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Last June, I presented a seminar on Frederick Buechner at a writing conference. One of the attendees happened to be the head of a publishing house. One thing led to another, and by the fall I was under contract to write a book about Buechher’s work. It’s now a year later, and voila: I sent the first draft of my manuscript to the publisher last week.
I have spent the last year reading and re-reading every Buechner–related thing I could lay my hands on, including forty books by Buechner, a handful of other books about Buechner, and dozens and dozens of Buechner reviews, essays, and interviews. Over the course of two visits I spent about a week in the Buechner archives at Wheaton going through boxes and boxes of material. I watched Buechner videos and even blew the dust off a cassette player so I could listen to a couple of creaky tapes. My guess is I’ve consumed somewhere around three million words by or about Buechner in the last year.
What happens when you do a deep dive into one person like that?
In my case, at least, it’s helped shut off some of the incessant noise that surrounds me.
Going deep in one direction means not going wide in others. Three million words sounds like a lot, but we consume about ten million words a year. I took about a third of my attention and focused it in one direction, and have come to the end of my Buechner year feeling refreshed instead of exhausted, centered instead of fragmented. Although Buechner has published novels and sermons and memoirs and essays, there is a consistency across genres. The message is this: “pay attention to the subterranean grace of God.” Even the novels centered on Leo Bebb, his wildest and wackiest creation, are ultimately about that “love that will not let us go.”
Is it true? Is God really moving in our lives and in our world? In my book, I use the illustration of Forrest Gump’s feather. Remember how that movie begins and ends with a feather floating through the air? The feather represents Forrest’s light innocence, but it also represents the movie’s primary question. Are we feathers in the breeze, blown randomly this way and that? Or is something more going on? Forrest asks the question at Jenny’s grave: Who was right? Was it Mama, who believed we had a destiny, or Lt. Dan, who said we’re all just blown here and there by the wind? Forrest sort of splits the difference, and of course wondering about determinism, human freedom, and divine sovereignty is an age-old philosophical and theological dilemma.
Buechner believes that if we take the long view, we come to see our lives have plots. He believes we should be listening to our lives, paying attention to how God is present in even the darkest and worst things that happen. Buechner’s work is worthy of deep contemplation.
This year has been a great gift, simply because I had to slow down and stay focused. I’m not a scattered person. No one has ever suggested I should be tested for ADHD. But we live in an ADHD culture and ADHD world. Everything everywhere seems to be screaming for our attention. Doing this work was countercultural in all the right ways.
What an author to dive deep into. Buechner is a fan of that Red Smith quote that writing is no big deal, you just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. Almost all of Buechner’s work is written in blood. He beautifully explores the vagaries of his own heart, the pain of loving a child so much your love becomes a sort of trap or prison the child has to escape, the inconceivable nature of faith, the unspeakable void left by a parent’s suicide, and the hints and glimpses of unimaginable joy deeper than the deepest down things.
If all goes well, my book will be a reality in another year or so. Who knows if anyone will read it? I hope so, but I also know the realities of publishing. Yet I’m content already, because I’ve been blessed by the process of writing it and have learned at least one lesson the book had to teach me. Going deep is an antidote to our fragmented, screaming world.
And here’s another lesson: you don’t need to write a book to try it.
(Buechner photo courtesy of FrederickBuechner.com)