In the next couple of weeks I will be talking about how my writing habits have changed dramatically, and what that means. It is challenging, exciting, and energizing to write in the small, mustard-seed ways. It is the hardest, and most rewarding thing there is to step back and allow space for reflection--which allows the small signs of the kingdom to bloom and sprout and be shared.
Thank you, Darren, for writing out a very practical guide for all of us.
How to be a War Photographer
Now then, how about we pull up to 30,000 feet and indulge in a little metacognition together? By which I mean, let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we tell the stories of our neighborhoods. Got it?
I’m not much of a blogger and don’t have anything by way of an internet following. But I’ve lived in two major cities, befriended dozens of people (rich and poor alike), and communicated vision, purpose and just plain “updates” via good-old-fashioned newsletters for over fifteen years now. I’ve seen a thing or two and have learned to sniff out those moments, sometimes while the ink-toner is still drying, when I’m about to cross the line from creative to creepy.
The last thing I ever wanted to do was be “that guy” who posts a “Top 7 Ways You Can XYZ!” on the internet, but hey, at the special request of our host, I’ll empty my pockets for you. Besides, if I had kept it I’d probably drink with it anyway.
1. Grow Up Already
Look, the metaphor gets overused, but somehow we still forget it. Jesus himself incarnated as a baby into a particular family, in a particular culture, at a particular time in history. He then weaned, waddled, teethed and toddled his way through childhood into awkward adolescence. Finally, he gets around to kicking off his public ministry at the vigorous age of thirty.
Maybe he needed time to learn language, figure out how to address his elders, or practice culturally relevant storytelling in an agrarian society. (My bet is that he spent time learning to laugh at himself). All I’m saying is he showed up, grew up, and then did his thing. And he didn’t even write about it. He left the writing to others.
I think a lot of the damage is done when we’re new and we don’t know any better. We can’t help seeing things from our own frame of reference; but in our enthusiasm to dispatch updates back to the home office, how can we be sure we aren’t merely reinforcing the same tired stereotypes?
The solution? Give yourself time. You’ll see things differently in six weeks, six months, six years. You’ll chuckle to yourself when you realize in hindsight what that awkward moment was all about at the party four months ago. You’ll wince to realize that the connection you thought you were making was actually just another deep disconnect.
And you know what? That’s okay. Growing up from zero was good enough for Jesus. It should be good enough for us. Just don’t publicize it all. You know, like those parents who post to Facebook every poo-poo little Johnny makes? Don’t be like that with your inner cross-cultural child. Let her grow up with some dignity intact.
Keep a (private) journal instead. Write letters to mom, or call a friend. Find a community (a local one, even if you’ve found a virtual one) to journey with you through the hard stuff. Invite them laugh and lament with you.
And for crying out loud keep your vomiting off the interwebs for a little while. The medium matters. Google is real and your quirky little anecdotes about your neighbors are searchable, indefinitely archived for future civilizations to scratch their heads at and wonder.
I have a friend who says don’t post or send anything you wouldn’t be willing to hang on the refrigerator for your neighbors to see. Do it for the dignity of your future best friends.
2. Re-Shape Your Readers’ Expectations
The point of my previous ode to mutuality was this: if genuine friendship invites us to step into the war-photo, we begin to care even more about how the lighting looks. When we’re personally invested in the story of what God is doing in our neighborhood, we want to make sure that story gets told well.
This means writing without exaggeration or added drama. We can leave stories which exploit for page views (or donations?) to other media outlets. (Must. Resist. Linking example offenders here.)
And besides, it’s boring. Story distortion goes all the way back to Eden where the Serpent conveniently misquotes the Maker. Half-truths and mistaken attributions are old-school enemy tactics; Kingdom storytelling can do better.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for unflinching photo-realism here. But the truly great stories you want to tell about your friends or your community - the happy stories and the hard ones alike - if they’re truly worth telling, they won’t need anything added or embellished.
In a world where somehow we’ve allowed fog machines, stage lighting, and even zip lines to super-size our worship services, it’s time we taught our readers the pleasure of a simple story told well. I wrote an entire newsletter once about missing a bus (and the miraculous conversation about Jesus which followed). Another update featured our family practice of inviting friends over for Saturday morning pancakes. Not exactly shovel and pith-helmet material here folks.
Some of us are torn between our desire to communicate with integrity and a readership - sometimes, a donor base (?!) - which is eager for results or infatuated with the brightest, shiniest new thing. But life in a mustard-seed kingdom starts small and grows slow. People who choose to accompany you for that journey need your help recalibrating their expectations. “If you’re looking for earth shattering headline news, look elsewhere. Or come back in twelve years and let me show you around.”
Yes it’s fashionable, even expected, for non-profits to have a slick plan and a fail-proof strategy; I’ve got nothing against that. But on slow news days it’s so much easier to write a tragic story in which we get to play the white-knight-to-the-rescue.
In reality, sometimes the best we’ve got to report for this month is, “Here’s how we’re muddling along.”
My solution? Remind people that you’re still in a posture of listening and adapting. The world needs more “Here are a few things I’m learning, but I might be wrong” posts from those of us laboring for the common good. Writing with humility reminds our readers that there are humans involved, even humans who make mistakes out of a desire to help. Writing with mutuality in mind prevents “the poor” from being objectified as problems in need of a solution.
As you describe your own journey, warts and all, your discoveries become your readers’ discoveries. Their view of your context reaches upwards, stretching to fit yours as they watch your “growing up” right in front of their eyes.
3. Run It By Somebody First
To summarize what I’ve said so far: Give yourself time to “grow up” and see things differently before you start writing about it. But if you have to write, do it with integrity–a kind of faithfulness to the whole story–including your part in it!
But before you release that colorful piece of reflective writing into the wild, first consider running it by a trusted friend. Invite them to be a check against your tendency to embellish the facts or add sizzle to something in a way which might exploit or diminish.
I’d love to believe we could all be trusted to do this for ourselves, but sometimes we just need another set of eyes. Our stubborn writing habits and lazy inconsistencies are experts at hiding out in our blind-spots. Nothing clears the cob-webs like the honesty of a secondary read-through. Followed by a straight-talk chaser. Find this person and you’ve discovered gold.
Better yet, share a draft of what you’ve written with the very person you’re writing about. Beyond just asking for vague permission, ask them if what you’re sharing is okay with them. Do they remember the story differently? What would they change? Do they find it honoring or diminishing?
I realize this suggestion tests the full mettle of what might be a blossoming mutual friendship. But each time I’ve done this the responses have been everything from flattered to deep appreciation and joy. There’s a sacred moment to be savored when we realize - no, when we accept - that our story is important enough to be shared with others. I watch in awe as this realization creeps across the faces of my friends. We are both left wide-eyed at the wonder of it all.
When I asked my friend Joe if he would like to preview an early draft of yesterday’s post about him, he wryly responded:
"Darren, are you telling stories about me again? Well, don’t let the pen get more mightier then the sword! Hah. Well, send me some of the dirt as they say. And I will shovel it out."
Then when I sent him a close approximation of what you read yesterday, he emailed back his approval with two quick lines:
"It sounds about right as I recall. Thanks for the memories :)"
Here again, in the sacred space of our friendship, we’ve formed an alliance around the sharing of the story we hold in common. The story of his transition off the streets into permanent housing, and of my “growing up” on the streets under his mentoring and kindness. Our story of mutual transformation; the one in which God grants us both the unexpected gift of a life-long friendship.
Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.
He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.
Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince
Don't you think Darren should have a blog? I do!
As a reminder, the War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?
For more in the series, please click here.