Read an Excerpt
Once Upon a Time
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story.
Once upon a time, in a land not far away, I grew up dreaming of castles, handsome knights, and princes on fiery steeds, like many young girls. My family was an ordinary one, with a mother and a father and one wicked brother who sold copies of my diary to all the boys in my junior high class.
Every fortnight of my childhood I would journey to the library, seeking more tales of valor and knights. As I opened the heavy library door, juggling a stack of books, the hush of the cavernous room felt like a medieval priory. The smell of books and ink, leather and floor wax, brought a smile of eager anticipation. Usually I had finished my last book the night before and couldn’t wait to begin a new adventure, hopefully one with knights willing to carry me off to the land of enchantment.
Because I am a slow reader, it took me a long time to read each story. Consequently I relished every scene, each fair maiden and fearsome dragon. I never understood why other kids were able to read so quickly. Not me. I had to read each sentence slowly and thoughtfully, but word by word, the story emerged. Like magic. I’d venture to faraway places, reading about princes and castles, but I also read about girls who lived in small towns just like Yakima, Washington.
After returning my stack of books to the counter, I would head for my favorite corner of the library to begin the deliciously difficult job of choosing a new stack of books. As I slid a book off the shelf and fingered the adhesive label on the spine, I anticipated the adventure I knew was tucked between the covers.
Someday . . . perhaps I could write these kinds of stories. Already the ideas whirled around inside my head. I never could read a book without making up a story of my own.
That dream never changed. I knew I wanted to write stories someday. Stories that would sit on library shelves just like these. Stories just waiting for someone to open the cover and join in the adventure.
Most people smiled indulgently when I shared my dream. Once, when I told a teacher that I planned to be a writer and one day I would write a book, she smiled and patted my hand. “You can’t write, Debbie,” she said. “why, you can’t even spell.”
But the dream refused to go away.
Then one day, when I was only nineteen, a handsome electrician drove up in a shiny black convertible. It wasn’t a steed, but I knew a prince when I saw one, and before long we were married. Soon we were living in a two-bedroom cottage with a white picket fence.
As often happens when a fair damsel meets her Prince Charming, children followed, and soon the two-bedroom cottage became a four-bedroom castle. The kingdom flourished and prospered, and between soccer games and car pools, ballet classes and clarinet lessons, I dreamed about love and enchantment and the magic of romance. Money was scarce in those days, but there was never a shortage of books. Our four children knew their mommy loved to tell stories. That was a good thing, since they loved to listen to them. As I fixed frugal feasts that could stretch a pound of hamburger six ways to Sunday, I still dreamed of writing books and telling stories.
A dream that never dies eventually demands attention. Despite a budget that allowed nothing frivolous, I took that leap of faith and answered the call to write. We rented a typewriter for twenty-five dollars a month. Twenty-five whole dollars! That was a big chunk out of the castle coffers in those days.
But I faithfully wrote on that typewriter every day. I spun stories, wrote articles, and kept at it faithfully, despite receiving rejection after rejection. After a number of years, my patient prince came to me with a handful of bills. “Darling,” he said as he put his arm around me, “I’m going to have to ask you to get a job. Something that pays money.”
I looked at my typewriter, sitting on the kitchen table beside a mountain of typed pages tied into book-sized bundles with twine.
“We’re just not making it,” he said, “and I don’t know what else to do.”
I knew he was right. Maybe the fairy tale was ending. I knew that I couldn’t work, care for the kids, and still follow my dream. Maybe some dreams were just not meant to come true. I packed away the manuscripts and cleaned up the typewriter in preparation for returning it.
That night I didn’t sleep. I kept thinking about my dream.
In the wee hours, the prince stirred and saw me awake. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I think I could have made it,” I whispered. “I don’t know why, but I think I could have made it as a writer.”
My prince was quiet for a very long time before he took my hand. “If it means that much to you, then go for it.” He squeezed my hand. “We’ll figure something out. We’ll do whatever we have to do so you can write.”
And somehow we got by. Every day the two older children came home from school to the sound of typewriter keys clacking away. My big break didn’t happen the next year. Or the next. In fact, it didn’t happen for five long years. Then one day I received that magical telephone call. A publisher offered to buy my book.
That special story was the first of a whole bookcase full of books I would eventually write. I wrote book after book, and, I am grateful to say, readers bought those books. Some even went to the very library I used to haunt as a child. With confidence, they slid my books off the shelf, knowing they would find satisfying stories tucked between the covers.
To this day I walk up the staircase into my writing turret and continue to tell stories. Even though my publishers have sold more than one hundred million of my books, I am not finished telling stories.
I plan to write happily ever after.
I was born to be a storyteller. I’ve read stories, collected stories, written stories, and loved stories my entire life. There are no words that stir my soul more than “once upon a time.”
I relish every aspect of being a writer, but through the years I’ve had an insight about myself as an author: I’m happiest when I’m writing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy meeting my readers, doing interviews, and everything else that is involved in my career, but in the end—and the beginning—I am a writer, and telling a story is what’s most important to me.
The very first time I visited that library in my hometown, I was only four years old. When Miss Bunn, the librarian, handed me that very first book—a Little Golden Book—my mother said I took it with both hands, looked at it for the longest time, and then pressed it against my heart. My mother could not pry the book away from me. My love of books never waned. I struggled with reading until I was ten years old, but once the concept of sounding out words took hold in my mind, those books I carried home from the library never gathered dust. I read them under the covers long after the lights should have been out. I knew I needed to sleep, but the story kept moving forward, and I was caught up in the magic and wonder of it all. This was the same magic and wonder I longed to create someday myself. When I finally closed the book, sleep still eluded me. I would often lie awake into the wee hours of the morning, reliving the plot and the beauty of the story . . . and dreaming of one day creating my own.
I began to fantasize about writing my own stories not long after those library days. It didn’t matter that I suffered from what I came to understand was dyslexia or that I was a creative speller. (I still am!) I knew I wanted to tell stories. A fellow writer, Katherine Anne Porter, said it best: “A story is like something you wind out of yourself. Like a spider, it is a web you weave, and you love your story like a child.”
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only would all my writing wishes come true (above and beyond anything I could have ever dreamed or imagined), but I would come to see my own life as one grand story.
That’s what this book is about. Not the stories I write, nor the story of my life, though both will be part of the telling. I wanted to write this book to talk about Story. Story with a capital S. I want to help you view your own life as one continuous story. One never-ending story. And when you do, I hope you will recognize how God has held you in the palm of His hand the same way He has me.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her book The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth, wrote:
Story makes us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving. Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically. It is we humans who either help bring about, or hinder the coming of the kingdom . . . . Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.1
We are the stories other people read. Those stories have power—power to heal and power to change, power to direct and encourage. Story enriches our life and the lives of those around us.
As I travel around the country and talk to people, I see stories. One of my joys when meeting readers is hearing their stories. Often they touch and inspire me, and again I am reminded that God has been able to use even me, through the power of story.
People have told stories as far back as we can trace. I recently listened to a recording of my friend Liz Curtis Higgs speaking about the story of Ruth from the Bible. Ruth lived about 3,200 years ago, but the book of Ruth wasn’t committed to writing until the ninth century BC. That means that the story was preserved in oral tradition from generation to generation. Those who don’t understand the sacred trust of an ancient storyteller might wonder how faithful the story eventually recorded was to the actual event. No worry. There’s little chance of change. Generations heard these stories over and over and the tiniest deviation would be cause for the storyteller to be run out of the village ahead of an angry mob. People take their stories seriously.
Each culture has had its storytellers, from the Scottish bards to the African griots. Storytelling has been a noble profession from earliest memory. Eventually stories moved from oral tradition, the spoken word, to the written word. With the advent of the printing press, these marvelous tales of old migrated to books. In modern times, our stories are also told on screens both large and small.
E. M. Forster, in his classic book Aspects of the Novel, likens story to a tapeworm, its beginning and end completely arbitrary. He illustrates his point with the storytelling of Scheherazade, the legendary Persian queen and narrator of One Thousand and One Nights, summing up the fact that the story is about, in three simple words, what happens next. Here’s what Forster wrote:
Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense—the only literary tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages. Great novelist though she was—exquisite in her descriptions, tolerant in her judgments, ingenious in her incidents, advanced in her morality, vivid in her delineations of character, expert in her knowledge of three Oriental capitals—it was yet on none of these gifts that she relied when trying to save her life from her intolerable husband. They were but incidental. She only survived because she managed to keep the king wondering what would happen next. Each time she saw the sun rising she stopped in the middle of a sentence, and left him gaping. “At this moment Scheherazade saw the morning appearing and, discreet, was silent.” This uninteresting little phrase is the backbone of the One Thousand and One Nights, the tapeworm by which they are tied together and the life of a most accomplished princess was preserved.2
Aren’t we just like Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next?
Storytelling is a natural, time-honored way of making sense of seemingly random events. When I am writing my books I’ll often begin by telling several different stories that seem unconnected until, little by little, I bring the stories and the characters together and start to intertwine them. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, hopefully the plot has magically come together. I explain, when people ask, that this form of storytelling is like braiding hair. Each thick strand is turned over the others, building, one upon another, until the braid is complete.
Culminating all the elements of the plot is important. We work to make sense of the world around us. We want to make sense of the people we know and of what is happening to us. The writer Joan Didion said, “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind, there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I am looking at, what it means.”
From the time I was that little girl with a dream, I also had a hunger for God. I didn’t really come to know Him in the same close relationship I enjoy now until after I was married and had two of my children. Still, for as long as I can remember I had an unquenchable longing for Him. From the moment I intentionally made Him the centerpiece of my life in 1972, I’ve taken the book He wrote and read it faithfully cover to cover each and every year. And you know what I realized? The Bible, from the first pages of Genesis, has plenty of lessons and ideas, proverbs and poems. However, when Jesus came along, He was the God who told stories. Moses may have delivered the tablets that began with “Thou shalt not . . .” but Jesus sat down with an expectant crowd gathered around Him and began, “A farmer went out to sow his seed . . .”
So we will look at story through the pages of this book. You’ll notice that I’ve pulled familiar phrases from classic stories and folktales for the chapter titles. For me, just hearing the words “a long, long time ago,” or “in a faraway land,” or “happily ever after,” offers a sense of anticipation, of excitement and expectation. A story is about to unfold, and those key words tell all we need to know about the kind of story it will be.
Liz Curtis Higgs, in talking about the story of Ruth, tells us that the Hebrew word that opens the story, wayehi, which is translated as “In the days,” or “And it came to pass,” actually embodied so much more to those Hebrew listeners. When they heard wayehi, they leaned in eagerly so as not to miss a word, because it literally meant, “Trouble is on the horizon but redemption is coming.”
Don’t you love that? With a single word, the author of Ruth managed to capture the attention of the audience. Now that’s the power of a good storyteller.
I’ve come to realize that God wants us to see our lives in terms of story—from an eternal perspective. Trouble is on the horizon—it’s always there in one form or another—but we have nothing to fear because redemption is on the way. Or, as you’ve seen written on T-shirts, “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.”
As we explore ways to see our lives as one grand story, we’re going to realize that all the parts—the good parts and the bad, the trouble and the heartache, the disappointments and the discouragements we face—are important to the story, and, as we already know, redemption is coming!
Remember the scene in the movie Out of Africa where Karen Blixen’s native majordomo, Kamante, inquires about the stack of manuscript pages she has on her worktable? She tells him it is her book. He points to the manuscript. “This is not a book.” Kamante goes to the bookshelf and takes out a book. “This is a book,” he says patiently. He turns the book upside down. “See, this pages don’t fall out.” He puts his hand on the stack of loose pages and asks how she will make “this pages” into a book.
He is asking an age-old question, really. What do we do with our story, with all these stories we are gathering? I’ll have to admit, I’m a little uncomfortable bringing up the subject of journals. Someone pointed out once that I have talked about journals and journaling in every single one of the nonfiction books I’ve written. I can’t help myself. I’m a writer. A storyteller. If we are going to collect stories, we need to have some way to keep them and to pass them on. We can’t rely on our memories. Those are too fleeting. I am so grateful for the journals I’ve written through the years. They are my legacy to my children, my day-to-day ramblings about my life, my dreams, my hopes, and my happenings.
If we are going to live intentionally—if we are going to pay attention—we need to capture ideas and stories in some way. The easiest way is, of course, journals. Just get a blank book or even a writing tablet. Aside from the diary I kept as a child, my earliest journal, when our family was young, was a spiral-bound notebook. It was all we could afford. Your own need not be fancy. What’s important is that you begin to write down everything you remember and collect. For the last few years I’ve used my journal sort of like a collection tool—a scrapbook—for letters or special birthday cards, announcements, or newspaper articles. You can organize your journal any way you like. Develop your own system, but, in the meantime, just begin to capture the everyday details of your life and write them down.
I have the journal my mother kept during World War II while my father was overseas. It was one of those five-year ones, with only a few lines for each day. It amazes me how much my mother was able to say with a few short sentences. Mom and Dad were married just before my father shipped overseas. Two days after the wedding ceremony my father was on a troop carrier taking him to England. One of my favorite entries is from the day Dad had roses delivered to Mom for their anniversary. I’m certain he involved his youngest sister, my aunt Gerty, in this. The entry in Mom’s diary says: Roses from Ted. Oh, my heart.
Six simple words that say so much.
Madeleine L’Engle called her journal a “commonplace book.” It was a big brown Mexican leather notebook. She copied words that caught her fancy, passages from books, quotes, and sayings. She said, “All I’m looking for in it is meaning, meaning which will help me live life lovingly.”3
You might not be a paper-and-ink sort of person. You may be more comfortable creating a journal on your computer. There are many apps and software programs available for this very purpose.
Like Madeleine L’Engle, I also write down quotes and sayings that attract my attention. I keep those in my Gratitude Journal. (Yes, I keep more than one journal. What can I say? It’s the writer in me.)
Something else from Madeleine L’Engle—she said, “When I have a profound personal experience, I write it down in my journal and that way I am working through it. To some extent, I am objectifying it. It is no longer just subjective. But I’m also setting it in my memory. If you want to put it in a novel or a book, it does have to wait. It’s very important to set down what you’re feeling while it’s happening.”4
The important thing is to write it down. Don’t worry about “doing it right” or about grammar or about writing a memoir that will hit the New York Times best-seller list. Just get the descriptions and stories down in your own words.
Trust your voice.
Trust your stories.
In writing this book, I’m not suggesting everyone needs to pen his or her own memoir or record his or her story for posterity. This is more about developing an awareness—a commitment to remembering. That’s not to say I’m not going to encourage you to record your story in some way for your family or begin a journal or two. But I am going to look at the elements that make up a good story and ask you to think about the story God is writing with your life. One of my favorite quotes is from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Look at your own life and my guess is that as you do, you will see God’s fingerprints, His loving, guiding hand upon you.
So let’s dig in and start figuring out ways to examine our lives and tell our stories. Here are some ways you may want to explore your own story:
• Telling your story in a group setting. After you read through this book, you may want to gather a group of friends or a women’s group at church or your reading club and go through the book together. I offer what I call storytelling prompts at the end of each chapter to help tickle your memories and offer something to chew on. These prompts make great conversation starters if you use this book in a group setting. (After all, there is nothing better for getting to know people than sharing stories.)
• Telling your story through journaling. You might want to take a journal and use the storytelling prompts to begin to explore your own “once upon a time.” But don’t stop there. As I talk about story, apply my story and the stories of others in the book to your own life. What was your beginning? Who are the characters in your story? What unique challenges have you had to face? If you allow yourself to write freely, you’ll be surprised at the things you remember.
• Telling your story through the arts. Some readers are not writers. Writing in a journal sounds like a school assignment to them. That’s okay. You might want to tell your story through the pages of a photo album or scrapbook. If so, get out your scissors and glue and begin to piece your own story together. If you are a quilter, there is a great tradition of storytelling quilts, like album quilts. We can be creative in how we tell our stories.
• Telling your story out loud. Folktales and fairy stories all started out in the oral tradition—told around a fire. You may want to revive this storytelling tradition in your family. When we tell stories about ourselves to our families we forge the strongest link possible—shared history. I think it would be great fun to use the storytelling prompts at the end of each chapter as dinnertime conversation starters. If a child is allowed to tell his own story at the table, he will begin to see his life from a broader perspective. And, of course, it is important to let each story be told without correction or interruption. (We’ll talk more about quieting the critics later in the book.) Just think of the richness that awaits us if the table or the gathering holds many generations that can share stories together. Don’t forget, we pass along our values, generation to generation, through storytelling.
• Telling your story through memoir. If you are interested in writing your own memoir, go for it! You’ll be leaving a treasure for your family.
Shall we start?
Once upon a time . . .
What is your “In the beginning” story as told to you by family? What is your own earliest memory?
The Importance of Remembering
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as the author who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll, knew the importance of remembering. He was a pioneer photographer who spent hours staging artful images of the people in his life. He kept journals and wrote books—both math books and his delightful Alice stories for children. But one of the ways he marked his life was to designate never-to-be-forgotten days as “white stone days.” In his journals, he told about a particularly meaningful outing and then wrote, “Mark this day with a white stone.” To him this meant that he knew he would pass that way only once and he wanted to remember.
Mark Batterson, the pastor of National Community Church in Washington DC, says in his book Soulprint, “Without memory, we’d have to relearn everything every day. Without memory, we’d forget who we are and where we’ve been. Without memory, we’d lose faith because we’d forget the faithfulness of God.”5
Later in the book he says, “If you’re willing to do some personal archaeology, you’ll dig up some invaluable artifacts.” And he goes on to say, “Digging into your past can be emotionally exhausting, but remember, your destiny is hidden there. Pray for a spirit of revelation. Make sure you have a journal to record your thoughts. Start looking for those mysterious symbols that can be turned into lifesymbols.”6
Deuteronomy 4:9 says, “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”