Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth installment in our five-part series on renewing storytellers’ souls. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topics, read our introductory post.
The strongest metal is forged in fire. After removing a segment of steel from the flames, a blacksmith shapes and hammers it into a long, flat rod. Next, he alternates between warming and cooling his creation as he sands and dips it in oil to harden it. To relax any remaining brittleness, he reheats it one last time, then sharpens it with a whetstone. The repeated pounding early on ensures that the blade won’t bend or break under pressure, and the final refinement transforms it into a formidable weapon that can withstand any foe.
As writers, words are our swords and pain is the process that tempers those instruments. Death, divorce, disease, job loss—with the crises we face mounting on a daily basis, we may sink into an egocentric realm of despair where we can’t write, can’t ideate. But through these stressful circumstances, God challenges and molds us. And when we endure, we can mine our experiences to commiserate with hurting readers.
The Power of Vulnerability
Years ago, I lost a child to miscarriage. Struggling to cope, I turned, as I often do, to storytelling. As my questions and my tears streamed onto the page, a strange thing happened. I found clarity. Faith and hope revived. And, most wonderfully of all, God wrapped me in His peace.
Later, I met a woman at a conference. Although she was polite and kind, her eyes held sadness. So I asked if something was weighing on her, which prompted this total stranger to open up about her own miscarriage. Coincidence? I think not. We talked, prayed, and hugged. When we exchanged goodbyes, I sent my story draft with her, and she thanked me for the comfort it brought her.
When we’ve gone through a specific hardship, our portrayal of it will be deeper and more nuanced. Readers will sense that we understand, making them feel less alone. Exploring heartache together helps us heal.
Of course, sharing raw memories, even when couched in a story, requires a degree of vulnerability that can be intimidating. After all, we must relive the pain to pour it out in story format. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal relationships and military service inspired many of the characters and events in Lord of the Rings. And in Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls drew heavily on his childhood. These long-beloved classics show that brave writers are the most memorable.
We can gather the courage to pierce the gloom too if we remember that God is our sustainer and compassion is our motivation.
1. Be Spirit Led
In Isaiah 55:11, God declares that His Word will not return void. Every syllable brims with purpose. When we let God’s Spirit guide us, we’re striving for the same results. During prayer, we have the opportunity to measure our sorrows in the light of His grace and request wisdom for how to approach delicate topics. Then we can plunge those hard-earned lessons into our stories.
“I ask the Lord to make me a vessel of honor, not dishonor,” says author Marie Sontag. “I ask Him to continually cleanse me, to write in the power of the Spirit, and to make me useful in my writing, prepared for every good work. That continues to be my prayer for myself and my writing friends.”
Author J.A. Marx echoes the sentiment: “Ask God to fill you with His love for your target audience. Remind yourself that you are His instrument.”
2. Be Empathetic
My daughter once told me, “I’ve always carried the weight of the world. But with you, at least I know I don’t have to carry it alone.” Readers are looking for a burden-sharing companion among the characters they meet in a story. Anger, doubt, and depression isolate us—until we see those negative emotions mirrored in someone else. Then a connection forms. As fiction writers, we pull readers out of that place of misery and into the embrace of empathy.
Author Heather Kauffman’s novel Loving Isaac, though exhausting to write, allowed her to reach her audience with a poignant message: “I have a brother with autism. We grew up in the military, so we went to quite a few churches over the years. Some were welcoming, loving, and warm. Others, unfortunately, were the opposite. I wrote about this in novel form to gently show the needs and emotions of special needs families in the church.”
My upcoming young adult novel, tentatively titled Inside the Ten-Foot Line, focuses on a high-school volleyball player. I tapped into my own athletic aspirations to depict the protagonist’s drive to succeed and her deep-seated frustration when her dreams seem unattainable. Layering those pieces of myself onto her made her problems and growth accessible to readers.
Julie Marx offers an ingenious tip for identifying with readers: “Cut out a picture of someone that represents your target audience and pray for them. Keep the image near your workspace as a reminder of who you’re trying to touch with your words.”
3. Be Real
To have an impact, we must create worlds, situations, and characters that resonate with our audience. But the echo starts with us—it’s our emotions and experiences that lend authenticity to the scenes we write, and replaying unpleasant flashbacks to extract a truth is no easy task.
In Marie Sontag’s book, The Bronze Dagger, Sam’s adoptive dad encourages him to forgive his abusive father, explaining that it does not mean excusing someone’s behavior or pretending nothing happened. It means moving on and choosing not to seek revenge. Marie traveled back to her childhood to flesh out this conversation: “I had to reflect on the pain I experienced growing up in a dysfunctional home. By allowing myself to relive a few incidents, I was able to write the scene in a powerful and authentic way.”
As distressing as revisiting a troubling moment might be, it enables us to write in a believable manner. We’ll recognize the sounds, sights, and sensations that should be present. If we sob, laugh, or fume while writing it, readers probably will too. And if we’re unfazed, readers won’t have much of a reaction either.
4. Be Hopeful
As Christian writers, we’re called to spread hope, and unless we learn to push past our own inner turmoil so that our characters can too, readers may leave with heavier hearts than before. Hope transports us beyond crushing emotions and gives us a solid foundation to cling to. Although we need to represent life’s rough edges, including a glimpse of hope is equally important.
The death of Billy’s dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows is gut-wrenching (I cry every time), but the author doesn’t strand readers in grief. When Billy returns to the gravesite to reminisce about his adventures with his pets, we realize that the sun didn’t stop rising each morning and that beauty still exists if we search for it. His tranquility becomes ours.
I recently drafted a middle-grade story where I based the protagonist on a friend whose parents died of cancer while he was still in high school. The tragedy made an indelible mark on me, and because of the issues I’ve noticed people dealing with on social media, I felt compelled to convert it into a story. Yet, even as I immersed myself in the character’s anguish, a ray of light kept cutting through. My short story “Cages,” which also revolves around loss, contains the same stubborn hope even though I didn’t necessarily plan it.
I believe this continues to happen because Christ cannot be held back no matter how dark or long the night is. He shines through the low points of our stories, illuminating the path out.
5. Be Intentional
Christian writers tend to view their work as a mission. Whether we’re trying to provide an engaging, wholesome story, stir readers to action, or express our faith, we want our words to make a difference. And when we write about characters overcoming difficulties and insecurities, readers will follow them upward.
“Writing fiction forces you to get in the head of your characters,” Kauffman says. “I had to get in the heads of the very people who had said hurtful things to my family. In looking past my own pain, I saw the situation in a new light and experienced healing in a way I hadn’t before.” She passed that revelation on to her audience in Loving Isaac, and reviews indicate an increased awareness of the prejudices that families with autistic children deal with.
When All Is Said and Done… Be YOU
All of the rigorous pounding and intense fire gives a sword durability. Likewise, painful experiences equip us with an arsenal of ways to handle human emotions. When we bring that iron strength into the hearts of our characters, we help readers to cope with difficult emotions in the comfortable, safe arena of a fictional world.
Words can make readers cry or laugh. Spark rebellion or offer peace. Crush or heal. We can lose and find ourselves in words. Words communicate the innermost parts of our souls. Words touch wounds doctors can’t reach.
Why do you think Christ used parables? His words, skillfully woven into a relatable narrative, enabled Him to convey meaningful and memorable messages to His audience.
Look at your own life. What hard-earned lesson can you share with readers? How can you offer hope and encouragement? Your words have power. Like a sword, wield them wisely.
Rejoin us on Monday as Gabrielle encourages writers to stop listening to lies about their worth and identity. In the meantime, we’d love for you to share your perspective. How have you based stories on the pain of the past to lift readers up today?
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?