I’m grateful for what began as one-year writing project became two years. The benefit of these two years is becoming I’m becoming more of an exact man.
Two years ago I received what became a cherished birthday gift. Mark and Christy (our son and daughter-in-law) bought a one-year subscription to Storyworth. I receive an email every few days asking me to write a story about my life growing up. The topics range from the sublime to the stupid to the silly to the supernatural. I’ve written about road trips, sports I played, sleeping in a dry creek bed and being awakened by the rush of water through my pup tent, my first job, first crush, first meeting Kathy… you get it.
Last year Mark and Christy extended the one-year project into two. I’m grateful, as the stories keep tumbling out. A good question triggers long-forgotten memories, stories that I hope my grandchildren and future generations will read for years to come.
This isn’t a vanity project. I remember fondly a Thanksgiving weekend a few years before my father passed away. We sat at the breakfast table as he told us stories about growing up in Chicago. I wished he’d told more of them. I hardly knew him when he passed away.
Barry Levinson conveys some of this in his film Avalon. It’s the story of his family growing up in Baltimore, often revolving about Thanksgivings. The first one shows the grandfather telling the story of coming to America, grandchildren gathered around him. The last Thanksgiving is 1969, the grandfather in a nursing home, watching the Macy’s Day parade.
But here’s where I am perhaps most grateful to Mark and Christy. It has to do with a quote by the 16th century English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon that can be found inscribed on a wall inside the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
I was never much of a reader until a high school teacher lit a fire in me. He taught history in such a way that it came alive. I became a lover of history, completing a double major in college in history and philosophy. That requires a lot of reading, filling a deep well that I find I can readily draw from when necessary. Reading is making me a full man.
Bacon understood “conference” as the “act of consulting together,” discussing, comparing, and even getting push back. This sort of conference is widening how I imagine God, the gospel, spiritual formation, the times we live in, and so on. It’s making me a prepared man.
Last but not least, writing is making me a more exact man. I’ve come to believe there are two ways to interpret exactness. The first is in what Bacon wrote next: “if a man write little, he had need have a great memory.” Not many of us have a great memory. For example, one study says 40 percent of Americans mis-remember the attack of 9/11. I write to keep our family stories fresh—and as close as possible to what actually happened.
But there’s another way to understand exactness, one that C.S. Lewis described in The Discarded Image. “Literature exists to teach what is useful, to honour what deserves honour, to appreciate what is delightful.” The work of an author is mainly imitation; not trying to be “creative,” “original,” or “spontaneous.” “An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” It is in this kind of writing that one becomes an exact man.
I’m feeling some of this as I’ve been writing these posts for almost 20 years. Close to 1,000 columns. It all began when several friends encouraged me to start a column. Looking back, my efforts the first few years were pedestrian, if not poor. You learn to write by writing—and then heeding your toughest critics. I’ve tried to do that. It is only in the last few years I feel I’m becoming a passable writer. Writing is making me an exact man.
And it’s making me hear the wisdom of exactness in writers such as Solomon: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is the right word spoken at the right time” (Prov.25:11). I write not so much to “express myself” (which we can’t help but do) but to conform my words more exactly to God’s Words so that that they express his wisdom; not mine.
I think everyone ought to write stories from their past, especially if you’re older, as Kathy and I are. Future family generations will know you a bit better. And you’ll become a more exact follower of Christ when expressing yourself, embodying a wisdom that I feel brings great pleasure to God.
 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 214.
 C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1967), 8.
 C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” 7.