Do I need to be done with an experience to write about it?
May 21, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Someone wrote to note, “My critique partner told me I need to put aside my nonfiction manuscript, since he doesn’t think I’m really healed from the incident I’m writing about. Is that good advice?”
Hmmm… Okay, let me think about how to answer this question politely, but clearly. I don’t know you. You may be a mess. You may need counseling. You may not be ready to write a book. And I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that a nonfiction book is a tool that offers a solution to a question – so maybe if you haven’t worked all the way through it, you don’t have the solutions to offer yet. And that would mean you probably don’t have a book yet.
Having said that, I don’t universally agree on the “wait until you understand it before you write about it” theory. The fact is, some of the best writing we have comes from people struggling IN THE MIDST OF pain. Take a look at James Agee’s Death in the Family or Brennan Mannings Ragamuffin Gospel or Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. One of the reasons we like those books, one of the reasons they resonate so well with readers, is because they don’t have all the answers. They are people struggling to find answers and, sometimes, coming up short. We live in a world that has questions and brokenness and pain — one that often doesn’t even believe in the notion of there being an “answer.” Letting others see the process we’re going through can prove helpful. So maybe you don’t really need to have all the answers to do a good book.
I hesitate to make that argument, of course, because I’m afraid it will lead to me seeing more reflective poetry, angst-filled books on bad relationships, and screeds against groups who have hurt you. But while it’s always nice to see somebody who has gone through dark times and come out the other end victorious, remember that great literature can sometimes raise questions, not answers.
Don’t you sometimes get tired of apparently Prozac-laden religious writers who want to tell you how they moved from difficulty to success, and sell you their twelve-step answers? Isn’t that one of the reasons people view Christians as out of touch? I represent a lot of faith-friendly books, and I see stuff all the time from people who have been through hard things. While I appreciate the fact that you’ve survived, the event itself doesn’t mean there’s a good book in it. The fact of difficult times does not make a book. People in Oklahoma are struggling with the aftermath of terrible tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they should all do a book. A good book generally has a great (if sometimes terrible) story to tell, and causes us to reflect on life or think about changing our lives in order to live more effectively in some way. So don’t send me your “I was healed” story unless there’s something more to it than “I was sick, now I’m well!”
Nor does the individual’s response to difficulty always make a book. (Or, to continue on the same theme, “I was sick, now I’m well. Praise God!”) Some people can’t write. Sometimes the rest of us can’t really connect to the story. My point is that even the BEST story about an active faith has to have some redemptive quality, plus some touchpoint in my life for me to care about it. To “write from the heart” means, to me, that you’ll share what’s really there — neither papering it over with Bible verses nor whining about the lousy hand you’ve been dealt, but revealing what you’re feeling, what questions you’re asking, what (if any) answers you’re getting. And doing it with great words, so that I appreciate the art as well as the story. AND, for it to be a great book, revealing something universal or transcendent about the experience.
To give this perspective, let me move the discussion into the realm of fiction. I was on a panel at a conference one time, and somebody asked me what sort of novel I’d like to see. That’s a softball for me: “I want to read a novel that changes me.” I routinely come across fiction that entertains me. Nothing wrong with that — it’s largely why we buy fiction, and it’s the sort of thing that pays the bills for those of us who make a living in publishing. But occasionally I’ll come across a novel that makes me see the world with new eyes. A bit of writing that touches me by its power, revealing parallels between my own world and the world of the novelist. By going through that story, vicariously experiencing their struggle, I gain a new perspective. I learn a new way of thinking about my own life. Yeah, sure, sometimes the author shares an “answer.” But other times, the writer simply helps me to grapple with the questions. And THAT’S why I read. Does that help?
I’d love to see how you wrestle with this topic. Feel free to leave a comment.