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.