The Power of Stories – by Frederick Buechner

Stories have enormous power for us, and I think that it is worth speculating why they have such power. Let me suggest two reasons. 
 
One is that they make us want to know what is coming next, and not just out of idle curiosity either because if it is a good story, we really want to know, almost fiercely so, and we will wade through a lot of pages or sit through a lot of endless commercials to find out. There was a young woman named Mary, and an angel came to her from God, and what did he say? And what did she say? And then how did it all turn out in the end? But the curious thing is that if it is a good story, we want to know how it all turns out in the end even if we have heard it many times before and know the outcome perfectly well already. Yet why? What is there to find out if we already know? 
 
And that brings me to the second reason why I think stories have such power for us. They force us to consider the question, “Are stories true?” Not just, “Is this story true?” was there really an angel? Did he really say, “Do not be afraid”?—but are any stories true? Is the claim that all stories make a true claim? Every storyteller, whether he is Shakespeare telling about Hamlet or Luke telling about Mary, looks out at the world much as you and I look out at it and sees things happening—people being born, growing up, working, loving, getting old, and finally dying—only then, by the very process of taking certain of these events and turning them into a story, giving them form and direction, does he make a sort of claim about events in general, about the nature of life itself. And the storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that life has meaning—that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere. The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story. And this grips us and fascinates us because of the feeling it gives us that if there is meaning in any life—in Hamlet’s, in Mary’s, in Christ’s—then there is meaning also in our lives. And if this is true, it is of enormous significance in itself, and it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all his stories are about us and because it is always possible that he may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is. 

– Originally published in “The Magnificent Defeat”

Religious Books

– by Frederick Buechner

There are poetry books and poetic books—the first a book with poems in it, the second a book that may or may not have poems in it, but that is in some sense a poem itself.

In much the same way there are religion books and religious books. A religion book is a book with religion in it in the everyday sense of religious ideas, symbols, attitudes, and—if it takes the form of fiction—with characters and settings that have overfly religious associations and implications. There are good religion books like The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and there are miserable ones like most of what is called “Christian” fiction.

A religious book may not have any religion as such in it at all, but to read it is in some measure to experience firsthand what a religion book can only tell about. A religion book is a canvas. A religious book is a transparency. With a religious book it is less what we see in it than what we see through it that matters. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany would be an example. Huckleberry Finn would be another.

Writers of religious books tend to achieve most when they are least conscious of doing so. The attempt to be religious is as doomed as the attempt to be poetic. Thus in the writing, as in the reading, a religious book is an act of grace—no less rare, no less precious, no less improbable.

 

Conversion: My Ebenezer – by Kathleen Norris

In my grandmother Totten’s Presbyterian hymnal from the 1950’s, the great eighteenth-century hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has a word in it that would confuse most people nowadays. I had to look it up myself. The second verse begins: “Here I raise my Ebenezer: Hither by thy help I’m come.”

The reference would have been clear to my grandmother, and to Emily Dickinson, for that matter.  The word “Ebenezer” is found in a passage in First Samuel, one of the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures. It describes an event, the celebration of Israel’s victory over the Philistine army, a victory that came against the odds, when the thundering voice of God threw the troops into confusion, and they fled. The passage reads: “Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Sam 7:12 KJV).

There is a powerful moment in any religious conversion, perhaps to any faith, in which a person realizes that all of the mentors, and all that they have said, all of the time spent in reading scripture, or engaged in what felt like stupid, boring, or plain hopeless prayer, has been of help after all. It is nothing you have done, but all of it is one event, God’s being there, and being of help. The enemies you were facing, whatever obstacles seemed amassed against you, even your own confusion, have simply vanished. And you are certain that it is God who has brought you to thie moment, which may even feel like victory.

I have at my disposal any number of references to inform me that “Ebenezer” means “Stone of Help.” I also have the modern version of the hymn, which reads: “Here I find my greatest treasure; Hither by they help I’ve come.” Close, but no cigar. It’s not just that we have lost so much in translation. It’s a loss of biblical literacy, a fluency with the words of scripture that impoverishes the language of faith. And all of the sophisticated methods of biblical interpretation that we have devised in our time, even the best of them, won’t help us much if those words are not in the human imagination, in our hearts, and on our tongues.

– from “Amazing Grace”

Rule #3: Follow the RITE Path

Here is Mark Schaefer’s third of his three rules for creating effective social media content, from his book “Known”:

 

Rule #3: Follow the RITE Path

Here’s a proven method to create consistently good content: Put it to the RITE test.

RITE is my acronym that stands for Relevant, Interesting, Timely, and Entertaining. If you create content that hits at least three out of these four angles, you’ll be spinning gold, my friend. Let’s take a deeper look.

 

RELEVANT

What if you have multiple interests, like books, pets, and cars? Can you create content about everything you’re interested in?

The answer is … kind of.

You can’t confuse people. If you started a video series about woodworking and then did a commentary on French history, your viewers would think, “What’s going on here? I came here for the woodworking tips!”

That’s not to say you can’t bring your hobbies and interests into your content, though. Here’s an example of how I did it.

I mentor a young man named Elijah who’s an outstanding athlete and very active in sports, so I find myself attending a lot of games. At one basketball game, Elijah’s team was pum­meling the opponent at halftime by a score of 48-0.

Finally, in the second half, a scrawny little guy on the other team stole a pass, dribbled down the court, and made a beauti­ful lay-up. But the entire gymnasium gasped in horror because the player had run in the wrong direction and made a basket in the opposing team’s hoop. The poor kid scored for the other team!

This made me think, “Just goes to show you. It doesn’t matter how well you execute if your strategy is wrong in the first place!” And that became the topic of a blog post. I told this story in my post and used an everyday observation about sports as a teach­able moment. I’ve used inspiration from history, art, travel, lit­erature, and other areas of interest to enliven my blog posts, but the inspiration and stories are all relevant to my core topic.

 

INTERESTING

Publishing your content isn’t a creative writing contest. It’s a war for attention. Every single piece of content you produce must be interesting. If you can’t do that consistently, you’ll lose your audience to competitors who can hold their attention.

How do you stay consistently interesting?

When I create content that’s particularly provocative, somebody in the comment section almost always writes, “How did you know this was on my mind?” or, “How did you know we were just talking about this at work?”

I suppose the trick is that I don’t just think about things that interest me – I write about them and start a public discussion. It takes some guts to put yourself out there, especially when a view is incomplete or controversial, but that’s the key to re­maining interesting, isn’t it?

You don’t need all the answers to be interesting. You simply have to ask the right questions.

 

TIMELY

One of my biggest advantages is that I don’t have a formal edi­torial calendar. Sounds crazy, but being flexible and tuned in to the world allows me to create content that is “first to market” on breaking news and trending ideas.

Here are opportunities to create content based on changes going on in your environment:

  • Jump on “wow” news: In every industry, there’s some­one producing a newsletter that curates the latest news, (If there isn’t, go do that!) Read this news every day. If there’s a news item that makes you go “wow!” it’s prob­able that others are going “wow,” too. Open your laptop at that moment and write a post about the implications of that news from your point of view. Publish that same day and your readers will love you.
  • Comment on a commentary: Let’s say your sustainable interest is firefighting. If an event occurs that affects your industry like a budget cut, a new regulation, or a tech­nological breakthrough, there’s news already out there about it. Do a web search to find others commenting on the issue and then 1) summarize their points, 2) provide a link to the original source with attribution, and 3) add your own perspective to the original view.

..Create a round-up post: If there’s a breakthrough in your area of sustainable interest, ask thought leaders to send you a paragraph, video clip, or soundbite of their views and present a round-up of opinions. You’ll create great content with the secondary benefit of quoting industry leaders who may share your post.

 

ENTERTAINING

Why do you share a piece of content? Because it’s entertaining in some way. Maybe the video, podcast, or photo makes you laugh, inspires you, or amazes you.

Thinking in terms of entertainment may create a point of differentiation for you and your content. Most people aren’t putting their content through the entertainment filter … they’re just reporting. Could you stand out from the crowd and become known because of your entertaining style? Entertain­ment is the final factor in the RITE formula, but it’s perhaps the most important aspect of content creation today.

Before I publish any piece of content, I think about how I can make it more Relevant, Interesting, Timely, and Entertain­ing, and I know this is a concept that will work for you, too.

I hope I’ve helped you put your fears in a proper place and that you’ll commit to creating content that will be rewarding and fun for you and your audience.

Get in touch!