Is There Light Ahead?

Maybe not a lot, but enough.

Posted Dec 06, 2018

Pumpkin Hill/Seaburn
Source: Pumpkin Hill/Seaburn

It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. This was the answer that novelist, E. L. Doctorow, once gave when asked what writing a novel is like. The first time I read this, I felt relieved, because as a novelist, I seldom feel that I know precisely where I am heading when I start writing a story, or, often enough, when I am even three quarters through the story. I have to believe that my characters and my imagination will get me there, even when the road ahead is more dark than light. I have to suspend knowing-what’s-coming-next or else I won’t be able to take any step forward at all.

As a writer it took me a long time to feel comfortable with this uncertainty. In fact, the idea for my first novel rested quietly in a manila folder on my bookshelf for ten years because I couldn’t figure out where the story was headed and how it would end. Finally, I jumped in, feeling that I understood enough to get started and that once I had started there would be enough light for me to build the road as I drove on it.

Doctorow’s wisdom about writing is easily translatable to living itself. I realize that I am always composing my story, my life, as I live it; and mostly I don’t know where exactly it will go. There are too many external and internal factors beyond my control to have that kind of clarity. And if I waited to get a complete picture of the journey ahead, I would never go anywhere.

Instead, despite my own anxiety about not knowing what’s coming, I have to jump in, I have to go, I have to take the next step, hoping that as I do so, the ensuing steps will be easier to discern.

Of course, this isn’t done blindly. When I write a novel, I always have at least one character in mind, usually more; I have gotten to know them a little, at least, before I dive in; I sense their voices; I have a dilemma or circumstance in which I’d like to place them; and I have a place where I think I should begin. So even though the ending is months, sometimes years away, I am confident I will get there, just because I know how to turn on the ignition and flick on the lights at the beginning.

I think this is true in my life, as well. There is a basic “something” at my core that guides me, even though I don’t know exactly where I am going. I discovered this as a freshman in college (1968-69). I was watching a special on TV about a new science called “ecology.” The show profiled three young scientists and what they were doing to address the ecological needs of the environment around them. I found their commitment and sense of purpose inspiring. But science was not my forte. Instead I wondered if there was a way for me to shape the “human ecology” around me. This notion of making a difference in the lives of others was, for me, the light shining on the road ahead. It didn’t tell me exactly where I was headed, but it guided my choices as I reached each fork or crossroad.

My career, first as a pastoral minister and then as a marriage and family therapist and now as a writer, has been a continuous effort, not always successful, to understand, to shape, to comfort, to heal, to change the lives of people; people to whom I am linked by even the thinnest thread.It has been important along the way to ask myself: What is the light you are following? Important because I think it is the simplest way for me to identify what is holy, what is sacred, what is worthy of my dedication.