Thursday, July 28, 2016

Avoid writing for revenge

We suffer pain for various reasons—sometimes we bring it on ourselves, sometimes it’s no one’s fault, but other times it’s the fault of another person.

If we’re writing a memoir that includes pain caused by a person or organization, we need to be cautious about our motives. And honest about our motives.

As a memoirist, avoid writing for these reasons:
  • to get revenge, settle the score, retaliate,
  • to humiliate a person or organization,
  • to get readers to pity you,
  • to get readers to take sides with you, or
  • to indulge in self-pity.

Examine your heart and if you find even traces of wanting to write for any of those reasons, stop!  That’s not what memoir is about.

I have two pieces of advice: (1) Go ahead and write everything, but write for your eyes only.  Write about the injustices, write about your mistreatment, hurt feelings, anger, scars, and tears. Write about destroyed dreams, confusion, hopelessness.
Write it all. Write it as a prayer. Write until you know God has heard you. Write it as a way of asking God to help you forgive and move on.

Because such resolution usually takes time, set aside your private writing for a week or a month or a year. Listen for God, let Him work in your heart and mind.

Your goal is to move from anger to forgiveness, from pain to compassion.

“The marvel of Frank McCourt’s childhood is that he survived it…. The second marvel is that he was able to triumph over it in [his memoir] Angela’s Ashes, beating back the past with grace and humor and with the power of language. Those same qualities are at the heart of all the good memoirs of the 1990s….”

Zinsser mentions three such memoirs, A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

He continues, “Anyone might think the domestic chaos and alcoholism and violence that enveloped those writers when they were young would have long since hardened the heart…. Yet they look back with compassion…. These books…were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the authors are as honest about their young selves as they are about the sins of their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know…. We have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives….”

Zinsser offers advice to today’s memoirists: “If you use memoir to look for your own humanity and the humanity of the people who crossed your life, however much pain they caused you, readers will connect with your journey. What they won’t connect with is whining. Dispose of that anger somewhere else. Get your intention clear before you start and tell your story with integrity.” (Writing About Your Life; emphasis mine)

When you can write that way—
when you can write with compassion 
and love and forgiveness
when you can write without self-pity or whining 
or revenge or being judgmental
 rewrite your rough draft
Strive to write like Frank McCourt: 
Write words full of grace, and maybe even a bit of humor.

This brings us to my other piece of advice: (2) Don’t let anyone read your manuscript until you have rewritten it.

Your first draft was for you alone,
but later drafts are for your readers.

“Ursula K. Le Guin,
when dealing with painful subjects,
makes a distinction between ‘wallowing,’
which she says she writes but does not share publicly
and ‘bearing witness,’
which she does share.” 
(Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir; emphasis mine)

So rewrite. Rewrite with integrity. Delete the wallowing. Instead, bear witness. Write not as a wounded victim, but as one who has triumphed, as one who has forgiven, healed, and moved forward in a good way.

Related posts:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Writing yourself to the other side of pain, continued

We've received a number of responses to our July 14 blog post, Writing yourself to the other side of pain.

Last Thursday you read Catherine P. Downing's response, and today you'll read Barbara Thomas's response:

As I read your latest blog, I thought, "How did Linda know that I cried many times when I drafted Through the Outhouse Floor?" Writing it was reliving it and the final book told only about ten percent of the pain.  But you are right, writing does lance the festering wounds. And in retrospect, one can begin to perceive that the Lord is working out his plans.

Perhaps you also have shed tears and relived pain in the way Barbara has. I hope you've also experienced healing and insights into God working on your behalf.

Many thanks to both Catherine and Barbara for enriching and encouraging our own memoir writing.

And remember: 

Write your story as a prayer to God 
and He can use the process of writing 
to help you make sense of events 
that knocked the air out of you, 
left you broken, 
maybe even paralyzed, 
and to work through your grief.  

Related posts: 
Writing yourself to the other side of pain   
What is the point of writing about the hardships of life?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What is the point of writing about the hardships of life?

“A recent blog on Spiritual Memoirs 101 dealt with the topic of writing through pain. I’m confident every reader snapped to full attention because each one of us could write volumes on pain, heartache and tribulation. Such is the path through a fallen world,” writes Catherine P. Downing, author of her new memoir, Sparks of Redemptive Grace.

Since we received several poignant responses
 from readers about that post, 
I invited Catherine to write a guest post 
for you today.  She continues:

In April I published my first book. It is indeed a spiritual memoir on suffering but, thankfully, it was crafted under the influence of the Holy Spirit and, unbeknownst to me as I wrote it, followed many of the principles Linda mentions in Spiritual Memoirs 101.

I get a sense of how relevant and meaningful my book is to readers by the growing number of people writing reviews. Their words cluster around three basic themes.

First, reviewers make note of the pain through words/phrases like “dark places,” “shattered dreams,” “heartache” and “grieving.”

Secondly, they express appreciation for the honesty: “transparent,” “intimate,” realistic” and “candor.”

The third theme I read in the reviews is one of hope—which is one of two objectives I had in writing the book. My purposes were: 1) to give hope and strengthen the faith of others walking a similar path, as well as 2) to help family and friends around them understand their struggles. 

Reviews like the following give me a glimpse of the hope and help people are finding as they read it: 

  • “I was richly, deeply blessed and inspired by this book. But not inspired to smile and pour another cup of coffee. Inspired to love with greater fervor, to pray for eyes that see more clearly, and then to do something with what I see, because there are needs everywhere, there's brokenness everywhere.” –Amazon  
  • “I read a lot of devotional books and commentaries on the Scriptures. I can't remember when an author has sorted out an issue or topic for me more powerfully than this one.” –Amazon
  • “This little gem of a book has encouraged me to stop looking for the way OUT of difficult situations, and to look, instead, for the treasures waiting to be mined in the darkness.” –Amazon
  • “In these few pages, Downing beautifully intertwines information with inspiration, and insight with encouragement, leaving the reader with a gut-wrenching hope and a hunger to know the God she does.” –Advanced Praise

How was the book able to capture the pain through the lens of transparency and hope? I don't have a formula, but here are some things that seemed to help. 

  • It was written under a pseudonym. This was done to give a layer of privacy to our family, which in turn gave me courage to be vulnerable.
  • Each chapter follows the same pattern: quote, narrative, scripture, prayer. This set a cadence to the reading.
  • Each chapter is short, and I limited the number of chapters. This gives the reader space to breathe amid the heaviness. As one reviewer wrote in her advanced praise: “It only takes an hour to read ... but don’t rush it. Savor it. Meditate on it. Pray through it. And then share it with others.”
  • Each chapter ends with a carefully penned prayer, which serves as a summary of the chapter. These highlight my recognition of my own limitations and confidence in our always-faithful God. People tell me the prayers are their favorite part. One reviewer mentioned on Amazon, "The prayers written at the end of each chapter are so well crafted that I will be using them to enhance my own prayer life and I will quote from them as I lead devotions on the related passages." 
  • I was able to write this book at this stage of my life, and not earlier, because I have learned to be deliberate to tend to my own wounds. Though the painful life circumstances are current and real, I maintain an emotional, spiritual and mental regimen that enables me to reflect on our journey from a posture of health and hope, and not oozing from open sores.

The Spiritual Memoirs 101 blog points out that writing about our pain points can be cathartic. Readers likewise assume that writing the book was helpful to me in the healing process. For me the writing really didn't have that function. Our journey has been long and I've lamented the hardships and sorrows as they've happened; so for me there wasn't a bottled-up ocean of pain looking for a rocky shore where the waves could break. Instead it was more like cooking a Thanksgiving meal that was being prepared for the desperately hungry and offered as a ministry. 

In writing the book, my hope was that it would help others navigate through their own pain and show them how to build a lifeboat to carry them to a harbor of hope. Guiding thoughts were: 

How can I recount the moments 
when God's redemptive grace 
broke through the darkness 
so that in their own despair 
readers can see sparks of light? 

How might God bless and break 
the bread of our story 
to distribute it as nourishment 
to those who have lost sight 
of the Father's presence? 

In the end, I believe 
this is the point of writing 
about the hardships of life:
that while the story is about us, 
it is really about the readers
and while the focus is on our pain, 
it is really about the Healer

I'll close with this warning from the last chapter of my little book. I think it captures the biggest challenge in writing about our sufferings:

There is a cliff I walk along while trying to stay well away from the edge, and in writing these pages I have been very aware of its nearness. I have tried to stay on the narrow path between detached realism and narcissistic drama, for I know well that self-pity is a dangerous precipice and those who fall in often do not come back up.

As you consider being transparent about your experiences in your spiritual memoirs, may the One who turned water into wine take your pain and transform it into a balm to soothe others."

Catherine P. Downing

If you missed the recent blog post Catherine mentions, click on Writing yourself to the other side of pain.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

My hiraeth place

Today I visited my hiraeth place:

Do you remember what hiraeth is? If not, click on Hiraeth: You’ve probably experienced it.

What’s your hiraeth place?

Have you written a story about it and what it means to you?

Be sure to include sensory details: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

And there you have it,
your Tuesday Tidbit,
your 15 seconds of inspiration.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Writing yourself to the other side of pain

A friend of mine recently began writing his stories… but he started by writing about the most traumatic year of his life. Yikes!

I’ve seen people begin their memoir by writing super-painful stuff, only to become overwhelmed all over again with the devastation—and soon they give up writing altogether. Don’t let that happen to you!

Please hear this: Begin your memoir by writing your easy stories—the happy stories, the funny incidents, the fascinating experiences. That way you can ease your way into both writing and the reflecting that memoir is.

My heart wants you to fall in love with
and pondering
and discovering all the good stuff you didn’t recognize in the past,
and with making sense of what used to mystify you,
and with writing
            and choosing just the right words
                        to fashion your story as a gift for others to read.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to write your chapters/vignettes in the same order they will appear in your finished memoir. Write them in any order that’s easiest for you. Later you can organize them in the best way.

For now, give yourself permission to begin with easy stories. Tackle your hard stories later.

Also keep this in mind: Even if you’re not physically putting your painful story into words (with pen and ink or on a computer screen), you are working on the story. I can’t explain how that works, but behind the scenes your heart and brain are working on how to write your troubling story.  

So let your heartache marinate for a few weeks or months. One day you’ll be vacuuming out the car, or playing catch with your grandson, or folding laundry, and out of the blue your heart and brain will speak to you (or maybe it’ll be God who speaks to you—I’d like to think it’s Him), and will offer insights into your hurtful experience. Listen, and jot down notes to yourself: You’ll be mining treasures. Later, when the time is right, you can use those notes to compose your difficult story’s rough draft

Also keep in mind: Your rough draft is for your eyes only. Write it all—the seared, charred, blistered parts, the questions you never had the courage to ask aloud, the doubts you never admitted before, the anger you kept bottled up.

Work out the pain—
work through the pain—
by writing with God beside you

Wrestle with God 
and with yourself
as you write.
Go ahead and cry.
Because God can bring healing
through the process of writing.

And be gentle with yourself, extend grace to yourself: Reliving those emotions and writing those scenes and conversations can be overwhelming. I know of no anguish-free way to get through that writing process, but I can encourage you with this:

Write your story as a prayer to God
and He can use the process of writing
to help you make sense of events that
knocked the air out of you,
left you broken,
maybe even paralyzed—
and to work through your grief.

If you’ll give it the needed time and if you’ll peel back enough layers and dig deeply enough, writing your stories can lead to new insights, to answers that too long evaded you, and to resolution—to getting un-stuck so you can move on to healing and forgiveness and peace and hope for the future. Writing your story changes you. 

If you stick with  it, at some point you'll find the most profound, redeeming part of writing your story:
  • You'll discover that God was beside you all the while, bringing you people and opportunities and Bible verses and Bible studies and sermons and working out His good plans—many details you probably didn't recognize in the midst of the incident, or saw only dimly. 
  • You'll also discern how far you've come, how much you've healed.
  • That, in turn, makes you overflow with gratitude toward God,
  • and that solidifies your relationship with Him.

Mick Silva says it this way: “I’ve discovered that…protecting and preserving our stories is about discovering God’s story.” I call that your “God-and-you story.

In that way, writing a memoir can be a journey of personal healing
—even if you originally set out to write it for others.

Let God teach and transform you,
and afterward,
your God-and-you story 
can help others heal.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: “To live the pain with hope”

Here’s your 15 seconds of inspiration, 
your Tuesday Tidbit:

“Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow. 
I remember the most painful times of my life 
as times in which I became aware 
of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, 
a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. 
I dare even to say: 
‘My grief was the place where I found my joy.’” 
Henri Nouwen

In taking time to reflect on your life, have you, too, discovered joy in the midst of your sorrow?

Did God help you live with pain and hope at the same time?

Perhaps you, like Henri Nouwen, can say, “My grief was the place where I found my joy.”

Make time to think about Henri’s words 
and then write your story. 
Your story matters. 
Your words are important. 
Someone grieving needs to know your story 
and grasp hold of hope. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Your hiraeth person: Love and longing after someone has gone away

Hiraeth. You might not recognize the word but you’ve most likely experienced it.

It’s a Welsh word pronounced HEER-eyeth (roll the r).

A couple of years ago we looked at hiraeth as it pertains to a place. Today we’ll consider hiraeth as it pertains to a person.

The English language doesn’t have an apt word to describe hiraeth so we describe it in a round-about way. Think person as you read the following.

Hiraeth can include “a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness….” (University of Wales)

“The Portuguese have a word, ‘suadade,’ which is the only true cognate for hiraeth,” writes Pamela Petro.  “[One meaning is] the love that stays’ after someonehas gone away.”

Hiraeth has to do with a strong attachment you once had—but time, distance, death, or circumstance caused a separation and you’re keenly aware of that loss, and you yearn to reestablish that former intimacy.

A hiraeth person is a soul mate, a kindred spirit. A hiraeth companionship is something sacred God orchestrated. For reasons you can't possibly understand, His hand engraved that person's name onto your heart.

He used your hiraeth person to nurture your soul and spirit, to mysteriously shape you and define you and anchor you.

You and your hireath person touched a place inside that others couldn’t or wouldn’t. You shared secrets no one else could fathom. You were safe with each other. You handled each other with care. You never gave up on one another.

But keep in mind that hiraeth “…incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, [or] a figure….” (Smith College)

Why impossibility? Perhaps because despite your fierce attachment to each other, the hand of God pointed you in different directions.

And because of that, the impossible distance between the two of you causes an ache,
a longing,
a restlessness,
a keening

You feel a pull, an insistent vacuum that demands to be filled.

But perhaps it will never be filledcertainly not if your hiraeth person has died.

And for those still alive?  Well, sometimes God moves in mysterious ways.

In 1993, God moved two families away from a lovely town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula: He sent one of my dearest friends, Gayle, and her husband to Papua New Guinea, and He sent my husband and me to East Africa. Yes, Gayle and I could keep in touch with email, but that would never really satisfy. When we said goodbye, I believed we’d never see each other again. For years I grieved the loss of Gayle’s close friendship.


“Sometimes you think a story is completed and all wrapped up,” writes Lawrence Kushner. “But then, decades later, something happens and you realize it’s not all done yet, it’s still in process.” (Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary)

I never could have imagined that 15 years later, both Gayle’s family and ours would move to Missouri—Missouri, of all places!—within a week of each other! For seven years we lived only two hours apart and had many opportunities to get together. What a gift!

Yes, sometimes, on rare occasions, God reunites two hiraeth friends.

But for the most part, I don’t think we can count on it. Finding one another again won’t likely happen.

In that case, you are left with hiraeth, 
that yearning that buzzes and tingles, 
it whispers to you, it nags at you—
and sometimes even shouts at you. 
It insists that you must always hope 
and wait 
for one more conversation
one more day together.

What are you to do if your separation is apparently permanent or your hiraeth person has died? Accept the impossible hiraeth-ness of your situation. Believe that God has a good plan for you. 

Live each day confident that 
you and your special person have 
an enduring fellowship 
known to only the two of you. 
It’s real, maybe more real and true 
than anything you’ve ever know to be real and true. 

Years later, maybe decades later, you still call each other’s names in the silence, and you recognize each other’s voices, and you call back.

You still sing in perfect harmony, yet only the two of you hear the tune and know the words.

Despite the distance between you, you’re inseparable: Your togetherness remains strong and sure.

Who is your hiraeth person?

Maybe a grandparent, parent, or sibling;
your uncle, your aunt, or your child;
a teacher, church youth group leader, or high school sweetheart;
a childhood friend, classmate, or college roommate;
a Boy Scout leader, teammate, or coach;
a colleague, mentor, or professor;
a surfing buddy, nanny, or neighbor;
a spouse, a first love, or the one who got away.

Hiraeth is something bigger than the two of you.
Despite the distance, time, death, or circumstance
that separates you from your hiraeth person,
you are never far from each other’s thoughts.
You’re still in each other’s dreams.

You are still each other’s heartbeats,
the blood that pulses through your veins,
the oxygen you breathe.

You still hold each other close,
and there you are complete,
you are at home.

"It well may be,
That we will never meet again,
In this lifetime.
So let me say before we part,
So much of me,
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me,
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end,
I know you have re-written mine,
By being my friend....
Because I knew you,
I have been changed for good.
"For Good," Stephen Schwartz

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Reflection—it’s a must

“… Memoirs are much more than memories put to paper…. 
Memoirs are comprised of two important elements: 
scene (narrative) and reflection
Without reflection, you do not have a memoir—
you have a vignette or series of vignettes 
that describes events, 
but does not imbue the events with meaning and relevance
Meaning and relevance come from reflection.”