Writing About Suffering

One recent evening, a friend told me about her stepmother’s stage 4 cancer, asking for advice on ways to help her. The next morning, I received word another friend was killed in a car wreck. That evening, a different friend’s granddaughter’s baby was admitted to the hospital in an unresponsive state following a seizure. It was an emotional 24 hours. But one reason these friends talked to me about their issues is that they’ve walked with me through my own.

Lessons Learned

Have you ever noticed that when you’re about to write or teach a spiritual lesson, you walk through circumstances that make you confront your own handling of said spiritual lesson? It happens to me almost every week. I teach a weekly Bible study class and I promise you, whatever the lesson is about, I faced it during the previous week!

There is a good reason for this. It’s called authenticity. Nobody wants to listen to a Pollyanna who has never gone through tough circumstances preach about how to handle them. We all know this, but still it can be so easy to spout platitudes or quote Scriptures that seem to say everything will turn out okay.

The Right Approach

What is the right way to approach writing about suffering? Telling your personal story is a good place to start. Every one of us has faced some level of trauma or grief or physical suffering at some point in our lives. When we dare to talk about our deep hurts, it opens our readers’ hearts to hear the rest of our message because they feel a connection to us. We become real when we become vulnerable.

Reward

Therein lies the rub, as they say. It is terrifying to bare your soul to strangers. I submit to you that it may be the most difficult thing you ever do. It may also be the most rewarding thing you ever do. When I share my struggles with those I teach, an inner tension releases that I previously didn’t even know existed. And the connections I make with my class members are priceless. A bond is created that allows for more receptivity on their part.

Respect

I need to add a caveat here. Some things cannot be shared in a public forum. When there are other people involved who might be hurt or embarrassed, we must keep the situation private. We might be able to refer to it in generic terms, but we can in no way include anything that would identify them. The only exception would be if prior permission is granted.

Transparent Honesty

Readers don’t sit in a classroom with us each week and we’ll never know or hear about most of them. But they will listen to us when they read our message and learn the truth we’ve shared when they know we aren’t just spouting words–that we have lived the truth of what we say.

Do you have a message to share that involves difficulty or suffering? How ready are you to be transparent with your readers?

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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?