Learning to Tell Stories
An Interview with Walter Wangerin, Jr.
By Joe Krall
ERB: In part three, you tell stories from 16 years as a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in urban Evansville, Indiana. How did being a pastor affect your writing process and what you wrote about?
WWJ: I had not known how powerful a story was until I started preaching to this congregation. African-Americans, at least where I was, tended to receive things by hearing them, rather than by seeing them written. And so, it was very easy for me to translate the various events of the Bible into stories, or to find the discoveries or insights of Scripture in a present-day story. So, that thirst to tell a story was a powerful thing I learned from that congregation – I doubt I would have from another one.
As for writing, what happens, what is given to a pastor (when relationships are good) is to be invited into the most critical parts of the lives of the people. I was there at their births, I was there when they were very sick, I was there when they died. I was able to see all sorts of things, intimately, that I would not have been invited to see – which could not help but enrich my insights into any sort of story, whether fiction or memoir.
With that – and I would say this to all preachers – I never ceased to read. I mean the classics, the best books. They taught things about human nature that would work their ways into a sermon, especially as they interpreted the events of the humans in front of me, their feelings, their moods.
So, the invitation to be an intimate part of people’s lives, learning to tell stories, the constant reading – which I recommend to every pastor I meet, and, I have to say, very few are involved with such work and should be. And finally, specifically, stories and events that occurred at Grace became stories in books that I published, such as in Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith.
ERB: Out of curiosity, could you name some of the novels and classics that were your companions in these years?
WWJ: Oh, my! I’ll just throw out a list. Dostoevsky, certainly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy, War and Peace and some of his long short stories. Solzhenitsyn, a more modern author. Madame Bovary, Charles Dickens, The Vicar of Wakefield. Modern authors: Grahame Greene . . . there’s just so many . . . John Irving. Shakespeare, always Shakespeare, both for the language and the insights, imagery, beauty. The 17th century poets, George Herbert, John Donne, Andrew Marvell and so forth. I could go on and on.
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