December 08, 2017 | Charlotte Donlon
Over the past couple of years, I’ve read several of Frederick Buechner’s memoirs and sermon collections. One reason his writing appeals to me is that he’s a master of writing about faith in a way that draws everyone in—not just Christians, but non-Christians, as well. He writes about the human condition in ways everyone can connect with on multiple levels. One way he does this is through incorporating a lot of sensory details. Francine Prose writes in Reading Like a Writer, “Details aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they’re also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment” (207). This is true of Frederick Buechner’s wide deployment of details in his books. He invokes all five senses to enable his readers to believe he is a trustworthy narrator, to have a fuller understanding of his experiences, and to connect what they have known in their own lives to what he is sharing from his life.
I was delighted to come across a new collection of Buechner’s work. Most of the content in The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life is from his formerly unpublished 1987 Norton and 1990 Laity Lodge lecture materials. In this book, Buechner explores the value of the ordinary, the value of seeing, how we can listen to God in the stories we tell, and what it means to tell the truth.
The section in the book on seeing is a potential explanation for why Buechner is able to write with so many sensory details. Buechner pays attention to the world around him, to the stories, around him, to the people around him. He has eyes that clearly see his environment and those in his path. He has eyes that notice the sights, the aromas, the sounds.
I also love what Buechner says when writing about the language of art in the section about why stories matter. He writes:
“So there are these ways of speaking about holy things, and then of course there also is the art of writing, particularly stories, which is the one that I dabbled in, using a story to convey what faith is. Of course of all of the arts, none I think is more basic to the nature of biblical faith than the art of storytelling, because if you think about it that is basically what the Bible is. It is a series of stories, whether they’re stories like the ones in Genesis, or whether they’re the narrative of Israel’s history, or the Gospels themselves. They all are recounting things that happened, or that could have happened, or that were imagined to have happened in ways that convey a depth of truth that could not perhaps be conveyed in any other way.”
The Remarkable Ordinary is for long-time fans of Buechner who have been longing for more of his words. It’s also for anyone who’s unfamiliar with his work but desires to follow along as a brilliant and winsome author wonders about faith and truth and mystery without condemnation.
Charlotte lives in Homewood with her husband and their two children. She’s earning an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and she does freelance writing and copywriting. You can find her online at www.charlottedonlon.com, on Twitter at @charlottedonlon, and on Instagram at @charlottedonlon. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter about reading, writing, and creativity via her website at charlottedonlon.com. Email newsletter subscribers are invited to participate in book giveaways, too. Feel free to contact Charlotte at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments!