Healing In the Simplicity of Your Story

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“Writing is prayer.”

– Franz Kafka

In today’s world with ever-more distracting, inane and attention-grabbing information, it can be particularly challenging for new storytellers to overcome the fear that their story is too simple and uninteresting.

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We’re the worst judges of our own stories. Despite that and the fact that sharing your story honestly and with vulnerability is all that’s needed to reach and teach readers, many new writers think they need to include more, share moral lessons and help readers learn something specific through reading their story.

And it may be true when writing a blog post or a nonfiction article, but with narrative, it just needs to be as truthful as possible.

I thought my story was too boring when I started writing my autobiographical novel. But now having worked with so many writers for over 15 years, I realize people read books not to be shocked or overwhelmed by information, but mostly to escape.

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Trouble was, until I worked out my pain, fear and resentment, I was too blocked to see what my real task as a writer was. I had to accept that I wasn’t there to teach anyone anything. My job was simply to reveal my heart.

But for many years, I wasn’t ready to share my honest truth. I didn’t want to accept my real emotions, the dark embarrassing truth about myself and how I really felt about my life. I figured I could bluff my way through it, just tell the basic story and make up the rest. I figured no one wanted the full truth anyway.

But I was just telling myself that. I’d always told myself that. I told myself a lot of things. Things were fine. I was fine. But things were only fine when life was going well, and as soon as life got challenging, I’d clamp down and stop seeing, stop feeling, stop talking. Stop writing.

We have to realize that as the writer, we have to know the path of healing first to share what readers really need. We can’t accurately assess the situation while we’re denying the truth about our emotions. Because what’s most damning, until we let go of our control, we’ll make decisions about life and writing that only (and often exclusively) benefit ourselves.

Every new author says they didn’t realize how much counseling was involved in writing a book. But once they know, they find out it’s only when you’ve gone through it yourself that you can tell the full truth and not so interested in your own welfare.

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This is why learning to write your story means facing the truth of yourself and your weaknesses, allowing healing bit by bit, and sharing the vulnerable truth of all of that, until the universality of your journey is irreducible.

As Annie Dillard said, “the secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind… [to] hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” We can’t cause inspiration or make readers learn, we can only take the wisdom into ourselves and try to let it out as clearly and simply as possible.

Writing involves not so much teaching or learning to write well as it does opening your heart to wisdom and letting go of all that stands in its way.

The goal of higher purpose writing is not to change readers but to be changed yourself. For only then will readers be changed.

It isn’t what writing your story will do for others; it’s what writing your story will do for you. And that perspective won’t merely change your writing, it can change everything: the way you live, the way you think of yourself and all your relationships. If you’re called to write your story, is there any goal more worth your investment?

You can find healing in the simplicity of that: you have a story and you can write it because it’s meant the world to you.

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Maybe it’s okay we don’t start out writing to unmask ourselves. Maybe no one automatically wants to do that. But maybe once we realize the higher purpose, at some point it’s no longer an option. To write anything with the profound truth and simplicity we know it must have, maybe the dedication required is nothing less than to fully embrace our very human lives.

I know this is true now because it’s what was revealed to me in the process of trying to write. And I’m not finished with the novel yet, but I share it with you as something I found within my story, not as a lesson to teach, but as the simple truth which has given the work real life and meaning.

And I pray you can find it as well.

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…”

– Frederick Buechner

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16 thoughts on “Healing In the Simplicity of Your Story”

  1. Oh Mick, how rare your perspective is! Which is one of the reasons why I think you’re a rare gem in the industry. Higher purpose stuff, not many get it or want it.

    This adds to my processing during a season of rest from writing. I’m journaling a lot, asking tons of questions and am enjoying the break as I wait for the next season :)

    1. Jenelle, I thought about you as soon as I read this. “It isn’t what writing your story will do for others; it’s what writing your story will do for you.” I think we can translate this into fiction writing too … but only if we’re willing to go beyond surface level. That’s the challenge, and sometimes it’s easier to write for others. But the better story comes from the depths. Just gotta be willing to go there.

    2. It’s a choice, as you say, Cathy. Thanks for pointing that out. So glad you’re committed to the deeper.

  2. Cathy, very cool! I thought of myself too, and how I never quite fully understood when people talk of writing as prayer. I mean I have kept a Jesus journal since I was 16, but you bring up such a great point about how this can apply to fiction as well. Going deeper… has always been a challenge of mine because I was raised in a ‘suck it up house’. I’m way to tough for my own good and God has been slowly chipping away at my shell. I’m learning to let people in also. So hard! But I’ve been convicted of this for years now and this past school year, I have wanted to pass the test and let some people in no matter how hard it is. With how random that sounds, it has affected my fiction writing.

    Cathy, you’re so great!

    1. Big love to you, Jenelle. So proud and impressed by your commitment and growth. It’s so vital to your entire family, not to mention readers. Not to mention ourselves. Thanks for being you. And for reading!

  3. Dang! Does that mean I have to keep backing up a step when I pray, get past the “blesses” and “thank yous” and requests for the bazillion situations and people who need God’s help, and uncover/invite God to uncover…? Rats!

  4. “We have to realize that as the writer, we have to know the path of healing first to share what readers really need.”
    This was worth repeating. Thanks for the reminder that the story itself is the teacher, and we can tell the story and get out of the way. :)

  5. okay, someone (mick?) tell me what “until the universality of your journey is irreducible” means exactly? as i read this post i kept wondering how to apply this to fiction. cathy, you say you believe we can. what does that look like? can you expand on that?
    love
    the question girl

    1. Ha! I have no idea. You’re assuming I can remember what I was thinking a couple days ago??!! LOL! Basically what I got from the post, I think, is that we have to be honest in our writing. With nonfiction, I think that’s a pretty basic concept, otherwise what would be the point? In fiction we can get away with surface stories and following formulae, but does this make for the best books? There’s a disconnect that can happen, I think, where you think because it’s fiction, what’s going on with the characters doesn’t really apply to you, the writer. I don’t think this is true. I think it has to come from within ourselves in order for it to be authentic. Not that we’ll necessary have experienced everything we write about in fiction, but if we can research enough and talk to others who have, and really allow ourselves to go to those places in our mind, it’s amazing the depth of feelings uncovered. Sometimes we don’t even know we felt that way about something. That’s been my experience at least. Honesty and authenticity and writing without fear – easier said than done, but once you get there, that’s when it gets real.
      Does that help?

    2. something like creating a character from the inside out, method actors might understand this. then from getting deep enough into your character by empathizing till you sweat or by researching the “type” or stalking the “type” (ha ha) and observing their approach and reactions to circumstances one may get to the truth of the character you’re writing? to do this takes you maybe to the place WITHIN that you have in common with that particular part of humanity and then that translates to “writing for yourself” first which spills over to writing for others? eeerrrrrg, am i close to the drift here? using too many words as usual . . . but i am really trying because i’m about to enter a full on serious attempt at a fiction novel.
      any thoughts appreciated
      by
      suzee B XO

    3. That was an excellent response, Cathy. Thanks. I don’t know if it’s possible to get completely free of fear. It’s human nature. But we can completely trust the process works and God goes with us, and there is a universal experience within everything we live through and can write about, even in the most specific details. I always go back to Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine as an example of the incredible commonality of the most specific random thoughts. We all think some of the same crazy things we never talk about. That book works, in part, because that’s such a delightful surprise to discover.

    4. You’re right. I don’t think we can completely get rid of fear, but we can’t let it inhibit us. Or paralyze. That’s the trick. Starting a new story is always terrifying for me, so I guess i still have some of that fear alive and well. Kind of pushing though right now.
      That book looks interesting. Your library must be extensive.

    5. Hey, Suzee! It means to refine the telling of our stories until they are as universally applicable as possible and that can’t be further simplified. There’s always a point at which the effort to make a story (or a blog post) general begins to reduce its meaning and usefulness. I see this when memoirists and bloggers want to remove too much particularity, the specific details of their story, to relate to a common reader experience or characteristic. It’s not easy to learn where that line is but I think it’s important to realize there’s a limit to how far we should go to make our stories simple–they need to be ours first and foremost or they’ll be reduced and oversimplified. Does that help? I didn’t want to get too far off into the weeds but maybe I should have spent a bit longer explaining that. I think it’s an important point.

      Also, I believe this is ALL true for fiction as well because it’s most powerful written as though it’s real life. And this balance between the particular and the universal (commonly experienced) is needed for realistic main characters. They need to be special and unique (which ironically makes them seem real and just like anyone else who’s human), but also basically the same as anyone who finds themselves in their situation. Thanks for the questions. You help me think about where I need to focus and write more about how our unique healing journey gets turned into interesting, relatable stories.

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