True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Places
In this very personal, welcoming book, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tom Hallman, Jr., shares his journey of faith from indifferent agnostic to growing believer. Faith, Hallman tells us, is looking in the mirror in the morning and wondering why. It’s about doubt and hope. It’s catching a glimpse of a beacon piercing the fog of life and walking toward it, never knowing if you’re headed in the right direction, but pressing onward.
You’ll meet ordinary people like the mother who watched her baby die after only twenty days of struggling for life, and you’ll see the peaceful strength of a man working with those whose present situations mirror his past. Within these pages, you’ll find real and honest accounts of everyday people whose discoveries of faith will inspire and comfort you on your own journey.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Stranger’s Gift
I’d pulled a Sunday shift at The Oregonian, the Portland newspaper where I’ve worked for decades, and when I arrived in the newsroom that morning, I found my assignment—a single sheet of paper that changed my life.
An assistant city editor planning Monday’s paper had left instructions for me to write about Life Change Christian Center, a predominately black church holding a Sunday service at its new building.
Fire had gutted the original building, and after eight long years of nonstop fundraising, members had bought and remodeled an abandoned grocery store to create a new home in what had been a neighborhood eyesore. My job was to attend a service, interview the pastor, and gather quotes from members for a story that readers would soon forget. That simple story launched me on a journey to discover the meaning of faith.
I’m not a theologian, can’t quote Bible passages, and live in one of the nation’s top three least-churched cities. During my life I hadn’t given religion or faith more than a passing thought. That made me the perfect traveler for this journey. I had no agenda or itinerary, nothing to prove, and no one to convince. I let my curiosity be my guide. In the pages that follow, I’ll introduce you to some of the people I met along the way. All are struggling—a word I’ve learned to take great comfort in—with faith and how it applies to their lives.
I’ve written two books and numerous national magazine articles, but chose a somewhat different structure for this project, as it best serves the purpose of trying to explore and explain what stirred in me that day I was sent to Life Change.
The news business has taught me that readers are bombarded and overwhelmed by facts. Answers to most questions can be found within seconds on the Internet. What we long for is meaning and connection at a deeper and more universal level.
Since I was going to explore something so nebulous as faith, I turned to people from all walks of life and asked them to share with me stories of faith.
What is it?
How did they discover it?
Why does it matter?
The familiar writing mantra—show, don’t tell—doesn’t apply here. How does a writer show something so internal? I could describe a couple holding hands and then kissing, and you’d rightly say you’re witnessing love. I could write scene after scene in a church, putting you there in the midst of the sights and sounds, but as I learned on this journey, those moments are but a small part of the faith experience.
Faith is looking in the mirror in the morning and wondering why. It’s about doubt and hope, catching a glimpse of a beacon piercing the fog of life and walking toward it, never knowing if you’re headed in the right direction but pressing onward nevertheless. Even in a crowded church with people sitting so close that their arms touch, not one of them feels, contemplates, or uses faith in the same way.
Faith is catching a glimpse of a beacon piercing the fog of life and walking toward it, never knowing if you’re headed in the right direction, but pressing onward.
My dilemma was to write about something so formless in a way that would engage your heart, soul, and mind—the three elements I came to believe are necessary to tackle the question of faith. I decided to invite you on my journey as I sought out people who could reflect on particular aspects of faith that intrigued me.
People are willing to give advice on how they dropped ten pounds in a month, improved their sex lives, or made a killing in gold. But talking honestly about faith cuts close to the bone. Some people I met told me their faith life was so personal that they’d never even talked to their spouse about how they felt. I engaged in multiple conversations with people who invited me into their lives and became what I considered my faith teachers. Through these long conversations, they showed me the mystery, grace, and power of faith in a way that made it real, relevant, and usable. I attempted to weave it together: my journey and the character’s stories and conversations that—given context—became meaningful and thought provoking in ways that linger long after the page is turned.
I’m a man with hopes and dreams, with flaws and strengths, a man who has experienced good times and bad. I’ve butted up against doubt and ego, enjoyed great professional success, and experienced the pain of embarrassment. I’m just like you. At this moment—you reading words I’ve written—we’re connected. That’s a powerful reminder that God works through people.
A writer’s job is to filter: pluck a quote, paraphrase, condense, and find certainty. I, of course, did that. But as much as possible, I wanted you with me during these conversations, listening and weighing what relates, doesn’t relate, or could relate to your life. Narrative writers talk about a story’s moment of insight when everything makes sense. Within these pages you won’t find one moment. You will have to discover the moments that resonate within you as you set out, or continue, on your unique journey of faith.
When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, I had just taken off from Chicago. The pilot was forced to turn around and, like all the nation’s nonemergency civilian planes, we were grounded. I spent three days in an airport hotel before I boarded a train to Portland, Oregon.
So many people were heading west that Amtrak added extra cars. We settled in, ignoring one another in the way strangers segregate on an office elevator. The dining car, though, was packed, and we had to share tables. We were in a bubble—no one knew what was happening in the rest of the world—and we made small talk as we looked out the windows. Then, only because we were strangers, we let down our guard.
Through conversation, we learned about each other. Not just facts—our names, where we lived, and what we did for work—but how we lived. Because we knew we’d never see one another again, we felt free to ask probing, almost intrusive, questions that none of us would have asked in any other situation.
We heard about the man battling booze, the woman worried about her children, and the salesman growing old, fearful that he wasn’t going to make his monthly figures. Instead of talking about politics and sports or gossiping about celebrities, we had a conversation that ended only when dinner was over and we went our separate ways. Back in my seat, I was unable to sleep. The conversations made me think about my life, where I was headed and what I wanted.
Anyway, that’s what’s going to happen in this book.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Sunday Shift 1
Chapter 2 Tap on My Shoulder 5
Chapter 3 Faith's Whisper 11
Chapter 4 Only Questions 15
Chapter 5 Called to Explore 21
Chapter 6 God's Absence 27
Chapter 7 Doubting Thomas 37
Chapter 8 Faith's Equation 51
Chapter 9 Faith's Warrior 65
Chapter 10 A Stranger's Gift 83
Chapter 11 Morning Prayer 97
Chapter 12 Quiet Faith 109
Chapter 13 Life in the Trenches 121
Chapter 14 Good and Evil 137
Chapter 15 Faith's Bookends 155
Chapter 16 My Pastor 173
Chapter 17 Redemption 193
Chapter 18 Faith Counselor 209
Chapter 19 Completing the Circle 227
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Stranger's Gift includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tom Hallman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Tom Hallman’s unexpected journey toward faith began with a routine assignment to write a feature piece for The Oregonian newspaper. He begrudgingly found himself in an African American church on a Sunday morning—out of place, uncomfortable, and ready to leave from the moment he got there. But he accidentally found something he wasn’t looking for: He saw faith and prayer in action. And that stirred a curious hunger in him that he’d never known before.
Compelled by this initial experience, Hallman began to seek out men and women across the country who believed. And these people—whom he calls his “faith teachers”—became characters in thirteen stories of exploration. A Stranger’s Gift introduces readers to ordinary people and draws them into conversations that ask probing, almost intrusive questions—from the ache of a mother who watched her baby die after only twenty days of struggling for life to the peaceful strength of a man working with those whose present situations mirror his past. Each vignette profiles real people whose real stories explore what happens when faith intersects with life.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. A Stranger’s Gift follows two narratives: the stories of the people Tom Hallman interviews, and the story of his own journey toward understanding faith. Which story was most compelling for you? How do the two narratives work together and complement each other? Could you imagine this book without both elements combined? Why or why not?
2. A Stranger’s Gift opens with the author describing a typical morning on the job as a reporter, but in that opening sentence he describes “a single sheet of paper that changed my life.” Why do you think the author decided to open with such a mysterious line? Discuss the significance of that single sheet of paper.
3. Early on, Hallman explains that he did not come to this project with a religious background. He writes, “I had no agenda or itinerary, nothing to prove and no one to convince. I let curiosity be my guide.” (p. 6) Why was this important for the author to establish up front? Do you think the book would be significantly different if he did have a religious background? Why or why not?
4. Missionary Dave Everett said to Hallman, “We live in a world of questions. You won’t find a person of faith who doesn’t have questions.” (p. 20) Discuss how this was a source of comfort for Hallman. Why might it also have been a difficult concept for him? What kind of questions do you encounter in your own faith?
5. Hallman interviews a variety of people for this book, including missionaries, pastors, parents who have lost their children, former homeless people and drug addicts, and convicted prisoners. Did sharing the stories of a variety of people help you relate to Hallman’s faith journey? If so, how? If not, why not? Was there one story in particular that stood out to you?
6. Why did Hallman seek out Annette Steele? What advice did she have to offer? Did that advice resonate with you? Why or why not?
7. Tracie and Kevin Van Arnam lost their baby as Hallman watched on. He ponders why God would allow the son of this devout, church-going family to die, while the abandoned child of a crack addict survived in an adjacent crib. Ultimately, what do the Van Arnams teach Hallman about their faith? Describe how they felt about him, as a reporter.
8. Tracie Van Arnam admits to being angry at God and having to change churches after their son died. She tells Hallman, “As in life, there is no map for the faith journey.” (p. 36) Do you think that was a comfort or a stumbling block for the author as he continued his quest? Use examples from the book to support your opinion.
9. Brian Burchfield, or Pastor Red, tells Hallman: “People … have the same questions you have. What they don’t have is the necessary courage you have to let them come to the surface.” (p. 43) Discuss the importance of this exchange for both Hallman and for the narrative. Why did you decide to read this book yourself?
10. Mitch Coats, the jujitsu master, is a tough guy who does not believe in organized religion. Yet he has strong faith, just like others in the book who do consider themselves religious. Compare and contrast Mitch Coats with Pastor Red and the Van Arnams. Why do you think Hallman wanted to incorporate his story into A Stranger’s Gift? What kind of perspective did Coats’ story bring?
11. A lesson Coats learned from his own teacher was, “You don’t have to be a pushover or weakling to say you believe in the Lord and have faith.” (p. 77) Does this message resonate with the author? Does it resonate with you? Why or why not?
12. Hallman shares the story of Jill Smith, whose boyfriend, Fred, became ill and was hospitalized in intensive care. Their cleaning lady, Ms. Mary, lead a prayer circle that prayed for his recovery. Sure enough, Fred recovered. What do you think convinced Jill that prayer was instrumental in Fred’s recovery? Do you believe in the power of prayer?
13. Jacqui Coleman, a choir singer, describes faith as a relationship with God—you get out of it what you put in. She calls Hallman a “soaker” and encourages him to get more involved, inviting him to her prayer group. (p. 104) Describe what she meant by “soaker.” Do you find the metaphor appropriate? Why or why not?
14. Police Lt. Dan Willis admits that in his line of work, if you can’t prove it, there’s no case. Identify points throughout the book where Hallman examines or highlights the duality of maintaining faith in a world that requires proof. What kind of challenges arise when trying to unite faith and fact?
15. Hallman tells the story of Charles McIlhenny, who volunteered as a hospital chaplain. Why was his service in question by the administration? What would you do in his situation?
16. Dr. Susan Winchester is a surgeon who often operates on female cancer patients. She believes her faith helps keep her positive, even when a patient dies. Compare and contrast Dr. Winchester’s situation with others in the book who struggle to keep their faith under similarly difficult circumstances. How and when has your own faith been challenged?
17. How might this book have been different if it had been written by a pastor, priest, or religious leader? Would it have had the same effect on you? Why or why not?
18. A Stranger’s Life concludes with Hallman taking his family to church for Father’s Day. When fellow churchgoer James Polk—who went to prison for twelve years for dealing cocaine—laments that his daughter might drop out of college, Hallman’s daughter tells him not to worry, that she took a year off too, then went back to finish her degree. Why does Hallman see this exchange as completing a circle? How might this be seen as a stranger’s gift?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Share your thoughts, beliefs, and questions about faith with the group. Discuss whether the questions and stories in this book spoke to your personal feelings about faith. Were you compelled to form new opinions about anything?
2. A large part of A Stranger’s Gift deals with stepping outside your comfort zone and into new territory as a way to grow. Make a decision to step outside your comfort zone. Examples from the book include going to church, joining a prayer group, and sharing your story with others. Make a commitment with the group to try a new activity, and then report on the results the next time you meet.
3. Research Tom Hallman’s work on the Internet and read some of his articles on other topics. Consider how his journalism experience influenced the way in which he wrote A Stranger’s Gift Compare his feature work with this book and share your findings with your book club.
A Conversation with Tom Hallman, Jr.
Can you provide some additional insight into what prompted you to write A Stranger’s Gift? The assignment that Sunday morning was the initiation, the visit to the church was the spark, but what helped that spark blaze into a full book?
My career is unusual in that I don't quit being a storyteller when my shift at the paper ends. An accountant can close the books at 5 p.m. and not think about figures until the next morning. Not so a storyteller. Every encounter I have with a person, every conversation I engage in, and every place I visit offers the hint of a story. But only—and this is critically important—if I am aware of the gift in front of me.
I'm not speaking of news stories, a series of facts that a journalist assembles in a coherent fashion so the reader can understand the event. The stories I like to write—feel compelled to write—are much different. Something, or someone, intrigues me and I want to find out why.
I wander around a hospital, for example, and discover a nursing home for children. I wonder about these children, how they got here, and what it means. My search for the answer leads me to a story. I come home from work each day and see a man holding a stop sign at a bridge entrance during a construction project and I wonder who he is. A high school student tells me her twin brother, who has Down syndrome, is her hero and I want to know why.
Or, in a more personal case, I stick up for a young man taking tickets at an event and a man turns on me and threatens to beat me up. In my fear, I realize that I was a coward and I decide to find out what makes a man tough and if it is possible to learn toughness in the same way I learned how to play guitar or ballroom dance.
So I move through life seeing myself—and others—as characters in a greater story that is played out daily. What I do—again, it is impossible to turn this off—is be aware of the mystery, power and call of the story.
When I sat in that church that Sunday I saw myself as a character in a story about to unfold. That curiosity—immediately looking at myself as in a story—made me start thinking about the situation, what I was seeing and why it mattered. I found myself coming back to those questions—about myself, faith and what it meant—in the days, weeks and months after that visit to the church.
As a storyteller I had to answer that question.
OK, you say. But why write about it?
At first I was reluctant to talk about even going to church and what I was thinking about. But when I did talk about it with people, I realized that everyone wanted to weigh in about God and faith, and the search for answers. People I spoke with had questions. I realized how many people are struggling to understand faith. It is often a lonely journey—even for those who are in a church. My story, I knew, resonated with people, and I wanted to write about what I was going through and take readers on my journey because it is really the journey all of us are on in one way or another.
You describe being frustrated when you tried to read from the Bible your father gave you. Purchasing a Bible translated into modern English seemed to make a difference. Do you think trouble with the language is a common reason for people to abandon Bible study? Would you encourage people to ditch the “poetry” of the King James in favor of a modern translation?
The language is clearly an issue when it comes to reading the Bible, just the way some people have a difficult time tackling William Shakespeare. But more than that, I think the Bible—for so many people—occupies this special place in our lives. We sense it is important, without knowing why. And when we pick it up, we can feel that we are the only person who struggles trying to make sense of the words we are reading.
The Bible, I have come to believe, is many things. And that's the way it should be. How a child approaches it is going to be different than a middle-aged man, a young mother, or a person nearing the end of his life. The words don't change, the message doesn't change, but how we find meaning in those words changes.
This may be a bit of a stretch for some people reading this, but think of the great Frank Sinatra song—"My Way." I first heard that song when I was living in New York City right out of college. As a twenty-one-year-old with his life in front of him, the words in that song had such a different meaning that they do now that I am fifty-six.
I think the Bible is much the same as a song.
I'm clearly not a theologian, but I think that the phrase "Bible study" can be off-putting to many people. It makes us feel like we have to approach the Bible as homework and we're going to be tested on names and dates. And, of course, we can always find someone who can quote Bible passages from memory. In a perfect world of faith, I'd suggest that people meet to read parts of the Bible and then discuss it.
But that's not always possible. And there are times when we want to read alone and not talk about what we are reading with anyone else. In that case, I think it's good to look at the Bible as a song. Read a few pages, a passage until something makes you think or feel. And then explore that.
Be honest, too, that not everything is going to hit you the same way it does someone else. Going back to Sinatra, for example, I can't stand his version of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." Someone else might love it.
My advice would be this: Don't be so hard on yourself when you read the Bible.
I was looking at Matthew, for example, and practically gave up as I made my way through the family tree. It made no sense. And I'm going to be honest, I skipped ahead. But then I came across this passage: Matthew 7 1:5 "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own."
I read that passage one night, closed the Bible and thought about it for the rest of the week.
To me, that process reveals what the Bible is all about.
You mentioned that you were allured by faith, but scared of it at the same time. Can you describe those feelings and explain why you think the allure outweighed the fear?
Faith—at its core—is about vulnerability. And being vulnerable is unsettling. It's natural we want to avoid what makes us feel uneasy. That struggle, then, is part of the faith journey. That doesn't make it easy. The allure for me was that I realized I wanted to be more vulnerable in my life.
But a person doesn't just snap their fingers to accomplish that goal. It's a process. I've always been a person who likes the process of learning—martial arts, guitar, writing. So I understood that process is part of growth and I embraced that. The difference is that telling someone you are learning how to play guitar evokes a very different reaction than when you say you are going to church.
Church is such a loaded word—both good and bad. I remember reading something long ago that went like this: If you want to be left alone on an airplane, pull out a Bible and start reading.
When I told people that I was exploring and sometimes struggling with the concept of faith and what it meant for me and my life I found people much more interested and receptive to my journey than when I said I was going to church.
But even admitting that was part of my vulnerability.
My best teachers turned out to be other people of faith. All of them were at different stages of their journey. They didn't try to sell me on faith, never pressured me to hurry up or scoffed at what I was thinking or questioning. They just lived faith. One of the best moments I had was not in a church, but having coffee with four other men at a restaurant along the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, California. We looked like four guys on a summer day enjoying the sun but we were talking about faith and doubt, issues in our lives and how faith played a role in that.
The allure of faith is a moment like that—the connection between people with faith being the conduit to talk and listen, teach and learn.
You began attending Life Change Church alone. Was that a big step for you, to tell your wife and kids you’d be attending church? Were you tempted to ask them to attend regularly with you? How do you balance your responsibility as the head of the family with each individual’s need—including your children’s—to find his or her own path? How did it feel when you learned that Tracie Van Arnam felt angry at you for being there as a reporter the night they took their son off life support? Looking back, do you think it’s fair to say that, as a reporter, you were disconnected from the emotion of the story, even as you worked to share that emotion with your readers?
Ah, the old Sunday morning routine. The dance, I am sure in so many homes around the United States.
It was a huge step for me to go to church because of all that it implied. In the book I talk about going to a coffee shop in my "church clothes."
I was tempted to ask my family to come with me, but I've learned that being pushy about anything in life gets you nowhere. So I set out on my own. And, for me, that seemed to be the right way to start this journey.
I look at my role on this journey as that of a scout in the Old West. By that I mean that I was riding out ahead of the pack—my family—and the coming back to report on what I had seen, heard and experienced.
That worked for me—and my family—for this reason: It forced me to articulate what I had gone through each Sunday and then quietly listen to what my wife and two daughters thought about it as it related to their life.
That led to so many open-ended conversations around the table about faith in a life, not faith as something separate from life.
If I had made them go, they would have gone out of obligation and, in time, resented being forced to go. That resentment would have killed any chance of a conversation about faith.
Also, by going to church alone and exploring faith by myself I became more of a teacher to my family. It was never about what I had "learned", but about what I had discovered about myself and my life because of a sermon, encounter or reading from the Bible. I had to explain what I felt—using concrete examples from my life.
And that led to the greatest words we can utter: What do you think?
When Tracie Van Arnam told me she was angry for me being in the neo-natal unit that night her words stung. But they were true. I did get to go home. I didn't have to make the decision to remove the life support.
My notebook—in that story and in so many others—was a shield that allowed me to disconnect emotionally from what I was witnessing. In the middle of a dramatic story I would see or hear something and know—as a story teller—that it needed to be in the story to make readers feel something in their hearts and souls.
As a story teller I am never as dispassionate as a police officer—gathering facts for a report—but there is still an emotional distance.
What Tracie was telling me was for this project I could not sit in the corner. I had to be part of the story. Her blunt question—Was I ready for it?—was a profound one.
You seemed to take some comfort when you learned that someone in a position like Brian Burchfield, or Pastor Red, had questions about faith just like you. What comfort would you hope your reader will take away from reading A Stranger’s Gift?
I took incredible comfort from Pastor Red's admission that he did not have all the answers when it comes to faith.
In life it is the struggle that binds us. It gives me great hope when my guitar teacher, a brilliant musician, tells me that he has to practice daily and that he struggles to learn—never master—the instrument. When young writers approach me about writing, I always tell them that writing is a struggle. I hate looking at the white computer screen and that I struggle with doubt and uncertainty throughout the process. In telling them that, I show that I'm no different than they are. That is moment when we can truly start to talk about writing.
When Pastor Red told me he has questions, that gave me permission to talk about faith not as if I was in a classroom with the "expert", but with a man not all that much different than I was. I want readers of this book to realize they are no different than any of us within these pages, me included.
Yes, some people have fancy titles in front of their names.
But at their core, they are no different than you—the reader.
An important take-away from the story of Mitch Coats seems to be that you don’t have to be a “pushover” to profess a belief in God or a connection with faith. You also mention more than once the negative association with “Bible-thumpers” and fundamentalists who push religion on others. Do you think these are causes for concern among many readers flirting with faith—that people of religion are weak or dogmatic?
I know that someone will find this book online or in the bookstore and be intrigued enough to pick it up. This potential reader will look at the book jacket and maybe read about the author. They may even read the first couple pages, either in the store or online.
Then comes the moment—do they buy it or put it back?
And this is where I get to this issue about "Bible-thumpers" and people who try to push religion on others. This potential reader thinks about "them," and what it means to buy a book that talks about faith.
Because of all that baggage, they decide to pass on this book because it carries with it an unpleasant connotation all because of that simple word on the cover: Faith.
One of the reasons I chose the structure of this book is to let readers know that I am not a fundamentalist or someone who hands out tracts to everyone I pass on the street. Take a look at my background and you'll see that I'm just another guy with questions in search of answers.
Faith is not about being exclusive.
Faith is about being inclusive.
With regard to hospitals, you write, “Faith in a church seems easy. But what about places where faith collided with the cruel realities of the world?” That seems to be a version of a big question many faith-tinkerers have: Why does God let terrible things happen? What is your position on that question at this point in your ongoing journey?
I struggle with this question all the time. I have to say that I don't have an answer. But just this week I came up with this as it related to something in my life that was unsettling and unfair: God, you can't fix this for me, but give me the strength to deal with it.
Let me tell you a story that might make more sense. This week, for example, I'm working on a long story for the newspaper that touches on the issue of fairness and God's presence.
A mother in Washington State gave birth to twin girls. Prenatal tests indicated that one of the babies could have some problems, potentially Down syndrome. But the tests were inconclusive and the doctor said everything seemed fine. At birth, though, it turned out one of the babies did have Down syndrome. The mother and her husband decided to take one baby home and leave the other behind.
So where is God in that moment? I don't have an answer.
But a couple near Portland received a call from a national Down syndrome adoption agency who heard about the Washington case. This Portland-area family had six children, including a baby with Down syndrome they had adopted a year earlier. The organization official asked them if they would be interested in adopting the Washington girl. No other family had stepped forward, and the Washington family was leaving the hospital—without the Down syndrome baby—in less than 48 hours.
They Portland couple said they would adopt her. The baby, they told me, was made the way God intended her to be made. The name they chose—Elyana—means God's blessing. They wanted this baby and see her addition to their family as joyful.
So where is God in that moment? I don't have an answer.
The best I can offer, I guess, is that we don't always know the beginnings and endings of life's stories.
What we see as the end of a story is really the beginning of another.
As a seasoned author with major prizes under your belt, can you briefly describe your writing process? Are you more of a “write every day” or a “write when inspiration hits” sort of author?
My favorite part of the writing process is when the story and I meet each other for the first time. I believe a story—again, not a news story—is alive. My goal is to understand that story, the people in it and the events that shape those people. I'm naturally curious and I enjoy reporting, always letting my heart guide me as I plunge deeper into the character's world and story.
When it comes time to write, my goal is to let the reader feel what I felt. I'm a guide. I don't want readers caught up in the words I write—"what a beautiful sentence he constructed"—but in the world and people they meet. The focus is not and me on my "writing," but on the story unfolding with each page.
The process of writing—getting it down on the computer screen—is where I, and I would say every writer, struggles. All of us encounter doubt. We look at what we write and think it's terrible. So we tear it apart and start over. With each pass, we strip away anything that gets in the way of the story.
I find the inspiration in the act of thinking and writing—in the doing, not in waiting to be hit by a moment of inspiration.
Can you share some of the authors, writers, or role models who have helped to shape your writing? Did you find inspiration from any unlikely sources while working on this book?
I've been an avid reader since I was in first-grade. My memory of my first day in school is of the teacher taking us into the library and telling us we could check out any book. When I left that day I had two books under my arm.
The Hardy Boys, Mary Poppins, Dr. Doolittle, Big Red. Mr. Popper's Penguins. Those are just a few of the books that were part of my early years. I read constantly. When I was growing up, my father worked at an ad agency and we had free subscriptions to nearly every magazine published in the United States. I'd come home from school each day and find ten magazines waiting for me. I read them all.
These days I continue to read magazines, newspapers and books daily. My tastes are eclectic. I subscribe to fifteen different magazines and two newspapers. I read things online and always have a book handy. They all influence me when it comes to my voice, structure and pace.
My goal as a storyteller is to write with emotion. Writing is not about my ability to impress anyone with how I write, but make the reader feel something because of what I wrote. That means clear and simple. To accomplish that, I have to write with both my head and my heart.
The way I opened my heart with this book was through music. Music cuts right through the intellect and gets to the heart. Unless you are a musician, you don't know technically why you like something, or why it moves you. I don't know anyone who hears a song and says: "How brilliant when they hit that minor chord progression in the chorus." Most listeners just say: "Great song."
So when I sat down to write I'd have to and have to spend time "warming up," just the way an athlete does, to move from my head to my heart. For me, that meant time on YouTube, where I'd search for music for inspiration. The search for music is a passion of mine. I also have more than 600 CDs, that cover every musical genre.
When it came time to write, I'd slip on my headphones—I often wrote late at night when everyone in my house was asleep—and listen to Pandora, where I have ten different music channels set up.
And then I would start to write.
You describe in detail the moment when you picked up the phone expecting praise and instead got hit with the first inkling of a scandal that resulted in your suspension and the stripping of your title. Was it difficult to be open about such an incident? Or was it cathartic to give your side of the story?
It wasn't easy to write about my troubles. In early versions of my manuscript I only hinted at it. But then I stepped back and thought about what I had asked from people I wrote about during my career and in this book: Honesty and letting me into their world.
Earlier, I mentioned the story I wrote about the girl who said her brother, her twin with Down syndrome was her hero. When we first met, she told me why she looked up to him. But I sensed there was more to her story. I asked her to be honest and open with me. She began crying, sitting there in her kitchen, and she told me the truth. When they had been in grade school, she had watched other students bully her brother. When he had looked to her in the hallway, turned to her for help, she walked the other way because she was ashamed of her brother. That honesty is what made her story—their story—powerful and beautiful. Her willingness to share how she felt with me—and with the public—made what happened next all the more uplifting.
So when it came to me—I was a character in this book—could I expect any less of myself? In so many ways I found, talking about my troubles, and writing about them in this book was freeing for the exact reason Josh Polk talks about in the book.
I am friends with a Hells Angel and in the midst of my troubles, when I felt so alone, I received a letter from him that closed with these words: The patch don't make the man. What he was telling me was that within his club, a man is judged not by what he wears on his back—the club's famous patch—but how he handles himself.
When I was stripped of my patch—senior writer—I had to ask myself what that patch meant. Did not being a senior writer make me less of a writer? Did it make it harder for me to see stories in the world and get people to open up to me?
I think everyone, at some point in their life, is aiming for a patch that defines them. Maybe it's the corner office, a partnership or the top spot in the company.
Does the patch make the man, or the woman?
That's a question each of us must answer.
By the way, in late 2011 my title of senior reporter was reinstated.
I know what it means.
And what it doesn't.
You wrote about the time you were nominated for a Pulitzer but didn’t win. Later you did win one. But there are many writers who would love to make it even as far as being nominated for such an honor. What advice would you give to writers who are trying to make a name for themselves?
All writers are insecure. Anyone who says they are not is lying. When we write, we allow ourselves to be judged by editors, peers and, ultimately, readers. Because of that, awards can have a strange effect on writers. Win one, you feel on top of the world. Lose, and you feel like a failure.
When I finally won the Pulitzer I made the trip to New York City with my parents and family. Following the ceremony, I sent everyone back to the hotel in a cab. And then I took the subway to my old apartment at 86th and Broadway.
I had moved to New York City right out of college and lived in the apartment complex where I became good friends with a black man who had moved to the city from the south to make it as a singer. When I was fired from my job, I moved back to Portland and eventually lost touch with this man.
In the book, I talk about faith as being similar to the belt system in the martial arts. A novice starts with a white belt and, if he works hard enough, will eventually get a black belt. Over time, that black belt fades to white and the circle is completed.
So I leave the Pulitzer ceremony and go looking for my old friend, the black belt coming back to the city. He was living in the same apartment. I told him why I was in New York City, and we spent the next hour talking.
And then it was time for me to leave. I walked back to the hotel, walking the same route I had walked as a young man.
Was I a black belt? Or a white belt?
By the way, I kept every award I won in a box tucked away in a closet until my wife, for my birthday, decided to surprise me by framing and hanging the Pulitzer certificate.
My advice to writers is simple: Be yourself.
There is a spiritual element to storytelling. Each writer has been given gifts—ways to see the world that belong uniquely to them. Draw on those gifts. That's the secret. Don't be anyone, but who you are.
There’s a great metaphor in the book from Gayle Heuser, who compares reading the Bible to going to a big art museum and knowing you’re not going to see everything. How can this mindset help encourage readers to pick up a Bible? Do you have any advice on some of the “key paintings” to focus on in the “gallery?”
I'd equate reading the Bible to not only going to an art museum, but attending a symphony or ballet—anything that has the trappings of being "hard to understand." I'd say many of us—when we encounter something like that, feel that it is "too hard," or we don't have the intellectual heft to appreciate it.
The real power comes in not "getting it," but in allowing the mystery of what you are experiencing to work its way into your heart and soul. When I go to the symphony, I experience what I hear and how it makes me feel. Does that make my experience any less valid than someone at the end of the row who studied classical music in college?
One of my favorite museums is the Frick, in New York City. I bet I've been there twenty-five times during the past 30 years. If I'm in the city for any length of time, I make sure to spend an hour or so at the Frick.
I know almost nothing about art. I can't tell you about the various pieces, and know—at best—the great artist names that we all are familiar with.
So why do I go?
I'd say that I wallow in my ignorance. That freedom allows me to appreciate the artwork on a basic level. I don't try and understand it, I just allow myself to feel something, to be moved by color on canvas. Some paintings do nothing for me. But over the years, I find myself coming back to three in particular. I stand there, soaking it all in and thinking about life and my journey. Each time I'm there I'm older, or things have changed in my life—some good and some bad. The paintings never change, but the way I interpret always changes because I have changed. That's the magic.
The Bible—and this is coming from someone new to reading it—is much the same way. They are "just words on a page," no different that color on a canvas. They never change. Yes, the Bible's language is updated from time to time, but the core message never changes. Only the readers changes.
Honestly, I wonder if some parts of the Bible will always remain inaccessible to me, just the way I may never give more that a cursory glance at paintings in the Frick, paintings that others may linger over.
And, I've come to believe, that's OK.
As humans, we are always afraid of looking foolish. That's why a child is so delightful. In pure curiosity they explore openly and ask questions that we are too embarrassed to ask.
I think it may be good to approach the Bible with that curiosity, a sense of I don't know, and see what happens in your head and your heart.
If I had to boil what I have read in the Bible down to a few sentences it would be this: Get out of yourself.
The other day, for example, I was flipping through the Bible and came upon Romans 12 1-2 and read this: So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life—and place it before God as an offering.
That gives me something to think about.
My final piece of advice would be to look at parts of the Bible in context to your life. What do those words mean? You may not have an answer—ever—but the act of thinking about it will help be a guide as you move through life.
Time and time again, this book stresses that faith is not a destination, but a journey. How has your journey evolved since finishing this book?
What I hope readers take away from the book is that faith truly is a journey, and that's what makes it wonderful.
Every person I talked to for this book—from the pastor to the martial arts fighter—is on a journey. Not one of them has reached the finish line. Before I went to church on that assignment I think that I naively believed that the people of faith had the answer and they were part of an exclusive club.
When my oldest daughter started first grade she told my wife and I that she was worried because she didn't know how to read the big books. We had to reassure her that she would learn to read by going to school. That was the purpose of first grade. I've come to believe that the faith journey is like going to school.
Using that analogy, I'm probably in the third grade. I get restless and easily distracted. There are days when I can't wait for recess and I'm certainly not one of the start students who gets 100 percent on all the tests.
But I like where I am at.
My journey has not made me a "better" man, nor a "smarter" man. Maybe wiser in that faith has allowed me—sometimes forced me—to look at the bigger picture. My life is finite. At fifty-six, I know that in a way that a twenty-year-old can't begin to understand. So what does my life mean? How do I impact others? What can I do to offer a helping hand, or be a compass for someone I meet along the way?
Faith helps me consider the questions.
Yes, there are times I stumble. I don't go to church every week and don't read the Bible every day. Today, for example, I was more excited about going to a concert tonight that I was about going to church. But I went, and found portions of the sermon and the conversations I had with people spoke to me right where I was on this day.
What is your advice to readers who may be struggling with their own confusion and fears about faith?
The confusion and fears are part of the faith journey. It's impossible to avoid them. They serve a purpose because they make you think and feel.
Your journey will be uniquely your own, just as your life is uniquely yours.
Finally, I'd like people to keep in touch with me. I mean that. An e-mail address will be set up where we can carry on this conversation.
I'm sure that we can all learn from each other.