Write Hard Things
I remember the first time that I really allowed my deepest secrets—my deepest pains—to make it into the pages of a novel. I had written a lot of “romance-y” stories and none of them got close to getting published, but then there was a book that broke my heart.
It was the story of a women imprisoned by her enemies and another woman who dared to help her. It was a World War II story that included a pregnant woman abandoned by her husband. I FELT the pain as I wrote. My former boyfriend left me when I was pregnant. My tears fell onto the page as I wrote. And THAT was the book that got published. It was a book that was hard to write, but when we write about hard things we connect with readers in ways that go heart-deep.
I’ve asked some of my other writer friends to share about a time when they wrote “hard things.”
“A couple of years ago I researched and wrote a book about bullying and the power of words called Listen. I was concerned about the rising bullying epidemic in our culture and the way social media was feeding the monster. I did a lot of research, and it was really painful to read the stories of young people committing suicide because of it. The book released, and within a matter of days, we learned our own child was being bullied in one of the biggest bullying cases his school had ever seen, involving twenty-three children. So it was a strange twist, writing about something first, then immediately living the very nightmare I wrote about. But in many ways, the writing and researching of the book prepared me for some of the most heartbreaking news of my life.” —Rene Gutteridge
“When I decided to tackle some hard issues in The Men of the Texas Rangers series, I found while writing I was on an emotional roller coaster. In Saving Hope I dealt with human trafficking within this country, especially with young teenage girls. I taught high school, and this was a subject I felt needed to be addressed as well as prescription drug abuse (the subject for Severed Trust). In Shattered Silence I went with another subject I personally dealt with as a teacher: bullying. I hated seeing students being bullied and what it did to them. I have received a lot of mail from people who appreciate that I tackled these difficult subjects.” —Margaret Daley
“I have tackled hard issues in some of my books with situations that were lifted from my life. In The Forgiving Hour, the issue was infidelity and forgiveness. The protagonist in the story, Claire, is called upon by God to forgive the mistress whose affair with the husband ended the protagonist’s marriage. When I wrote this novel, it had been about twenty-five years since I knelt on the floor, took hold of the other woman’s hand, and told her I forgave her. The pain of that time was a distant, though very clear, memory, as were the lessons God had taught me about forgiveness. In Beyond the Shadows, the issue was alcoholism in a Christian home. I cannot say I was delighted when God called me to write this book because it meant delving into a lot of painful memories. I combed through years and years of my journals and poured a great deal of myself and my history into Deborah. In A Promise Kept, which will release in January, I looked at the pain that is experienced when a marriage ends, especially for a follower of Christ who doesn’t want to be divorced and has trusted God to keep a promise to heal the marriage. The story is also a celebration of a God who is able and does restore that which we think is lost. What these three books have in common is the hope that is offered.” —Robin Lee Hatcher
“As my husband lay dying of cancer, I had to write a scene in my Dakota Moons series where a woman’s husband dies from a protracted illness. At the time, my office was a room off the master bedroom that had originally been intended as a sitting room for a kind of ‘master suite.’ From my desk, I had a view of the entire master bedroom, which was a blessing because I didn’t have to worry if I was needed. I could work and care for my beloved. This was many years ago, and I have often had opportunity to look back on that season in my life and see God at work in so many ways—not the least of which was His enabling me to write what needed to be written. In retrospect, I think that the writing gave me a place to put the emotion of what was going on in my personal life. God provided a way for me to deal with it that I never would have expected, and I think it made me stronger for the family—important, because we had four children at home, and the oldest was nineteen then. Two of the books in that series were Christy Award finalists, which has certainly blessed my writing career, but the biggest blessing was God’s provision of the ability to do the work and then leading me to a kind of work that helped me begin the ‘work of grieving’ that would be required of me as a single mother of four. His faithfulness was truly new every morning.” —Stephanie Whitson
” I started out writing Bible studies. Safe. Practical. Knowledge-based. The Lord slammed that door shut and opened the door for biblical novels. My debut told the story of Job (Love Amid the Ashes). Raw. Personal. Emotional. I had struggled with fibromyalgia since 1997, but in 2002 something else hit. I spent six months in bed and another six months sequestered in a chair—with few medical answers. I asked every one of Job’s questions. Ranted with him. Begged with him. Prayed with him. The Lord hasn’t yet healed me completely. He restored much of my life and gave it new direction, new purpose, new joys. But Scripture doesn’t say Job was fully restored physically, does it? By 2008, when I wrote Ashes, I thought I’d made peace with my lingering symptoms and with my loving, faithful God. But diving into Job’s world meant reliving not only his struggle but mine also. I had to reaffirm the unchanging, unshakeable truth: God is good—no matter what. It’s a daily choice to see God’s goodness with our limited understanding, in our ongoing pain, in spite of our disappointments. But it’s the only choice we have if we’re to live victoriously on this earth.” —Mesu Andrews
” I write contemporary, issue-driven fiction, some of which is loosely based on my own life experiences. Perhaps the most difficult book to write was my debut novel, Words, as it deals with the painful topic of childhood sexual abuse. I argued with God for many years before sitting down and putting fingers to keyboard. I didn’t want to write the book, nor did I feel it was necessary. Others had already done a beautiful job of sharing such stories (Mary DeMuth). I’d been writing articles and devotionals for twenty years and had no idea how to write a novel, but once I began the words, and my own pain, flowed. Words was the first manuscript I sold, and once it reached publication and I began receiving emails from readers who were touched by the story—readers who shared their own pain and stories—I knew the book wasn’t just about me. God was using it to touch the lives of other survivors with the balm of His mercy. Words went on to win a Christy award, which brought new readers to the book, for which I was grateful. It cost me, emotionally, to go back and consider the twelve years of abuse I suffered. It wasn’t a road I wanted to walk, yet in the end, I felt that through writing Words, God assigned purpose to my pain. He also called me to live the theme of the book: The truth will set you free. And it does—He does.” —Ginny Yttrup
” I think so much of our personal lives find their way into our books. The good, the bad and the ugly. When I wrote Tears in a Bottle, a book about abortion, I had the following in mind. I’ve taken it from my website and post it here: ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ is an expression easy to identify with. It was certainly on my mind while writing Tears in a Bottle, a story of suspense and betrayal that touches the issue of abortion. ‘Why would anyone want to write about that?’ someone asked me. ‘Well, because . . . it happens, it matters and it . . . hurts. It hurts us all.’ I was twenty when I married. Three years later I became a mother. I thought I was prepared and so mature. But nothing prepared me for the heartbreak I felt at discovering my son had Down Syndrome, nor the heartbreak of burying him sixteen months later. When I became pregnant again, the doctor suggested I have an amniocentesis, the implication being I was to abort any child with Down Syndrome. My two succeeding children were perfect, praise God! But God sees the heart, and He knows I was prepared to abort my own child. As horrible as that sounds, it is a decision that someone who is afraid and who doesn’t know the Lord (I didn’t know the Lord then) can mistakenly make. Thousands of women do it every day. And the consequences are grave. The good news is that God is ever ready to forgive and to heal. His love is great enough to cover every sin. We are all sinners saved by grace. All of us need His love, His mercy, His kindness. What a comfort to know He longs to give these to us!” —Sylbia Bambola
“A hard topic for me was writing an abortion scene in Sweet By and By, the first book in the Songbird Novels I wrote with Sara Evans. I actually had a flashback scene where there heroine was on the table in an abortion clinic when she was sixteen. I wanted to be real without being gross. The research started with a friend of mine sharing her abortion story, and much of the events in the room were from her experience. But the afterwards emotional effect on the heroine came from reading story after story on abortion.org. Women posted their abortion stories on the site, and I’d say 90% of them regretted their decision and suffered emotional, physical, and/or relationship loss because of it. It was eye-opening to me what a travesty the choice message is to women. They have no idea how it’s going to affect them. Some women were married, but pregnancy wasn’t right for them at the time. Afterwards, their marriages broke up. Almost all the women suffered from depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts afterwards. Some could not stop crying. Many of them practiced unsafe or naive sexual practices. The end result wasn’t carefree and fun, but brokenness and sadness. It was eye-opening. The reaction from readers? I’m not sure. My guess is that scene is why the book averages only four stars on Amazon. I saw one review where the reader wrote, ‘I disagree with some of the things in this book, but. . . .’ It’s my prayer that the scene lives in the heart and mind of women and inspires them to encourage others to choose Life.” —Rachel Hauck
“It doesn’t work for every author, but for me, this was the path. I too tackled either safe subjects or subjects that hadn’t touched me directly. But my imagination needed the benefit of realism. After a good batch of rejections for those projects, I listened when someone encouraged me to ‘write the story that will cost you the most emotionally to write.’ At the time, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t have a story like that. Oh, wait a minute. I do!’ Although imagination still plays a key role in the storytelling, like all good stories, there’s truth and authenticity in there because I’ve walked at least some portion of the path my characters walk. I had more than empathy; I had identity with the characters and their crises. For me, that meant getting even more real with God. Where was I veering off of God’s path in my thinking or my reactions to the life events that challenged me? Where was my attitude counterproductive to healing or rebounding? Where was I standing in God’s way rather than cooperating with Him? Those wrestling matches, that Spirit-directed introspection shows up in dialogue and narration and internal monologue within my stories. It shows up in the “we-need-to” rather than the “you-need-to” sentences in my nonfiction. Sometimes I’ve worked through an issue—whether relational or spiritual—before I write about it. More often, though, I work through it WHILE I’m writing. But I have to be willing, vulnerable, pliable, teachable, and confident that if I press through, He’ll bless both the efforts and the story.” —Cynthia Ruchti
“I wrote about a hard thing when I tackled my Intervention series, about a family battling their loved one’s drug abuse. It was based on my experiences with my own daughter’s addictions. The books turned out to be Intervention, Vicious Cycle, and Downfall.” —Terri Blackstock
“I’ve written a lot of ‘hard things’ in the way of issues, tough topics etc.. Literally dozens. But one stands out. And whenever I get asked, “What was your favorite book?” I always go back to this title. Finding Alice, inspired by my son’s journey through schizophrenia. It was painful to write. More painful to live through it. But the responses this novel’s received make it worthwhile. It’s one of the reasons I took on more painful topics.” —Melody Carlson
“My third novel, Becoming Olivia, was about clinical depression. Been there. Done that. I used a LOT of my story in that book. It was hard to write as it was a very personal struggle for me—and a very hard illness to admit that I had at the time. Since then, I’ve seen God’s hand at work in that story in so many ways. Several readers have come up to me, held up that book, and said, ‘This book saved my life!’ I’ve had emails from counselors telling me they use that book in their clinical practices. I had a note from a young woman whose mother committed suicide from depression. She told me that for years she carried around anger at her mother because she could not understand how she could do that to her family. It was only after reading my book that she finally understood. I’ve had people who have gone through depression tell me that this story is the most accurate description of it they have ever read . . . and they’ve shared the book with their doctors to help them understand. So in retrospect, going through that was all ‘worth it’—I just couldn’t see it until I wrote about it.” —Roxanne Henke
What authors’ books have changed your life? Share with me in the comments below, and you’ll be entered to win one of three copies of Roxanne Henke’s Becoming Olivia! Only those in the contiguous U.S. are eligible to win due to shipping costs. Winners will be announced next week on my blog and on my social media!
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