What Would Jesus Write? On Writing the Truth with Compassion



Speaking of entanglements, when writing memoir, there’s always that issue of how to talk about your parents. Your ex-boyfriends. Your husband. Or your in-laws. Now your words don’t just affect you and your impersonal readers: family and friends could be hurt or offended. And so, what is a writer, especially a Christian writer, to do?

Two Views on Writing about Real People

When it comes to writing about real people, immediately two options spring to mind.

First, my beloved Professor L used to like quoting an eighteenth-century writer (and I can’t remember whom) as saying something like: People better not tick off writers because they never know what he or she might write later. In other words, writers can and should write whatever they want about whomever they want.

While somewhat humorous to me, this view also seems selfish and inhumane, not to mention utterly unchristian. Even though I may have joked about wielding ammunition in my pen, seriously, this troubles me. “Revenge is mine [not Lindsey’s], says the Lord.” Needless to say, I don’t find much help here.

The second option comes from writer and teacher Peter Brickleback and, although not perfect, seems much more humane. In a nutshell, P.B. says that certain truths and experiences belong to us as writers, and so we should write about them. Those people we’re writing about? They “can write their own” version of the story.

I know this sounds somewhat callous, and even smacks of the other writer I paraphrased. However, here are some caveats P.B. tacks on that begin to win me over (see The Portable MFA, pp. 128-30). In writing “happily” about your “unhappy family [or whoever],” P.B. says the following:

  1. “Do not write as if you are Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.” He’s saying be honest about your flaws, too; don’t write as if you are the only victim in the world (your “oppressor” might be a victim, too).
  2. “Strive for compassion and empathy” in order to “[treat] the subject fairly.”
  3. Writing about difficult, universal experiences “contributes to our mutual benefit, to a wider social, human good.”
  4. Avoiding certain characters or topics can leave a “black hole of an absence” in the story, resulting in a “warped” version. In other words, sometimes we need to address these hard subjects to complete our stories.
  5. Writing using pain and anger as fuel helps us face pain more honestly.
  6. Writing in spite of pain can result in healing for both writer and writee—as in the case of a daughter who wrote a less-than-flattering memoir about her mother. In the end, P.B. reports, the mother and daughter came to have more understanding and compassion for each other: “[T]hey’ve straightened out some things that have gotten twisted through being buried. Also, being part of an attempt to put words to things, they’ve come to appreciate a lot more about the past and each other.”

Now, P.B.’s comments could easily be refuted, especially by Christians who are striving to “do unto others as you’d have them do to you.” Still, I’ve decided that Christians need to be open-minded to consider underlying assumptions and motives behind what might seem to be questionable opinions. In this case, P.B.’s very humane assumption is that writing should not (entirely) be selfish; rather, it should ultimately function for the greater good.

For Christians I think this means writing should, first and foremost, give glory to God—which is to say it must benefit others. But I am also coming to understand that that does not preclude writing about fallen humanity, including ours or others’. What is the Bible but the story of fallen humanity, anyway? That said, a Christian who is going to write on said topic might consider a few more caveats.

Some Christian Caveats for Writing about Other People and/or Pain

[Note: this section is really for me—but you can look, too!]

If I am a born-again Christian writing about a painful past that involves other people, I must be especially careful in how I shape the story. Does it end in redemption? Is there resolution available for all at the cross (even though some may not choose to accept it)? Because if I believe the Bible (and I do), Christ is the solution for all problems: by His stripes, we are healed (see Isaiah 53).

And so, after the happy (or at least hopeful) conclusion is settled, the remaining question for Christian writers might still be how to treat the bad roots, especially as they relate to or involve others. For myself, I’ve decided I want to include only the parts of their stories absolutely necessary to the telling of mine, but I also want to include enough so as to avoid leaving a “gaping hole.” Meanwhile, what I include should never needlessly hurt others.

While it may take awhile to figure out all of the above, I’m heartened by the same advice I’ve both given and gotten in English classrooms: Sometimes you have to write the body and conclusion before you figure out the beginning. Such is my story right now; but one day I’m confident I’ll get down to those roots I’m searching for.

You can view the photo from this post here.


One Big Tangle: Thoughts on Blogging versus Book-writing

As you may know, Writing to my Roots is chronicling the writing and publication of my first memoir—or the progress toward my lifelong goal. In other words, I’m writing about writing, both about how it’s going as a writer, and also about what’s happening in the writing—what roots I’m uncovering. In other words, where is the writing taking my story, book-wise, and me, person-wise?

Trying to untangle all of the above is not an easy task. And tangled is the right word. I feel so tangled up right now with conflicting tasks in storytelling. I’m telling you a story about a story I’m telling—and I find myself worrying about telling both stories right.

Something tells me I’m going about this all wrong. At least the blog. A book should be carefully organized, but a blog is a place to be more free, right? We’ll go with that for today, so I can get on with writing about writing.

Book Progress and Problems Since October, 2012

For starters, I have penned (literally, written with a pen) around 350 pages of my book. This morning I think I may have even written the last scene and decided on my title. So the writing is going well. Indeed, I feel like I have all the component parts of my book recorded in some form or fashion. I’ve got most of the big themes and thoughts I want to include collected into those once-empty notebooks I told you about last week.

But now comes the hard part. Revising and organizing. Shaping this amorphous blob of memories and musings into something pretty. The other night my dad asked me how many chapters I had written, and I had to just shake my head and say, “Dad, it doesn’t work like that.” (He’s a radio-advertising salesman who occasionally writes copy for commercials. How could he understand the complexities of drafting, revising, and organizing a book-length manuscript?)

I told my dad that my first draft was just emerging through the recording of scenes and ideas as they came to me. I’ve just been trying to get it all out of me, and then worry about organizing it. But that’s not so easy to do these days. The organizing, I mean.

Some Concerns Faced by “Real” Writers (especially Memoirists)

If you read contemporary memoir, you know that stories don’t always unfold chronologically. “Real” writers (and I think I have a little pride about being one, even though I probably shouldn’t, being that I have not yet published a book) make difficult literary maneuvers such as

  • flashback
  • flash forward
  • magnification
  • compression

Writers also

  • make use of extended metaphors and symbols, sometimes all throughout the book
  • pay attention to pacing and placement of scenes
  • carefully select and balance important versus unimportant detail.*

(see chapter two of The Portable MFA in Creative Writing for more)

*For memoirists, specifically, this selection and balance of detail is particularly hard, because all the details are personal. Which ones do you share, and which ones do you shelve? Here, we have tangled up literary concerns with personal, and sometimes moral, ones. There is so much to think about!

These are just a few of the challenges I’m encountering as I progress through the writing of my book. And I’m nowhere near close to figuring them all out. But yesterday I did find hope for making sense of my thoughts—and bringing order to my writing…through reading the memoir Riding the Bus with my Sister by Rachel Simon.

Riding the Bus with my Sister: Inspiration for the Aspiring Memoirist

In a nutshell, Simon tells the story of what she learned through one year of riding city buses with her mentally handicapped sister, Beth. At the beginning of the book, I expected the story to revolve around this year of bus-riding—I thought that was the core story. But the further I got into the book, I realized that, with carefully chosen, carefully placed flashbacks, Simon was telling the story of her family’s breakup, and her broken heart. Ultimately, it was through riding the buses with Beth, by slowing down to enjoy life again, and by remembering her roots, that Simon found a great deal of healing by book’s end (there’s more to it, of course, but I’m compressing).


Wow, I thought, teary-eyed by the closing scenes. That was a job well done. Not only was her literary execution great, but her story was worth telling. And she didn’t go overboard with her tale of woe. Indeed, I was shocked halfway through to read of the horrific things that happened in her teenage years—so that was why she has all these problems in her adult life…not getting close to people, overworking, lacking hobbies. Suddenly the journey described in the book became much deeper than just a year of bus-riding with her sister. It was a journey of healing for herself.

In both Simon’s writing and her story, I see visions of myself. The personal story is similar to mine, although without the handicapped sister; and the sum total of her book’s organization leaves the effect I want my own book to have. What a great story—and what a great way to tell it, I want my readers to think of my book (just like I thought of Simon’s).

So, for today, I will disentangle myself just a bit with this: at least if my blog is not pretty, I want my book to be. For today, I’m feeling grateful to Rachel Simon for her story—and hoping you’ll ride with me as I untangle the telling of my own.