the story inside the story, inside the story, stories, the transforming power of story, matryoshka dolls, Russian nesting dolls in red, Chile, metaphors, legacy, life, Jesus, kingdom, family

The Story Inside the Story

My two granddaughters were charmed by the quirky set of Russian dolls I put in their Christmas stockings when they visited Chile in December. Someday I’ll share with them the stories inside the story here. As did—surprisingly—a recent guest speaker at our church when he used a set of these dolls as an object lesson.

Nesting dolls, or matryoshka dolls, as they are properly called, are linden-wood dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. My simple toy (above) holds four dolls within the first, but deluxe sets can contain many more. “Matryoshka” means “little matron” in Russian. I’ve always called them babushkas, meaning “old woman” or “grandmother.” Incorrectly, but perhaps a perfect Grandma’s gift.

Russian wood craftsman Vasily Zvyozdochkin teamed with folk artist Sergey Malyutin to design and make the first matryoshka dolls in 1890. The originals wore a sarafan, a traditional Russian peasant jumper dress. Today many are painted according to themes such as fairy tales, nature (floral or animals), religious holidays, celebrities, or political figures.

Metaphorically matryoshka dolls are said to represent a number of ideas. Some say they correspond to body, soul, mind, heart, and spirit. Others connect them with the patriotic personification of Mother Russia. This association leads to fertility, family, and a chain of mothers carrying on a legacy.

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”
―Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

At any rate, the matryoshka model shows up frequently in the design world as an “object-within-similar-object” relationship. It’s the simplest kind of 3-D puzzle. The paradigm resembles the onion principle which we see in fractals or multiple mirrors.

What nested stories and themes did I discover in these fascinating dolls?

The Story of a Metaphor

Our guest speaker started with the peanut-sized innermost doll and related it to an episode in the life of one of the kings of Israel. This story still remained part of a bigger story of the divided kingdoms of God’s people, the Davidic Covenant, the kingdom promises of God, and finally the King of Kings and His eternal kingdom.

When we start small, we realize we’re part of a BIGGER story than just our own. And if we start big, inside the story we find a whole lot of little stories, even our own, that make up the nested whole.

“Stories are equipment for living.” –Kenneth Burke

Stories are metaphors for life. Screenwriting instructor Robert McKee says (Story): “We create them as metaphors for a meaningful life—and to live meaningfully is to be in perpetual risk… The point where the human spirit and the world meet (is) the story inside the story.” I was struck by his use of the word “risk.”

What risk?

There’s always risk involved when we dig down in a story or in life to the true person beneath the exterior. How deep do we dare to go? We fear exposure. But the best layers of meaning hide below the surface.

We also risk a great clash of emotions when we consider the chasm between our assumptions, beliefs, and expectations of the world and our day-to-day reality. But most of us live in that space between faith/fantasy and empirical certainty. There the story of our lives is written as we attempt—and need—to hang transcendent meaning on the details of our experiences.

Meditating on these metaphors and symbols, I see that every time I sit down to write, I’m working in the matryoshka pattern. I’m searching for the master plan, a design in the seemingly random events God permits or even sends into our lives. I seek the story inside the story.

My tools aren’t lathe and chisel, but words. But the substance of every story lies in the disconnect between what a character thinks and anticipates and what happens. “On the one side is the world as we believe it to be, on the other side is reality as it actually is. In this gap is the nexus of story…. Here the writer finds the most powerful, life-bending moments” (Robert McKee, Story).

The Story of a Legacy

Perhaps a writer starts with the tiniest figure of a matryoshka set, the work-in-progress. This story may nestle inside a trilogy or longer series, which in turn fits into a larger story setting or time period. Eventually, you will see the author’s big worldview. And in my case, I hope you catch a glimpse of God’s ultimate story of the universe. I’m trying to write small stories that reflect and echo the Big Story.

“As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within. Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections.” –Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Through his or her infinitesimal contribution to the world’s literature, every creative writer, I suppose, aims to achieve some sort of immortality. I purpose to make each of my books matter on the large level of God, the universe, and the Kingdom. To accomplish that goal, though, I have to start with infusing the small stories with significance.

Leaving a legacy doesn’t begin with publishing my magnum opus. Sure, the masterpiece, the bestseller, the prizewinner… all sound wonderful, right?

But on the bottom line…

I write, first of all, because I must, and second, because I love it.

I can’t seem to exist without telling stories (I’ve tried! And found my joy draining away.) I crave the expression of imagination. Call it compulsion, indulgence, or even therapy. Writing gives me a measure for my life, a way to process the world, a healthy high. Besides, it’s fun! (For you, non-writer friends might insist.)

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” ―Ursula K. LeGuin

But that brings me to a third reason for writing: I desire to inspire others and help them process the world too. As the song says, “I don’t care if they remember me” (Only Jesus), but I do want people to remember what’s important. To me, a legacy passes along the essential and valuable to the next generation.

The vision of Seaglass Books (and Seaglass Blog) is to encourage teens, young adults, and those mentors involved with them in pursuing a God-honoring life. Books for the old college-and-career crowd, now labeled New Adults, most often feature thinly veiled erotica these days. It drives me to my knees in prayer for those who’ll write for my grandchildren!

Did you know 23% of Americans read zero books last year, as compared to the 8% who read nothing in 1974? Apparently we’re still reading, though—on our screens. And the literary gurus used to think movies and TV were bad for us! At least, they taught us to follow a plot and identify a message or theme.

Most social media is comprised of random mini-stories without any overarching meaning. My dear friends, we live in an epic, not a shallow click-share, a meme, or a comic strip. Let your hearts thrill with the story inside the story.

The Story of Jesus

So whether you and I accumulate a huge body of achievements over a lifetime, or nurture a small, quiet family nest with real food, that’s a legacy.

This is also the nexus of life. What’s the deeper story? It’s God and His true story weaving and winding, binding and balancing that discrepancy between the world as we find it and the world as we’d wish it to unfold. God gives meaning to our tales.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” –Muriel Rukeyser

He is the story inside—and outside—every story. Because once upon a time God Himself entered the story in the person of Jesus. The writer of history, the maker, the focus and first cause of it all, stepped into the pages of His story as another character. The Preeminent One humbled Himself to become the lowest of the low.

Yet He is still the core.

“Recently (God) spoke to us directly through his son… This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature” (Heb. 1:2-3, MSG).

Eugene Peterson writes: “Stories invite us into a world other than ourselves and, if they are good and true stories, a world larger than ourselves… There is a widespread practice in our postbiblical church culture to take the story and then essentially eliminate it by depersonalizing it into propositions or…morals or ideas. The story is eviscerated of relationships and persons. Jesus, the center of the Christian faith, is thus depersonalized into an abstract truth… Jesus, the mature completion of all the stories…speaks in stories…  We need a Jesus-soaked imagination, so that every truth becomes a lived truth” (As Kingfishers Catch Fire).

God has entrusted us with the tremendous power of an imagination. So many human beings have abused this gift. “When we leave God out of our imagination, things go south really fast,” writes Allen Arnold (Daily Thoughts on God and Creativity). “But He…knew some would use their imagination to create stories, songs, and places that remind us of Eden, stir wonder about eternity, and help us enter into greater awe and worship of God. When we reclaim our imagination for good, it no longer is used as an escape from reality…but as an invitation into God’s deeper reality.”

May God bless and empower the artists and writers who lead us to the Story inside the story.

The Story of My Life

I have my own story, of course. People may observe my life from the outside: She looks like a serene and uncomplicated woman on the surface. Put-together, brightly painted, no obvious cracks or flaws. But like the matryoshka doll, perhaps a half dozen secret selves hide within, each slightly different from the other, each a little further from the image of perfection.  

“Maybe we are always all of our ages at once, like nesting matryoshka dolls?” Paula McLain

And she may look like a grown woman. A babushka, even. Behind and beneath the exterior, she still feels like the lonely six-year-old who suddenly discovered the world through the written word. She’s the sixteen-year-old newly in love with Jesus, devouring His stories as if for the first time. And maybe she’s twenty-six or thirty-six, struggling to act like a matron when she’d rather just run like a child. Or withdraw like a teenager, at least.

Perhaps which face I present to the public depends on which sphere I’m dealing with at the time. All of the layers are me in one sense or another. What the world glimpses isn’t inauthentic, but as in so much of life, what you see isn’t all there is. There’s a story inside the story.

If only we could offer each other so much grace.

“The outermost doll isn’t a lie; mine still offers part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am. As I get closer to people, the nesting dolls open and the masks change. But it’s a rare person whom I allow to see what’s at my core…” ―Paul Asay, God on the Streets of Gotham

In the matryoshka set above, I’m the pinkie-sized piece with the crooked eyes. Yet my small story is wrapped inside the story of my family, my country, my planet…and beyond, in the Kingdom of my Savior.

Inside or outside, I am held, hidden in the hollow of His hand..


  1. I had never thought of myself as a nesting doll, but it makes so much sense as I think of how I let others view me. To some I show the outer doll, to others maybe down to the 2nd or 3rd depending on who they are. Showing the baby doll, perhaps my true self, that’s really vulnerable and scary. We don’t want people to know that our lives are messy.

  2. Isn’t that the truth?! I hope we all find gracious people in our lives with whom we can share the inner layers…even if it’s only Jesus at the core!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *