The Art of Bloodletting:Translating Suffering to the Shared Page

“The only books worth reading are books written in blood.” –Frederick Buechner When suffering strikes, we are often silenced by pain. In such times, the act of writing may feel frivolous, exploitative, or irrelevant. Yet it is these dark, raw places of our lives that most demand our full attention, our most artful labors. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. We may remain silent in the midst of it, but at some point we must write. Patricia Hampl reminds us of the responsibility that comes with our experiences: “We do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”

Dan Allender, in “Forgetting to Remember: How We Run From Our Stories,” tells us what happens when we ignore the hard events in our lives: “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.” How then do we begin to write from within our afflictions? And how might the practice and the disciplines of writing offer a means of shaping our suffering into meaning for both writer and reader? Forgive the brevity and oversimplification, but here’s what NOT to do and why:

1. Don’t write to heal. Our therapeutic culture urges us to write into our pain as a means of self-healing. Newsweek’s article, “Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Heal?” rightly questions this cultural assumption. I have mucked through some hours and days of writing that were hellish. Re-living an experience with language and full consciousness is sometimes worse than the original event. Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing. Healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.

2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation. We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened. Our job is not to bring beauty out of suffering but to bring understanding out of suffering. Poet Alan Shapiro argues that “…the job of art is to generate beauty out of suffering, but in such a way that doesn’t prettify or falsify the suffering.”

3. Don’t write for yourself alone. This is not just about you. You are working to translate suffering to the shared page. Buechner reminds us of the universality we should be striving for: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us share? Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

Writing can begin here, in the self, but should consciously move us beyond ourselves, to place our story into the larger stories around us, and ultimately, into the grand story that God is writing. The most powerful work comes from a “self that renders the world,” as Hampl has said—not just the self that renders the self.

Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning. Don’t miss it. I pray for you the strength and faith and wisdom to begin to enter those hard places and to translate your suffering onto the pages we share—for the good of all, and for His glory.

How have you been able to translate your suffering into your writing?

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About leslieleylandfields

Leslie is the multi-award winning author/editor of 10 creative nonfiction books, including Crossing the Waters, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, The Spirit of Food, and Surviving the Island of Grace. She is the founder of the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop, a writers' workshop led with Phillip Yancey, Ann Voskamp and many others. She leads writing retreat and speaks around the world on matters of theology, forgiveness, creativity, culture, family and food. She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she works in commercial fishing with her husband, her daughter and five sons.

16 thoughts on “The Art of Bloodletting:Translating Suffering to the Shared Page

  1. What a great post, Leslie. Very thoughtful. As someone who is the “beneficiary” of people trying to makes sense out of their pain by writing books, there is one thing I always compliment them on: They’re trying. Awful illnesses to the most innocent; someone else’s sin changing their own life forever; a giant mistake that has altered the course of their story…I think there is something deep in the Christian psyche that wants God to somehow use it all for His glory. Why else would He have allowed them to go through it? So they write. And then someone says it’s good and ought to be published. And they send it to me (and Barbara and Sarah). And sadly, perhaps 1 out of 500 are ever able to be published. But I think the exercise and desire to see God make sense of their story through a book is still helpful to them. Hopefully helpful to their family. And perhaps one day helpful to the Kingdom.

    • Thanks Greg. I so agree. And I’m sorry too that so many of these accounts are not able to be published. But they are enormously helpful to the writer–and to whomever they share their story with. And finally, the work itself does draw them near to God as they wrestle with questions. Thanks for reading!

  2. Yes, Leslie, I have. I asked my editor how I should write my story, but make it pertinent to my reader. She said to, “write from your white-hot center” and let them edit it for the reader. I’m so glad she gave me the freedome and permission to do that.

    • Wonderful to have that editorial support! Blessings as you enter that center!

  3. “Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning.” Yes, it is. Holy, devoted to God and His purpose. And pain is part of it. I know today what I must do. Thank you.

  4. I’m waiting to tell the story until all affected parties are agreed that it can be discussed publicly. Some of my now-adult children aren’t ready for their tragedies to be written in all their horrific detail. For now, the adult-children-approved bare bones are on the My Story page of my blogsite. Maybe I’ll be able to tell that story, maybe not; but for now, the lessons learned bleed out into every story I write, bits of my pain and my learning strewn across the pages. I also speak my way around the edges in groups and more to the point in one-on-one counseling, and I write inspirational articles about my portion of the pain.

    It took me a while to make sense of it—a good decade of distance. I had to be mad first. I fought it out with God, and he brought more circumstances to bring me running into his arms. Sifting through the ashes and pondering the meaning took me a long time. What was God’s purpose? It taught me that I need him—really NEED him—in a way that I never understood before, self-reliant girl that I am, and I learned that he really is sovereign and good. He orchestrates our circumstances—the mistakes, the injuries, the unfairness, the betrayal, all of it—for our good and his glory, even the parts that niggle, that keep us staring off into the darkness at night, the if onlys. I still learn from those events and the way they continue to affect me and my family. They will leak into my stories for the rest of my life.

    • Wow Melinda. This is powerful, scary stuff. I think the hardest pain of all comes to us through our children . . . So sorry for all your pain. And you are right. No matter whether we speak about the precise details of our ordeal, they shape us, God shapes us through them, and they “leak” out from all our edges. Thanks for these beautiful, humbling words . .. and I pray you continued peace in Christ’s arms.

      • You are so right, Leslie. When the kids are touched, God has our undivided attention! Those events remade me into a compassionate person. I learned about life experiences I never wanted to know about. Every pain my children experienced tore at my mother’s heart. A life-flight with a child changes you forever. The Lord remade me. I thought I was strong before all of it. Now I know he’s the strong one. The best I can do in my life is to rely on him and to magnify him, making much of him and less of me.

    • I know what you mean, Melinda. There are many areas in which I hold back telling my story, because I don’t want to cause unnecessary pain for my children and grandchildren.

      I often feel I am walking a tight-rope trying to be open and sincere, yet stopping short of full-disclosure out of recognition that it’s not just my story, but also involves others whom I love.

      Still working thru those boundaries, and how to communicate well while keeping those boundaries in mind…

      • When I’m in doubt, I run it by them, especially if it’s going to be public. I sent them the copy of the My Story page before I posted it. They edited it down. I had too much disclosure, at least more than they wanted told about their tragedies. I am a transparent, open person. Some of them are very private. My relationship with them is more important than telling the story. If the Lord wants it told, he’ll change their hearts. I can tell my part, but you’re right. It’s their story, too.

  5. I loved this post, Leslie! So much here for writers to contemplate as we choose how to tell the stories that have been birthed in pain. As for me, I have been somewhat silenced when the pain is too deep to put into words with universal application, but I always try to take good notes. I jot down phrases describing the scene in a few evocative words, or summarizing the stark feelings of the moment. I always date these notes, with words like “funeral home” or “intensive care.” When I come back to the notes later, I am often able to write an entire story based only on the memories the words recall. And by the time I’m able to write, the truth of what has happened (rather than merely the facts….) has emerged. It’s the truth that’s universal to all of us…..

    I’m also experimenting with writing some of these stories in second person. Yes, they are my experiences, but perhaps they can be felt by others as if they were theirs. “You know in your heart when you cross the threshold of your mother’s hospital room that when you leave her side again, she will have already left you forever behind.”

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post…..

    • Thanks, Katy. I find myself often slipping into second person as I’m writing my current book (tentatively titled “Forgiving Our Mothers and Fathers.”) It does feel very natural as I invite my reader along as we explore this hard topic. How intriguing to use this voice in fiction!! Good on you! And your practice of taking notes as you return from hard places—for future fiction—excellent. Thank you for sharing!!

  6. “…it is these dark, raw places of our lives that most demand our full attention, our most artful labors. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. We may remain silent in the midst of it, but at some point we must write.” Amen.
    I love this post, Leslie.

  7. Very good post, Leslie!

    You bring out so many good points, it’s hard to focus on one I liked best.

    Pain is truly a common denominator to all humanity, and, therefore, an important aspect of finding common ground and a basis for sincere communication.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Joe for reading and writing back! (Yeah, the challenge is to try and say what matters most in less than 600 words. Yikes! But hey, we’re writers! We’re all about challenges!!)

  8. Painful experiences have birthed compassion for others in me, but I’ve not yet been able to write about them. Someday. Thanks for your insightful post.

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