Living for better “material”

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Meet Chip. 

This cute little bundle of batteries and silicon ruled our weekend, letting us know each time he needed a diaper change, feeding, rocking, or repositioning with a unique (though equally piercing) cry for each. After a successful home delivery (via USPS) at 4 p.m. on Friday, Chip settled into his laundry basket-turned crib and cycled through three 24-hour routines based on the feeding and sleep cycles of real newborns. You parents will know that this resulted in some looooong nights.  During one 3 a.m. feeding session, I was so tired I stuck Chip’s bottle into the activation pad on his lower back. I think he’s still mad at me for that. 

Still, Chip had it pretty easy this weekend. A “Baby Think-It-Over,” he typically lives with angsty teenagers whose parents or teachers use him as a very loud form of birth control.  At times he had a similar effect on Dan and me, but I confess that I’ll be a little sad this afternoon when I have to take out his batteries, wrap him in bubble wrap, and mail him back to Virginia so he can be rented out to someone else...probably a football jock who won’t think to keep him cool enough at night. I guess I’ve grown attached Chip’s “Moosin’ Around” pajamas and the way his little vinyl head miraculously smells like baby powder.

Chip is just the newest adventure brought on by my year of biblical womanhood. Having devoted one month of the project to exploring motherhood—a topic for which I rely heavily on interviews and time spent with actual mothers—I wanted to add a bit of fun and humor to the chapter. When I proposed a weekend with Baby-Think-It-Over to Dan, he laughed, shook his head, and said, “It’s crazy, but it will make great material. Let’s do it.”

We’ve been saying that a lot lately, the thing about “material,” and I think I like what it’s done to our lives. 

It seems that when you’re literally living through the content of your next book, you’re always looking for better material—a newer destination, a stranger character, more color, more humor, more conflict, more adventure. What’s great about this is that it forces you to think of your life as a story and to take deliberate actions to make it more interesting. 

 Should I simply research Amish Country or should I visit?  A visit will put faces to names…let’s go!

Should I camp out in my “red tent” for one night or two? Two nights mean double the material…get the sleeping bag! 

Should I stick with a side dish or make the entire Thanksgiving Dinner?  Playing host would be a bigger challenge…break out the cookbooks! 

In fact, I’ve been doing so much of this lately that I’ve trained myself to pursue better “material” even when it’s unrelated to the project and unlikely to end up in the book.  Driving down that road I’ve always been curious about has nothing to do with biblical womanhood, but it promises better material than if I just passed by again…so I take it. As Donald Miller says in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.”

You don’t have to write an experiential memoir to introduce better material into your life. The past eight months have taught me to seek out better material, regardless of whether I get around to writing about it.  In the process, I've noticed some things: 

Better material happens when we jump down rabbit holes. 

That old building you’ve always wondered about, that question you’ve turned over in your mind, the ritual you’ve never tired, that stranger you want to talk to—these are the rabbit holes that produce story-worthy material. One of the best things my mom passed down to me is an insatiable, childlike curiosity about the world. For Mom, there is always a new place to visit, a new story to learn, a new mystery to solve.  Living in the Information Age can either kill our imagination (when we simply digest whatever is fed to us) or cultivate it (when we investigate the things that make us feel most alive). Living for better material means following our curiosity down the everyday rabbit holes in our lives. 

Better material happens when things aren’t perfect. 

As part of the experiment, I totally destroyed an apple pie for Thanksgiving Dinner. Oh I cried about it when it happened, but now the part of the book in which I describe that scene is one of my favorites. It’s funny and it’s relatable because it’s imperfect. As I’ve reflected on some of the mistakes I’ve made this year, it’s amazing how forgiving I am when I think of myself as a character in a story. Gone are the feelings of guilt and self-hatred over every little misstep. Instead, I am reminded of my humanity, my normalness. Nobody likes a perfect character gliding through a boring story…in books or in real life. Living for better material means taking risks that require some trial and error, and then forgiving ourselves (and laughing at ourselves) when we behave like the human beings that we are. 

Better material happens when we confront the truth. 

Good writing, and good living for that matter, is all about paying attention. It’s not about creating a story where there isn’t one; it’s about finding the story that’s been hiding there along.  This is why the “embellishments” of James Frey and Greg Mortenson represent not merely moral failures, but failures of imagination. The truth is always more interesting than a lie if you take the time to pay attention to it. A mantra I repeat to myself when I’m writing is this: “Write into the fear.” This applies to life too. Rather than avoiding that which frightens us or makes us uncomfortable or seems too beautiful to be real, we have an obligation to write, and to live, right into it…because that’s probably where the truth is hiding.  Living for better material means making the gutsy call to confront the truth, even when we’re not sure where to start looking for it. 

I tried telling Chip about all of this at 6:30 this morning when I was rocking him back to sleep after a bungled diaper change. He just stared back at me with those glossy doll eyes as if to say, “You’re in for some real material when I’m the actual thing, kid.” 

He and I like to banter like that. 


Have you encountered any interesting "material" in your life recently? Is there something you've always wanted to explore or investigate but have been putting off because it seems impractical?

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