Writing to Heal–Yourself and Others

Our lives are so full already, just trying to get by, get the kids grown and where they need to go, make it to work on time and keep afloat.

But writers are interested in far more than typical survival. Writers want to dig into stuff. They don’t want to color in the lines. They’re “creative.” And that tends to make people uncomfortable.

They’re rebels and misfits. And very curious.

All my authors tend to be like this, whether they admit it to themselves or not.

I’m a committed Christian but that doesn’t mean I have anything figured out. Like anyone, I struggle to love people, and I’m prone to judging. But I want to be the kind of Christian who only does what God reveals. Which is to say I want to let God take over.

And, of course, I must admit I don’t do this well. What I want to do isn’t what I do, so mostly that means I try to be quick to forgive when I, or anyone, messes up.

I believe coaching and editing writers must follow from that. I’m not a hard-nose and I don’t believe in focusing on the product so much as the process.

All writers need editing, if not coaching, and many are still working through emotions and personal stuff their story has brought up.

Realizing this has made me shift how I work. When we write, I think many of us are often going on a personal healing journey, whether we know it or not. And it’s through the process of editing and refining the book, we can step back and see how the journey is universal, and realize an even greater purpose for going through the pains they did.

I’d like to share some of the things I’ve found in this incredible process.

And as a bit of a Brene Brown fanatic, I believe it’s important to start with the foundation of vulnerability.

Her research explains so much about why it’s so hard for so many people to share themselves honestly. But her work on embracing imperfection and vulnerability has helped provide a language for some deeper struggles I’ve found in my work with writers.

Understand, I was not always the type of guy to go for this touchy-feely stuff. I was raised by a couple of born-again Jesus freaks from southern California. As a kid I didn’t get to trick or treat or read unapproved literature or listen to normal radio, etc. etc. because they were “worldly.”

But far worse was the restriction on feelings. What stands out now to me about growing up is how little I was taught about dealing with difficult emotions. And I think this is true of many Christians–either those who grew up this way or who joined up later–we don’t deal with or even admit our true feelings easily.

One might say it’s primarily the men, and that may be. And we could argue that dealing with emotion well is challenging for nonChristians too, which is true.

But Christians also use the Bible as proof that emotions are a distraction and often irrelevant to what God wants.

Not all Christians think this way, of course. But when our ultimate example is Jesus, who it can be difficult to imagine joking, being sarcastic, or ever even breaking out of Old King James, sharing about our “feelings” can seem indulgent and weak.

Jesus may have wept a couple times, but he definitely had a far better reason to than any of us will ever have.

My dad became a pastor, and he and my mom taught me how to connect up the principles in the Bible to how we can know God in the real world, and how He pursues and helps us, even when we’re not aware of it.

He eventually led me to some great friends in college, one of whom became my best friend, who accepted my marriage proposal. I discovered God guides us and supplies for us, because wants a “real relationship” with us as much and far more than we do, even when we don’t want one with him.

That’s what I’ve found. And that’s what I work to do now, to share what I’ve learned.

God will provide. And if we’ll believe that and invite it, we’ll find greater vision and provision of all we need to complete the work. The last class I shared this with, someone shared Exodus 33:15. “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.”

God’s presence is what’s necessary. And God will be with us. Because there’s work for us to do.

And the first work for us all is to heal. From whatever it was and is we’ve lived through. It’s important to talk about how we do that, as writers.

Because ultimately, we have more work to do than simply heal. We have to finish a book. Maybe several books.

If you’re a writer, I believe you need to allow this God-centered process of writing to work its deep revision of your heart. I want to give you 3 keys to doing that:

  1. GO to where God is at work.

We need to be bold in our work, in pushing beyond where we feel safe.

We’re busy, we’re thinking about a lot of things, writing and meeting people, and trying to look more critically at our hurts and connect them all up with our work. But the renewal part of this conference is essential. Writing real heart-level stuff, it’s so hard. I often don’t even want to talk about it.

It’s a chore. But this is the truth about this work. Because just between us, I don’t often go to where I sense God working, even when I know I should. And my favorite distraction technique is I get busy.

A while back I made a commitment to keep on track by trying to keep God in my mind and the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice before me at all times—as Oswald Chambers says, “banking everything on Jesus’ atonement, so that grace and my actions coincide.”

Now that sounds very spiritual and I hope you’re all very impressed, but notice I didn’t say I achieved this. I only tried to.

And the truth is I failed miserably at it. Eventually, I decided that if I managed to remember it even once in the midst of procrastinating whether on Facebook or whatever, I have to consider that a small victory.

Which is also only the spirit reminding me and not my own doing.

But last week I was busier than usual I realized the question I continually have to ask myself is, how important is this—what I’m doing right now—to myself and others? And then I need to consider continually if I’m running away from something that’s more important.

We have to go to our Nineva because that’s where God is at work.

We all have our Ninevas. And it’s not just about a physical going. It’s about what’s happening inside. The question is, Am I willing to look and see that or not? That Nineva I don’t want to go to? That’s why being a writer is so hard.

Because we are the ones who have to model this going for the world. We need to go to these external and internal places we’re called to.

But how? And how do we know where that is?

  1. Follow the pain.

I heard someone say once, “follow the tears.” Maybe it was Anne Lamott, patron saint of struggling writers. It means, whatever makes you cry, wherever you might normally try to avoid because it causes deep emotion that’s uncomfortable and you don’t super enjoy it, that’s probably a good place to start.

Only the real writers here are going, yeah, that sounds great. Only the ones who know it’s not masochism to want to pry open these places of pain and yes, especially our personal failures, that show where God has been at work.

We need to seek the universal pains in our own life stories.

This quote is my guiding principle. It comes from Fredrick Buechner:

“My story is important not because it is mine…but because if I tell it anything like right…you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”

I believe this is the magical transference we experience if we’ll work to tell our stories right. This is how we go from a vision to provision. Because we begin to live out God’s re-vision process through our work as writers.

Your books are about what you’re learning, what you’re capturing from the journey. And all of my authors would tell you their books are ultimately God’s stories. They share universally applicable truth through their own stories and methods.

Writing can lead to an amazing life if we’re willing to see pain not as something to avoid, but to work out. To use. To grow from. To share.

That’s of course, that’s not going to be a happy, fun time. That’s hard. Orwell said,

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness…”

This is depressing, but often true. So to go beyond our narrow focus on our own pain, we have to know it’s totally normal to want out, to avoid this kind of stuff.

But you can face it because you’re different. You’re called and enabled. To really know that, that’s the goal.

So face the pain. And how is that done?

I believe it’s done by writing with God.

  1. Invite God along.

This part isn’t hard, what’s hard is remembering to actually stay with him. We’re weak. We’re distractible. We’re lost. Which is, of course, why we need him.

We’re not able to hold anything together on our own. We need his help, his advice, his words, his Provision provision to make any vision work. And ultimately, we’d hope it’s even his vision.

It isn’t enough just to say you’re a Christian and go to church on Sundays and be a writer all the rest of the time. No. You have to integrate, accept all of yourself. The good and the bad, the honest and hypocrite. The confident and the fearful.

You have to be both a fledgling writer and a committed Christ-follower all the time.

And again, that’s not the easy thing to do. But doing it anyway, consistently, this is the goal.

And will we get there? Yes. Of course we will. If we are persistent. And if we stay with him when we’re writing.

I believe that’s a pretty fair definition of success.

Remember, for now your writing is not yet about a finished product, it’s about your process. Finishing books is an inevitable result of learning this process. And there are many layers of healing. Because your healing is what will help others heal. When you feel all the stuff most people shove aside or shove down, you can help them heal. And then, like the Velveteen Rabbit, one day when their fur is rubbed off and their eyes are falling out, they can become real too.

I’m saying we have to simply start to practice this on ourselves. Read the books that will encourage you in it. Refine your process day by day. And be refined as God goes with you.

And I can promise you this, if you do commit to establishing this process: feeling and then writing to explain what it feels like and all it involves, it leads to great things.

And ultimately, that makes for a very good life.

How do we know what’s for us and what’s for the book? My advice is, write it and see. The things that are most personal are the most universal. If it’s not for the book, you’ll know by getting quality feedback. Ask yourself, do readers need to know this? Every chapter, every sentence, must be doing some work.