Choosing the Crisis
I’m preparing to teach a local writing workshop, a six-week class to help some fellow writers create short pieces about a personal life event.
To help me jog the faraway parts of people’s memories, I turned to an old book of prompts I have, by storyteller Donald Davis. Flipping through it, I ran across his take on narrative structure, a guide he follows for oral storytelling.
He renames the typical English-class terms of rising action and climax with other terms—one of which is crisis. Davis says this:
The central hinge of any story plot is a crisis… It is tempting to think of crisis in terms of heart attacks, house fires, job losses, death, and any number of other uninvited events which disrupt the course of one’s hoped-for life history. But a crisis is not just an involuntary event which overtakes us against our will.
A crisis is any happening which takes a part of our lives with which we are comfortable and turns it upside down so that we have to adjust to a world that is shaped differently than before. This means that many of the most significant crises in our family lives are crises we volunteer for.
Under this definition, winning the lottery is a crisis. It requires that our whole relationship to the world be changed. Getting married is a crisis, as is having a baby, retiring, buying a new house, and all the other choices we gladly make.” (7)
Over the past few years, I’ve undergone a deep shift—a reconsidering of my belief, religion, and spiritual practice.
And though the experience felt at first like something that jumped out and startled me, I can see now ways in which I chose it: the questions I actively asked, the understanding I sought beyond the cookie-cutter answers of my youth.
At the time, calling my experience a faith crisis sounded desperate and troubling, so I looked for other words. Journey. Wrestle. Shift. (Others have said lovelier, wiser things about this than I.)
But today, this other view on crisis circled my mind back to where I started and I wonder if it’s indeed an apt word. Some the word’s official definitions point to it being a more positive process than I thought.
A turning-point, a vitally important or decisive stage… a judgment, a decision. (“Crisis”)
For me, the years of faith crisis were absolutely a turning point, a decisive stage in a landscape altered.
In the end, though, no crisis lasts forever. You cannot live in an eternal turning point. At some point, you turn. In his storytelling format, Donald Davis says that in order for a crisis to turn into an actual story, insight follows.
In the process of living through the crisis, the main character either gets help or leans something new which enables the survival of the crisis. This help or learning is something which could never have been acquired apart from struggling through this particular critical event.” (37)
I don’t know which personal stories my workshop writers will unearth over the next few weeks. But I’m excited to find out. I’ll ask my writers to consider that in every crisis, they made choices and gained insight they may not have even recognized at the time. I’ll suggest that entering a world forever changed is not a journey to regret or wish away.
Even better, the crisis gave them a story to tell.
Davis, Donald. Telling Your Own Stories. August House, 1993.
“crisis, n.” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 5th ed. 2002.