all.
You didn’t make the cheerleading squad? The Almighty’s handiwork—all part of his inscrutable master plan. Your boyfriend broke up with you? Yeah, God did that too. You feel lonely and dorky and directionless? God, God, God.
When I became an adult and moved out into the bigger world, I began hearing a new message. Everybody, both the churchified and the not-so-much, were saying the complete opposite of what I’d been taught.
GOD’S COOL – they said – (OR THE UNIVERSE OR THAT TREE OR WHATEVER), BUT IT’S YOU, BUTTERCUP, WHO ARE IN CONTROL HERE.
According to them, everything in my world was 100% up to me—keeping my body and soul in tip-top, cancer-free, non-GMO shape; making sure my marriage was a sparkly inspiration to all and my kids blinded you with their shining potential. It was on me to make the smart choices, or my life would undoubtedly crumble into an Ash Heap of Meaninglessness.
I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say, I did what they told me to do as hard and as long as I possibly could. And as you might guess, no matter how hard I worked, things ended up in the shitcan.
Here was my dilemma. If the “good old way” was right, if God was in control, then He was the trickster who led me into this morass. Which would mean I was going to be enormously pissed off at Him and hurt, so pissed and hurt that I should probably keep my distance. On the other hand, if I was the one flying the plane and had crashed that sucker, well, for the love, somebody needed to take my wings. Either way, I was still occupying aforementioned shitcan, and couldn’t for the life of me figure my way out.
Then one day I heard a guy say something. It went like this:
“Meet God, the writer of your life.”
In a flash, I felt like Sandra Bullock in Gravity when she came untethered from the space ship and was free-floating through space. Post the crazy spinning part, that part where she could see EVERYTHING—the world in all its wispy-cloudy, blue-green glory. In that moment I felt like somebody had given me, not just an explanation, but the (dunh-dunh-dunh) ANSWER.
See the thing is, I’m a writer. I know what it is to dream up a story. To draft out a plot and develop a character. To live for my story and to love it.
When I sit down to write, I start with a plan—a pretty detailed outline and a handful of characters. But then, when my fingers hit the keyboard, something strange and beautiful—dare I say, even magical—begins to happen. The characters begin to lift up and off the page and take on a life of their own. They cease to be the paper dolls I’ve dreamed up in my head, and, in some inexplicable way, they transform into themselves.
I intend one character to be a painter. He becomes a teacher. I plan for another to be shy. But she won’t stop being hilarious and irreverent and shooting off at the mouth. I lock a character in a tower, but she breaks out, runs away and falls in love. I decide someone’s going to be a villain. He becomes a hero.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King puts it like this: “I want to put a group of characters…in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety…but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
Ah. Kind of spectacular.
I harbor a soft spot for the stories I’ve written. I get such a buzz from my characters quirks and foibles, the way they face the situations into which I dump them. I’ve been known to lie in bed at night actually thinking about their attitudes and personalities like they are actual, real people and wondering what they’re going to do when I open my computer the next day.
And here’s something else. I throw obstacles in their path, not to destroy them, but because conflict is what makes a story sing. And to see how they will triumph in the end. Through the entire journey, I root for them with all my heart. I want them to win.
Simply put, l love them.
So which of us is doing the actual writing—me or the characters? I think the simple answer is…both of us. And in the same way my stories take shape, I believe that from one moment to another, throughout the long days and short years, we are actively partnering with the divine in the symbiotic, mystical process of creation.
My life story has not been a fairy tale, and probably will never be, and to that I say…so what? The truth is, I’m kinda warming up to this southern gothic suspense novel with a magical twist that I got going here.
I’ll tell you one thing about the main character–she’s a mess, she’s beautiful and she’s a Warrior.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!