Twenty years ago, in a senior seminar undergrad course, I was assigned to read Frederick Buechner’s essay “Dwarves in the Stable.” One-third of the short collection that makes up Buechner’s memoir, Telling Secrets, this story’s title is a nod to the scene in the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, during which a “group of dwarves sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking that they are in a pitch black, malodorous stable when the truth of it is that they are out in the midst of an endless grassy countryside as green as Vermont with the sun shining and blue sky overhead.”
Since that final semester of college, I’ve picked up this essay again and again, finding myself longing for another reading of this piece that begins with the suicide of Buechner’s father and his mother’s refusal to discuss the tragedy, and then careens toward his dealing — or trouble dealing — with his daughter’s battle with anorexia.
Jeff Munroe, the editor of the newly refreshed and refreshing Reformed Journal, writes about Beuchner much more eloquently and in-depth than I could ever hope to do inside of his book, Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher. If you haven’t picked up Jeff’s book, I recommend you do.
But, if you’re up for joining me on this March day, approximately one year since Covid changed our definition of normal life and halfway into the season of Lent, I’d like to wander through my favorite Buechner’s essay again, gleaning a bit of wisdom about how — and why — one might sort through the pain of past experiences.
Flannery O’Connor’s said that, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I identify with this sentiment and like to think Buechner would, too. In “Dwarves in the Stable,” I find it comforting to join Buechner as he sorts through the intricacies of his faith and family without meekness, while also allowing space for the vulnerability of uncertainty, dipping back and forth between what he knows and what he supposes.
In a section focused on the details of his mother’s death, Buechner writes, “It is so easy to sum up other people’s lives like this, and necessary too, of course, especially our parents’ lives. It is a way of reducing their giant figures to a size we can manage. I suppose, a way of getting even maybe, of getting on, of saying goodbye.” Notice how the absolutes and the certainty of the first sentences of this passage meander on to reflect a tone of less certainty as he presses further. We go from “it is necessary” and “of course” to ‘I suppose” and “maybe.”
I suspect that as readers we trust this voice more than if the entire passage was written with strong conviction or with only doubt and what ifs. When taking stock of the past, we begin at the solid footing of what we think we understand first before venturing into the vulnerability of what also might be.
This move from concrete details to hypothesis pops up again later in the essay when Beuchner writes of how he dedicated his book, Godric, to his father: “I wrote the dedication in Latin solely because at the time it seemed appropriate to the medieval nature of the tale, but I have come to suspect since that Latin was also my unconscious way of remaining obedient to the ancient law that the secret of my father must be at all costs kept secret.”
Again, we move from what is known to what is speculated — nudging readers to the openness of wondering and sorting through our own stories. It reminds me of what Natalie Goldberg says in her book Writing Down the Bones: “As writers, we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it.”
Another tactic of wading through the past that Buechner’s essay models is, as the book’s title quite literally suggests, telling family secrets. And yet, Buechner manages to do this with a restraint and precision that keeps his stories squarely focused on his own point of view and, in doing so, avoids speaking into anyone’s emotional truth but his own. “I will not try to tell my daughter’s story for two reasons. One is that it is not mine to tell but hers. The other is that of course I do not know her story, not the real story, the inside story, of what it was like for her.”
For those of us (writers, preachers, teachers) who often delve into the territory of publicly telling family stories, Buechner offers a pathway: stay focused on yourself and your struggles, even as the story involves others around you. In this way, the writing does not feel narcissistic, but quite the opposite. When Beuchner looks into the mirror instead of looking around the room to point fingers at others, there is a care and a trust that is forged, allowing him to hint at a larger truth.
About his daughter’s illness he writes, “I didn’t have either the wisdom nor the power to make her well. None of us has the power to change other human beings like that, and it would be a terrible power if we did, the power to violate the humanity of others even for their own good.” The only understanding that Buechner could gain would arrive through the lens of his own experiences as a parent, not in an attempt to analyze or justify his daughter’s experiences. While it can be tempting to pry and pick at others rather than to deal with our own messy selves, examining the faults of others rarely brings us any closer to the jagged tenderness of reality. And it rarely offers us any glimpses of grace, love, or forgiveness.
Yet perhaps my favorite aspect of this essay that I carry with me, both as writer and human, is its proposal that by revealing the tenderness of one’s personal experiences, others find space to see themselves, not just in that particular story, but in the greater human story, and in God’s greater story.
These lines of the essay have long become my guidepost as a writer:
“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more than important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all the particularity, as I have have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.
This belief — that stories matter, stories change us, stories are simultaneously deeply personal and wholly universal, and that God is often best revealed through their stories — gives us comfort and prods us on toward the future, toward renewal, toward redemption, even, or perhaps most often, during life’s messiest seasons.
My friend, Theresa, once told me that the most meaningful compliment a writer ever hears from a reader is, “Me too.”
Maybe you have a book or an essay, a poem or a page, that your heart longs to return to over and over. Maybe like me, rereading certain familiar words of truth and honesty can feel a bit like receiving communion, like the relief, goodness, and grace of whispering, “Me too, me too, me too.”