Live First, Write Second

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Adam Jeske. He and his wife Christine have lived in Nicaragua, China, South Africa, and the U.S. Their latest book is This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. You can follow them both on their blog and connect with Adam on Twitter: @adamjeske.

My wife’s first year as a full-time writer almost killed her.

Kayak Photo
Photo credit: James McCauley (Creative Commons)

It was 2010. We had just moved back to the U.S. after years in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa. I got a job as the Social Media Czar for InterVarsity and the Urbana Missions Conference. And Chrissy had just released her book.

She was studying for the GRE in order to apply for a Ph.D program, but the bulk of Chrissy’s time was spent writing and book-promoting. She blogged, wrote with me for RELEVANT Magazine, sent out query letters, scribbled down new project ideas, and ate too many Oreos.

This was different from life overseas

When we lived overseas, we drew writing ideas from the overflow of adventures that fell into our path:

  • riding motorcycles across southern Africa
  • eating pig blood soup
  • trying to explain the difference between Santa and Jesus to Chinese colleagues
  • giggling across Caribbean waves and living off free mangos and coconuts

Overseas, we had conflict, adventure, cultural issues, and fun — all fodder for good writing. And now we were “just Americans.” This U.S. culture still felt strange and fresh, and we saw more than ever the need to write about it.

We wanted our writing to offer brilliant advice about living faithfully and well as ordinary North Americans. But it’s hard to write what you aren’t living. (You might want to tweet that.)

A life worth writing about

Writing had always been a side job that flowed out of living, the frosting on the cake of life. Now there was no cake, and Chrissy was gagging on the frosting.

There are genres that don’t need writers to live first and write second, academics and certain technical writing come to mind. But for anything involving people, and our writing sure did, you need some fresh experience undergirding your words.

For us, back in Madison, Wisconsin, it all came apart. One night Chrissy shouted at me while she whacking our dishwasher with a butcher knife:

I would love to do something meaningful and write about it. Writing is supposed to unfold as we live, but right now nothing is unfolding! Life is stuck. We’re stuck. I hate it!

We couldn’t write because we weren’t really living.

We were stuck in the middle of the middle-class. We went from adventure being ordinary in our life to needing to find adventure in our ordinary lives, as ordinary people in an ordinary place.

If we didn’t find it, and fast, our writing careers (and maybe mental health and marriage) would be over. So we returned to a strategy that figured prominently from our dating relationship on into our marriage.

“Amazing Days”

When we first met and started dating, we both relished the challenge of finding something amazing in each day. It could be fun, crazy, silly, faith-filled, or simply good.

Sometimes, Amazing Days were simply not taking something for granted.

It was about noticing. Enjoyed the sunrise? Amazing. Taught a kid to ride a bike? Amazing. Cooked a new food? Amazing. Smiled at a stranger on the sidewalk? A-mazing (and maybe a little creepy).

Sometimes, Amazing Days were more intense.

Boarding a plane for Nicaragua with no idea what awaited us thousands of miles away was certainly amazing. Hearing the story of someone who had been persecuted for her faith was, too. Going for a run in the snow also qualifies as an Amazing Day in our book.

So we decided to start living Amazing Days again, right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. And you know what? Our writing was better for it. But you know what else? So were our lives.

What this looks like, practically

We’re not perfect, but we’ve seen some “wins” as we’ve tried to live Amazing Days here at home. We’ve thrown a lot of parties, planted oak trees, and even committed to a church.

I built a really big tree house, and Chrissy built a chicken coop. We built sandcastles. We’ve had a lot of campfires.

We’ve tried to get to know our neighbors. We’ve had hard conversations with our kids. We let our dryer die and went on hanging our laundry on the clothes line.

We’ve even turned these Amazing Days into a book. I guess better living really does lead to better writing (and more of it).

So what’s on your bucket list? What have you been meaning to really live? Don’t your readers deserve something worth reading? Maybe it’s time you gave it to them.

How does the intersection of living and writing work for you? Share in the comments.

Challenge: Adam and Chrissy want to invite you to live your own Amazing Days. Starting today, they are trying to live 31 Amazing Days through the month of October. Click here to join the fun.

50 thoughts on “Live First, Write Second

  1. Love this post. The power of story is so important – if we’re going to have a positive impact on the world and live a meaningful life, we have to be living great stories. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. For me, it’s about seeing and appreciating what’s been available to me to whole time -a stop and smell the roses type of idea. Sometimes you have to plant the roses first. I realize I go through seasons where I see the adventure (or potential adventure) and opportunity in “every day” life. Then there are seasons where I just miss it all. Although quite busy, it’s those times I get bored and restless.

  3. You’re right, Nick. The first step is noticing and giving thanks for all the good–and often amazing–things in our lives. 

    And I’m with you that no one bats a thousand on this. It ebbs and flows.

  4. I wish you could see the astonishment on my face as I read this! I literally just walked in the door from driving my son to school, something I don’t have to do, but enjoy the time to chat with him. He might call it “being trapped in the car with Mom while she talks”, but anyway, it’s good. As I drove home, I prayed, “Lord, life is so routine right now. And what is not routine, is so trying. What am I missing around me that needs to be shared? That would affect a life, a heart? What am I not seeing? Help me to see the unordinary in the routine, and even in what feels mundane.” 

    Then I read what you’ve shared here. 

    In recent days, I’ve reflected on other writers that I read and know, and have struggled with thoughts like, “well, they have such amazing experiences on a day to day basis, no wonder they can share so brilliantly.” 

    Just before I pulled into my drive, the sun blazed through the clouds and trees in such magnificent fashion, and I noted it, and quickly thanked God for it, then went back to my thoughts of ho-hum. Lord, forgive me. 

    I have 15 patients scheduled today. I will be on my feet all day and probably exhausted by days end. But I pray that I come away from the day having noticed each patient, noting their stories and something about their day and life that will challenge and excite me. I pray I can affect their day in a positive way as well. That’s not ho-hum or status quo at all. Fifteen mini-adventures without ever having to step foot on a plane. I get to interact with that many stories today! Wow! 

    Sorry to be long-winded. This post changed the way I will look at the days to come.

  5. I’m still trying to process the part of this post that mentions eating pig blood soup.  🙂     You are correct.  It’s all about the noticing and living with our eyes wide open.  Incredible-ness is all around us.  

  6. I agree. All we have to do is open our eyes to the world around us, and we WILL find something amazing. It might be as simple as a facet of God’s creation. Or something as complex as God’s creation. Yes, indeed, I stand amazed!

  7. So, True Adam.

    If I am so obsessed with my writing and trying to have something meaningful and deep to say, then ironically  I will sometimes miss enjoying the meaningful and deep things that happen in my day. Writing drives my life, instead of the reverse.

    Something that has been valuable for me recently is to take time off from writing. This gives me the opportunity to fully enjoy the “Amazing Day” without the pressure of having to write about it.

  8. There’s this great moment in the movie “We Bought a Zoo” where Matt Damon’s little girl asks him why he doesn’t write stories anymore (his character was a journalist). His answer was so poignant, he said “Well, because we’re living the story.” If we don’t live the story, there won’t be anything to tell.

  9. I spent so many years desperate for ‘normal’. Now that we have something approaching ‘normal’ it is very strange. I’m not sure what to do with it. Using all I have been through to inspire my writing is a start. Mind you, life with an autistic son and a probably-Asperger’s daughter is never gonna be ‘normal’. Ah, the fun we had this morning just getting out of the house and attempting half an hour of shopping… Nah, who am I kidding? We haven’t reached normality, we’ve just gradually moved away from  ‘every day is awful’. Life with Jesus is always an adventure 😉

      1. Thank you, I’d love to, but I don’t do facebook any more (part of our ‘living more simply’). I may well write a blog post though. It reminds me of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts 🙂

  10. This post hits close to home for me. I grew up in the
    Wisconsin middle-class, served as a short-term missionary in Nicaragua, and,
    yes, have tried to explain the difference between real Christmas and American
    Christmas to students in China. While I’ve not attacked a dishwasher with a butcher knife,
    I have struggled to find writing material now that I’m not attending churches
    without running water, perfecting the use of a squatty potty, and eating things
    I’m scared to ask about. I love how you turn mundane life into something
    amazing. Great post!

    Katie

                                                                                                                                                        

  11. What a refeshing perspective to read! I advise artists in my little circle to treat their creative lives as gardens. And let their work spring from well-cultivated soil. I see many Creatives try to shortcut to the fruits. And it doesn’t work that way. But it takes a few dry periods to learn this.

    I wish you continued growth in your life and work!

  12. I am building myself to be a writer and photographer. And maybe even a content strategist  And there are many times I feel stuck. 

    And after reading this post — I know why. I am not living. 

    I think — in part — my inspiration comes from the love of writing and photography. But that fuel will eventually run dry. So I need to refuel. I need to live amazing days.

  13. When I read the stuff I was writing on my blog and realized how much I disliked it, I decided to stop writing and do something worth writing about. So, I signed up to run a marathon for clean water in East Africa. It’s been an adventure, but now it’s time to write again! I’m learning that you have to keep living and you have to keep writing. Great post!

  14. Oh how this speaks to my heart. I am a wife of four daughters. A husband to the COO of a church. I live in suburbia and a drive a mid-size SUV. My life is ordinary. But God…He is extraordinary and turns everyday life into incredible, amazing adventure! 

  15. Great essay Adam. My wife and I lived overseas for a few years. It really can be a challenge to find the amazing when “normal” life gets busy. I’m going to head over and check out your website now.

    Thanks Jeff for sharing great guest content.

  16. Living the story should definitely precede the telling.  Great post and great vision!  

  17. I hope Chrissy didn’t do too much damage to your dishwasher! Reminds me of a pastor’s life–giving and leading people into spiritual nourishment when a lot of times you aren’t feeling it yourself. Leif and I and Hershey (our poodle) are trying to live Amazing Days as much as we can–you’re right–and now there’s lots of fodder for blog posts and stories!

    1. Thanks, Margaret! The dishwasher was fine, though there’s still a dent in our best butcher knife! I think we “religious professionals” (i.e. Pharisees?) need to be real with folks about our struggles while also living more Amazing Days. Bring on the Morning Chutzpah!

  18. I don’t  even have words for how much I love and appreciate this post.   I spend my days homeschooling, toting my oldest son to baseball, taking younger boys to music lessons, being a wife and mom and friend.  So often, I get wrapped up in the insane busy-ness of all of it that I forget to notice the many many amazing moments (and the amazing grace) that fill my days.  

    I needed this reminder to PAY ATTENTION and to soak up all of the amazing-ness that is my life.  In a moment, my youngest son and I are going to decorate the house for Halloween, something he’s been looking forward to all day.  I bet we’ll have an amazing evening 🙂

    Thank you so much for this!

    1. Thanks, Kim. We’re in the same life stage. I think you’d really like our book! https://www.amazon.com/This-Ordinary-Adventure-Settling-Without/dp/0830837876/

  19. Hey Adam, I’m born and raised and still live in Milwaukee, WI, hello from a neighbor! I never thought I could make a living writing, it was Dan Miller’s book that showed me that it was really possible.

    I went on to self-publish a book and it flopped at first. I got back up and figured out my messaging. I have now self-published a second book and sold over 65,000 copies of both books. I got a book deal without an agent and now speak all over the world!

    I guess Dan was right, it really is possible!

      1. Your article makes it sound like to write (and to truly live), you have to get out there and have an adventure. I think writing is more about being present and attentive while living, rather than living adventurously. One could have great adventures, but miss out on what is happening if they are not attentive. 

        1. OK, I see now, Tim. I agree with you, that we don’t need to go out and have a big adventure but a big part of our Amazing Days approach to life is noticing what’s already amazing around us. (Though I do also think it’s important to be willing to make a big adventurous leap once in a while…)

  20. Adam, as one who met you in China, I truly enjoyed this! I’ve recently wondered out loud to a friend, “after being in China so long, if/when I leave China, will I be interesting?” But as you point out, that’s not the best question! 

    1. Right on, Amy. I’ve enjoyed your blog since I found it a month or two ago. Keep living and writing well. Are you going to do the 31 Amazing Days challenge? https://www.facebook.com/ThisOrdinaryAdventure

      1. I had wanted to, but the reality that I spend most of the month traveling to BE with people … I didn’t want to spend all my time obsessed about getting on the internet. Maybe I’ll do it in November. That’s more my style — one step behind the times 🙂

        1.  Sure thing. Or just make some notes of Amazing Days during your month and write a couple blog posts afterward. Can’t wait to hear more from you (whenever that might be)!

    1.  I’ve been journaling for 17 years, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten more Amazing Days than most people my age have lived! I really need paper and pen to make sense of the mess in my brain…

  21. Dear Adam and Chrissy
    I think we can call this godly wisdom, first to live and then to write. I am a fibromyalgia and CFS
    sufferer and led quite an active live before my illness. After a few years of “living” this chronic disease, I came to the conclusion that I am now qualified to encourage others along this journey through writing. I started to write my own blog ( hisnlovingembrace.wordpress.com) where I write about my love for God and this illness. I soon realize that the moment we think we have arrived, life takes us ons new adventure to show us how little we actually do know! Blessings.
    Mia

  22. Great insights, thanks. “Writing had always been a side job that flowed out of living, the frosting on the cake of life” – so true. It’s so easy to think that one day you might make a living from writing, and that will be the story.  We can have such a romantic idea of what it means to be a writer.  Life produces words – if we don’t balance it well then it can also get in the way of the words, but without life the words are like seeds without soil.

  23. I wish I’d written this post, Jeff. Sometimes “Amazing” stuff is just received back what you once took for granted. Last week at the Mayo Clinic my 7-year-old came through neuro-surgery. Fingers, toes; it all works! It’s like watching her be born all over again! We’re living a story that came to us. Thanks, Jeff, for reminding us that writing is about celebrating our own stories. 

    1.  Thanks, Bryan. Part of us starting to live–and write about–Amazing Days was Chrissy nearly dying during open heart surgery when she was six. We can relate! A chapter in our book is also dedicated to fear and death and how after you face them, you often live much better!

  24. There does seem to be so many things in the simplistic, so much depth in the ordinary, and wild adventures in the still. Life should always be looked at as Amazing. The last thing my Grandfather told me days before he passed was something I’ll never forget.

    “Waking up with breath in my lungs and memories in my mind…those are the two most important things a man can ever have in his day.”

    Simple, yet true. Keep up the great adventures Jeff,

    Much Aloha,

    Jamey~

  25. “It’s hard to write what you’re not living”. (Jeff).

    Living and writing what you live is a fantastic gift.

    But could one not possibly see it also as writing and living what you write?  Especially if you’re the praying type who lays it all on paper before God before it happens! (Philippians 4:6-8).

    I think it’s about knowing yourself as an author called by God … then as He pens His life in and through you, you’re laying it down in writing. So it’s kind of one and the same.

    I guess what I’m hearing you say is, if you aren’t “living” then why should you be “writing”?

    I think of it as a song … I’m a song writer. But the music in me isn’t fully complete until I  pen it down.

    Just my thoughts 😉
     

  26. This is a great post. I love the image of your wife attacking the dishwasher. I think we all have those moments and everyone needs to find purpose. I think having a faith can make this  both easier and harder. Life is an adventure to be lived to the full and unless we live it there is nothing to tell, no story to write. I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing and I really enjoyed your interview with Joanna Penn, Fiona 

  27. I love this! I call them “Holiday Moments”. Today it consisted of sharing a sandwich with my boys in the garden and then being jumped on and over.

    Yesterday it was making ice cream cones by the pool.

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