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.

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