Saturday, April 7, 2018

Writing about Hardship from Inexperience

I've seen some interesting things lately about young authors, writing what you know, and walking the line of "authenticity" in Christian fiction. So I'm going to break down some of my thoughts on all of that based out of my own convictions and experience as a young Christian author. Prepare yourselves for some strong thoughts ...

Caveats: I am young. I am fairly inexperienced as far as things go on a worldwide, lifelong scale.

Disclaimer: That does not make me any less of a person or any less of a writer.

This post is also fairly subjective; there's not much right or wrong here. (So feel free to politely disagree--that's basically what I'm doing in this post.)

I'm sure we've all heard the "write what you know" writing rule by now, and I already spent some time disagreeing with that in this ask the author post by Savannah Grace.

There also seems to be a trend in the culture (especially the Christian fiction culture) to be "real and authentic." What this means is that a lot of "Christian" fiction now has gratuitous content that I am not OK with. I think part of the issue is that this is a fairly subjective issue as well and each author has to set their own standards. Readers, too, for that matter. How some things can be called Christian I'll never know.

However, on the other end of the spectrum is the mushy, preachy Christian fiction. I dislike that just as much because while I don't view it as harmful, I don't find it helpful or worthwhile either. So what's the point?

That's what I look for in a book: a point. Meaning. It doesn't matter whether I'm writing or reading it.

I am a young, Christian writer who has to find the balance in the Christian market and with my own conscience. I really feel like I've already found that sweet spot, and that enables me to say I'm confident that what I'm writing will touch people and won't be too much for my readers in a harmful way. Otherwise the Holy Spirit would be telling me to do things differently than I am.

And yet I write about hard things. Things I haven't experienced. Things I will probably (hopefully) never experience in my life. I don't think that excludes me from writing about teen pregnancy, blackmail, abuse, married life, and the internal struggles that comes with those any more than that excludes me from writing about WWI because I didn't live then.

I can confidently write about those hard things while being young, Christian, and inexperienced because:
  • Young does not mean I haven't gone through something comparable in my own experience. Just because my bad choices haven't left me pregnant doesn't mean I haven't made bad choices or lived with guilt and regret. 
  • Christianity by definition is difficult. We are promised persecution and hardship and we live in a broken world. So of course I'm going to include those things in my stories.
  • Inexperienced does not mean I can't empathize with a situation. Again, I can envision a situation different than mine based on mine. My experiences give me a starting point from which to relate to my characters. I don't think writers are called to write their precise story, but almost all end up writing a version of it if you look closely at the themes.
I'm writing about difficult things to show God's glory and saving grace through them, not merely because it's juicy and attention-grabbing. I am sure there are people out there who write about hard things for headline's sake. But I am not one of those people and I don't think any of you are either.

To me, writing about hard things is like killing a character. To a certain level, it's my job to manipulate as a writer: I want my reader to cry. I do. And that's because to me that means I've gotten the gravity of the situation across and the moment of glory to God will be that much more glorious.

I'm not going to apologize for writing about hardship from inexperience. I have prayed and prayed over the level of content I include in my stories and ultimately have set the bar as low as I believe I feasibly can and not come off prudish or embarrassed of my own topic. Ultimately I'm not going to stop tackling hard things because that's what I believe I'm called to do. 

So when my friends marvel at my apparently unusual ability to shrug at a negative review, that's why. All of my negative reviews have been because I'm young and inexperienced and writing about hard things too graphically for the Christian genre. I'm truly sorry some of my readers have felt that way, but quite frankly I disagree because that's not what God told me when I asked.

I have been very blessed that my writing from inexperience has, for the most part, reached more people and touched more lives than I ever could have otherwise.
I'm not going to lie, I feel like I've opened a can of worms here! I really do want to hear your honest thoughts. What do you agree and disagree with? Give me your take on this issue! All I ask for is polite discussion which I doubt will be a problem with you amazing people. :)


  1. This "write what you know" advice seems to stop when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi... I mean who can truly understand those???

    also, just because one is young doesn't mean they are either intelligent nor inexperienced. That's what so many people forget ;D

    I like this post! And agree :)

    1. Yeah, the more I study that advice the more I'm tempted to throw it out the window completely!

      Yes, I agree with that. We all get lumped in there together and underestimated in a lot of ways. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter, Keturah! :)

  2. Hm. Good point!
    I read Martin's Hospitality, and seeing that I don't have experience with teen pregnancy (and other stuff) either, I think you did it really well!

    "Christian fiction" can vary so much! I've read some Christian fiction that was so suggestive that it could probably be considered "romance" (not that I've read any). If any none-Christians were to read it, it'd be (in my opinion) a poor reflection of what Christians believe in.

    Great post!

    1. Well, thank you :)

      Oh my goodness, yes! That's true--I think it's even harder when people's entire exposure to Christianity is shaped by a single book or what have you. That's dangerous, honestly, which is one reason be a light in any realm is such a big responsibility. And it's not one I take lightly. I understand that lots of Christian fiction (especially the fluff) is meant for other Christians and that's fine, but I definitely write for the non-Christians and hurting people of the world (Christian or not) as well which means I'm aiming for a balance while still coming from a Christian perspective. Definitely tricky xD

      Thank you!

  3. The controversy! ;)

    I totally agree with you, Abi. Honestly, if people really followed the "write what you know" rule I feel like there wouldn't be many worthwhile books. I don't know anything about dragons from my experience, but you can bet I'll still write about them in my books! And being a white, middle-class, first-world woman, no, I don't know very much personal hardship, but how else are we to empathize with those who do struggle and suffer if not through stories?? That is really the amazing thing about books, the chance to live a life different than our own and to empathize and understand someone else. That is necessity. I posted this quote on my instagram awhile back that sums that idea up well: "Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity." Audrey Hepburn
    And again, aside from physically going out and being with the people who need us (which we are called to do of course), stories are the first way we as people can begin to experience and understand the lives of others, especially those in different and less fortunate situations than we are. This is SO IMPORTANT and I couldn't agree with you more, hard things need to be explored.
    I came across this post on tumblr recently that takes it further, and of course I can see how this may be too far for some people and I completely understand, but this is how I feel on the subject:

    You don’t need purity in the material you consume.

    You have a brain, you are capable of critical thinking, you can sift through the material and keep what is edifying for you and discard what isn’t.

    Flaws don’t necessarily make material worthless.

    Again, I recognize not everyone would agree with that, which I completely understand. I know it's a strong position to take and a strong way of phrasing, but I'd have to personally agree with the heart of it. To me it often seems that Christians use discernment simply to find out if something has any flaws and then avoid it at all costs, rather than going through the material WITH discernment and sorting through what is good and what is bad. I don't mean of course that we should steep ourselves in immorality, merely that we should be confident in our beliefs and faith and understanding of God and His Word to be able to exist in a world that isn't PG without removing ourselves completely from the world we live in and are called to witness to - especially the in the hard things.
    I know not everyone will feel the same on this, and that is very fine, but you did open the proverbial "can of worms" here, haha, and I thought I'd take the opportunity to share the opinions I have on the subject.

    Also, I am very surprised that anyone would write-off your book by giving it poor reviews just because the character's life isn't squeaky clean. What if Gemma was a real person who needed their help? Would they write her off because of her bad decisions then? Honestly, that's fairly sad because the whole premise of Martin Hospitality was redemption, love, and welcome for those that have messed up and need God to step into their lives. Forgoing something because it uses real-life examples to share such a message is just silly in my opinion. I don't mean to offend anyone, but that really isn't cool. Martin Hospitality is a great book with a great message and a great story of redemption and dismissing it because of the main character's imperfection is literally slapping the awesome message of healing, change, and restoration right in the face. Not okay.

    Anyways, I should probably stop talking before I get myself in trouble. XD But I am totally on your side, Abi! Thank you for bravely making this post! It's going to open up a lot of opportunity for great, meaningful conversation.

    (Also, send all the haters to me so I can straighten them out for you next time. XD)

    1. BASICALLY EVERYTHING YOU SAID! (Thanks for engaging this so much!)

      I agree--empathy is so important, and that's coming from a fellow INTJ who sometimes really struggles with that! If anything, I'd say books are the biggest thing that have helped me be more empathetic. Books have really opened my eyes to a whole lot of things that have prepared me for facing them or similar things in the real world better than anything else could have!

      I agree completely on the ability to discern. I think there's again a pretty fine and subjective line on how much content is too much for a Christian. A lot of it relies on knowing your own weaknesses. But reading/watching/etc flawed things promotes such good discussion in my family and causes us to really use discernment and think ... we definitely wouldn't do that as much if we didn't have cause to. It was for that exact reason (wanting to discern amongst controversy) that my parents decided to read Harry Potter together and have since read them aloud to us all. The more I face hard situations in life, the more I'm realizing everything is about balance and consistency. Like ... literally everything. xD

      Ahh, yes, the bad reviews xD Honestly, they don't bother me that much, and I don't pretend to understand where either reviewer was coming from completely because obviously we disagreed on my approach from the get go. The reviews really aren't too hard to find on Goodreads if you're that curious, but please don't engage them for my sake xD I really appreciate the support and understanding, though! <3 Seriously. I wouldn't have made it without all the likeminded people who have enjoyed my stories so much. Or without the negative push back to make me grow and round out my perspectives a little. :)

      No worries xD Thanks so much for engaging this so in depth! I'm hoping I don't blow anybody up but I can't exactly help my convictions, now can I? ;) Honestly, sometimes I wonder if I should be bothered by other people's opinions more. I would be if they were my mother or pastor or best friend. But most people aren't, so I'll go on trying to be empathetic and understanding without really caring what people think of me in return D: xD

  4. SUCH A DIFFICULT LINE TO WALK!!! It is a hard path. I write fantasy, and my goal is not be a Bible retelling, but to be a book that glorifies God and will help people understand things in a new light.
    YES, I write about scary/difficult things. With fantasy, I am able to portray spiritual warfare in a more tangible way. I have not liked all the spiritual warfare representations I've ever seen. Some have not gone far enough, and some had too much creative liberty. I personally believe when it comes to writing hard things, we should remember several things:
    1. Don't do it for applause. Don't do it because you want to seem politically correct, or feed lustful desires.
    2. Don't open a window into things we never want to see. Don't make it defiling. I felt MH did a good job on this in regards to Travis and Gemma. There was enough to give me the idea, without giving me a detailed, explicit scene. This is one thing I wish writers would wake up to. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DESCRIBE EVERYTHING!!!! I even think it's bad writing to describe every detail. As Rachel Starr Thomson said, don't open a window into Hell for others to see.
    3. Don't skimp. Don't gloss over something that needs to be addressed. My favorite book, The Hawk and the Dove did not gloss. It is an emotionally devastating book, however, it retained a beauty that did not leave me feeling grungy. Remember, devastating, heart-breaking, shattering books can either be grungy or beautiful.
    Lastly, whatever you do, do it for God. Writing for an audience of one.
    Anyway, I appreciated this post! Thank you!

    1. I'm so glad you felt like MH walked that line well. There definitely is a line, but it can be hard to find. Like I said in the post, I feel like I've found it for me, but that still means that maybe I'm crossing it for some of my readers as has already been the case.

      I mean, thank goodness we don't have to describe everything!! I gave up on that a long time ago out of pure exhaustion xD But that's a very good point. Everything requires balance for beauty.

      Absolutely. I think writing for that audience of one is one reason I'm able to have as much security as I do in what I write. I don't know how other people manage because it's no easy road either way.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this matter, Erica. I think we can all agree it's tricky no matter where we land in the mix. I think the important thing is that we're all thinking about our place! <3

  5. Loved this post Abi! So good! I agree. To be honest, I though you pulled off MH with great panache and for the most part, sensitivity. Reviews are hard not to take personally, but it is something that I think every author should know how to do. But back to the subject of the post, i couldn't agree more. Funny, because I actually had a series on my blog where I talked about Writing "Lies" and that was one of them. You can check it out here if you have a mind. :D


    1. Well thank you :) Yes, learning to process reviews is part of the job. I agree with everything you said in your post! It really is a bad piece of advice so I'm not sure why it's so prevalent xD Thanks for your thoughts and the link!

  6. I've put off commenting for awhile because I didn't know how to organize my thoughts. But I think I figured it out, I am, ready to spout my opinions into the blogosphere.

    I agree with writing about hardship that you may not have experienced. I disagree with writing about a hardship that you haven't experienced without doing the necessary research.

    Last November, I wrote a novella. It dealt with domestic abuse, death of loved ones, scars being ripped open, and the contemplation of suicide for one character; basically it got really dark at times. And while I neglected to research how to deal with those problems (or not deal with them) - mainly because it was during NaNo - I did have a place that I could mentally go to in order to grasp those hurt and broken emotions. I've been hurt by people and I've dealt with a broken heart, so while my hardship wasn't the same as my characters, I knew how to remove myself from my situation and place myself in my characters situations and reach down to my hurt from the past and use that to create the necessary emotions of my characters during those dark places. Does that make sense?

    That probably was really badly worded, but those are my thoughts and stuff. I think it's okay to write about things you haven't experienced, but I do think you need to have been through something hard that you can remember and reach down to grab in order to really empathize and create a raw and flawed character.

    1. Yes, I agree research is always necessary if you're writing about something you don't know about firsthand.

      I love how you put that! It does make sense ;) I think we can all find a way to relate to things we're writing about like you said and that's what can make it feel so real even without having gone through the exact thing personally. I think the research or having friends who've gone through it helps get the facts. But you're right; the empathy comes from within so we have to have some similar ground there or it might come off insensitive. If we treat our characters like real, sensitive people dealing with touchy problems that real, hurting people have gone through then we can be much more effective in coming across empathetic in our writing. At least those are my thoughts. :)

      I think one tricky thing about all of this is that it's hard to judge what the writer knew and experienced just by reading the book. All I can judge is how I perceived the writing. It's not hard to get the wrong impression or read something different than how the writer intended and that leads a lot of assumptions about the writer that are often incorrect.

      It's one big mess, but I'm so glad that you're tackling difficult topics too and understand your mission so well. :)

    2. I completely agree about it being hard to judge what the writer knows and stuff. I think it's good that people are talking about this cause it's something that needs to be talked about more often.

  7. If I were to follow "write what you know," I could never write historical fiction. In fact, no one could. ;) Or fantasy or sci-fi or dystopian. We'd all be stuck writing contemporary fiction - and chances are it'd be kinda boring contemporary fiction at that. :P Only adventurers would write books, and I don't have time for adventuring. Or the cash. Though I do want to travel some day ... :D

    1. Basically this ^^^ But yes, please do tell us to write what we know and also how to get the money to experience all these things. I mean, I have nothing against a time machine


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