Don’t Write to Heal and Other Truths about Writing from Affliction

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Dear writers, don’t we know already that we are to write into our darkest moments? My writing students have heard me say this 1000 ways: Enter the forest, dive into the wreck, face your toothy, hot-breathed dragons, open the closet, hold hands with your enemies, etc. We may remain silent in the midst of them, but at some point we must write. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. Patricia Hampl reminds us why: “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. Really. 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. One friend assumed I wrote my most recent book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt primarily as a means of self-healing. Not so. Writing into our pain can be hellish at times. Know that returning to re-live 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.

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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.”

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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.” One of the greatest compliments I have heard from the book and the telling of my own story is, “You told my story.” Writing begins 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.

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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 afflictions onto the pages we share—for the good of All.

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

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13 thoughts on “Don’t Write to Heal and Other Truths about Writing from Affliction

  1. Leslie, great thoughts here…I clicked through immediately! My experience has been that there is value in writing into pain and affliction and writing whatever you need to do…in your journal. In letters you don’t send. Which ultimately can be some of the most important writing you do, and it’s ok if it’s for yourself. Everything changes when you write the book, though, of course. But i found that first writing to be invaluable. I couldn’t have written North of Hope without having done it.

    • Yes, good distinction, Shannon. We absolutely need both. I think sometimes we don’t make that switch from private writing to public writing–to thinking about the larger audience rather than the audience of one. But hopefully the first writing is the step toward the second. (I do want to have you on my blog! When things settle down at my end!)

  2. Great article! At a conference I attended last week, and editor said that we need to take a step back from our writing. We should view ourselves as characters in the book. Distant from who we are in real life. This becomes nearly impossible as we hash out emotions, that we have kept in our closets. I am working on my memoir currently, and this was a great reminder, to check why we write. Thanks for the post 🙂

  3. Terrific post, Leslie! So many nuggets of wisdom. Was caught with your statement “healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.” Being able to distinguish writing to know thyself from that which we need to put to the (published) page seems a learning and healing experience in and of itself. As writers compelled to share, may our words be those which offer the fruit of love and hope in having grappled with those hardest of truths. Thank you!

  4. I’ve found it difficult to write while I’m in the middle of the suffering Leslie. I become immobile and have to wait until I’ve at least made it part way through to be able to write about it. The other difficulty is the other people involved in our suffering. Sometimes it isn’t possible to tell the complete story, but I do believe the telling is the way we encourage others.

    • I agree, Linda. I’m often paralyzed in the midst of very hard things .. . but sometimes I can write, have to write, for myself. And we hardly ever suffer alone, so that makes it difficult—what do we do with others’ experience, with the fact that we can seldom tell the whole truth even if we wanted to?? No easy way out, but always the attempt itself brings fruit. (Wonderful to hear from you, Linda!!)

  5. Leslie, I loved your book, and I love everything you write. Always. I attended a Christian Writers Guild workshop about writing our personal tragedies. They said we usually need at least five years to process personally before we can avoid some of the mistakes you mention. I know that’s true for me and some of my personal trials. A young teen tragedy took me twenty-five years to process before I could forgive the offender and write about it. A six-year period of family calamity took about fifteen years before I could see God’s good purposes clearly and write it. During those periods I kept personal journals and fought it out with God in private. I have a current pain that I may never write publicly, given the private nature of the agony and the fact that another person is involved. I’m afraid the very public journal/blog doesn’t allow the truth-telling and honesty we need to aim toward God as we’re angry and processing why he let something happen. I’m glad I did that in private. I’ve seen many young bloggers apologize recently for doing their angry work publicly. I wonder how much stifling of our process occurs when we do it in public and how much damage we do to others.

    • Melinda—-oh my, that’s interesting, and a good trend, for bloggers to recognize when they’ve overstepped … . The form itself seems to encourage raw spillage. I don’t write fiction, but I am tempted to when faced with all the perils of writing from our own lives . … It is indeed perilous, and I have paid some prices. I think it’s crucial that we seek wisdom from God as to what can and should be written about publically and what should be kept private. ALways, it takes discernment. (Thank you for your very kind words, Melinda. And when my writing disappoints, I know you’ll extend grace to me then as well . …)

  6. Crazy but I just wrote about this today on my blog. I’m going to add a link to this in the comments because I think it clarifies what I said on another level. Though I agree we shouldn’t try to falsify the suffering, I also feel we can redeem it in some way through our writing, depending on the story. Especially when one writes fiction, we can draw from our experiences and our pain but it may not always be appropriate to let it play out in the same way it did in real life. Still the act can be healing, either way. Thanks for this timely post!

    Oh, I also happened to link to this blog and to Karen Jordan’s previous post about “Frozen in Time: Writing to Heal” in my post.http://tetheredtogetherblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/penning-our-pain/

  7. As I have blogged for only about 5 months now, God contnually tells me to “write what you live” and I find as I do that, readers respond. I would probably write anyway, even if noone read, but it is nice now and then to receive validation!

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