May 1, 2012

River Jordan: The Power of Story

"I came from the tribe of Eeyore."

Thus spake River Jordan at the Calvin Festival in mid-April. I had wandered into her talk titled "Truth Finds a Way," acting on an impulse. And that spontaneous decision turned into one of the highlights of my time there.

River (yes, she did change her name to "River," which her mother now calls her) writes both fiction (Saints in Limbo, Miracle of Mercy Land) and non-fiction, but she is probably best known for her memoir, Praying for Strangers. In it she tells that at a time when both her sons were being deployed, one to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, she happened to make a New Year's resolution to pray for a stranger every day for a year. She didn't even plan to tell these strangers what she was doing for them. And she planned to stop after 365 days. But sometimes she did tell them, and amazing conversations happened. After a year she felt compelled to continue what she then felt had become a "spiritual discipline"... until she did it for another year, and another, and now it's simply part of who she has become.

When River started writing as a young girl, she thought people had a limited number of words they could speak. Consequently, she was rather quiet. Only in the third grade did she discover she had an unlimited word count. By three years later, she had been discovered as a writer.

During those formative years her friends would go play while she would craft stories—a process she describes as "controlled schizophrenia." Killing one of her characters, she says, was like losing anyone who had ever been close to her.

She points to literary author Kevin Brockmeir as an influence, and she describes the first three pages of Leif Enger's book, Peace Like a River, as some of the best prose ever.

When she asked our audience a question... I don't even remember what it was...the sight of many hands flying up surprised her. She exclaimed, "Beautiful! Like dolphins jumping." That right there explained a lot. The woman must think in simile and metaphor.

Raised in the rural south, River says she grew up "where truth grew out in stories." The first line of her first novel is, "I was in Memphis the night I had the dream." She loves the Chick-fil-A Youtube video because of its reminder that everyone has a story:

"Be inspired by your very life," she said. "You do not have to tell everyone your stuff. But tell the truth. Tap into the truth of your life." She encourages writers to tell "what's important to you and it'll be important to other people.... All of us have been hurt.... I am a blessed mess. Don't wait till you are perfect."

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