“I enjoyed your Chaplines, but what did they mean?” So said one of my readers, and I have to admit that sometimes I too have wondered.
In college creative writing classes our teacher was a relic of 1920’s Paris. He had known all the “greats,” he preferred Venice to Paris, and why his own wonderful and winsome writings had not caught on, I do not know. But he guided our efforts with an artist’s touch. If you think you have a point to make, use an objective correlative, an image, a story. People will remember it longer if they can picture it, or touch it, or smell it, or taste it. Of course they will also come up with their own interpretations and meanings, but a well-chosen story will still tell more than an abstraction. “Above all, don’t preach to them!”
Pastor Harry was good at choosing a story. His congregation thought so much of his writings that they collected them in a book and gave them right back to him at his 25th Anniversary of being their pastor. He got at least ten meanings out of every story he told, and he belabored every single one of them, so you wouldn’t misinterpret his intent.
I’m happier to be misinterpreted. My writing teacher noted that I was fond of O’Henry-like surprise endings. There is a chance that people will remember those endings, but they won’t remember the abstract stuff. Draw your characters well, but don’t make them say a lot unless you want people to think of them as windbags.
For several years I wrote and delivered a one minute “Walking and Talking” radio series. That exercise reminded me to make a point as quickly and concretely as possible. Still the room may have seemed a little windy when it came to sermon time. I worked on that for forty-five years before trading in my pulpit. (I became a Methodist local preacher at 16; they stopped allowing that after me.) It is a task that is worth doing, attempting to share Good News, so I kept trying, even when no one was listening. I did have lots of practice at that. I still write when no one is reading.
But wasn’t Jesus good at telling a story? He too left them wondering sometimes. And once in a while he too was misinterpreted. Talk about a well-drawn character!