Writing about those painful personal experiences

“If you have known pain, you have a story.  Tell it.”

“This will be written for the generation to come; that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

Humanity is indebted beyond calculation that in the distant past God told some people to write about their pain.

–Job went through the death of all his children, the loss of all his possessions, and a skin affliction that tormented him.  We have no way of measuring the grief and misery he knew.  On top of that, he was left with a nagging wife and given three burdensome friends.  Eventually, he or someone wrote the story. And we are forever in their debt.

–The story of Joseph in Genesis is a favorite of many.  Sold into slavery by his brothers, he was betrayed and framed and thrown into prison where he was essentially forgotten.  And yet, God brought him out with a mighty hand.  We are so glad someone wrote this.  Moses, we are told (see Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27).

–Someone wrote about Moses’ temper, the Israelites’ shenanigans, and David’s unfaithfulness.  They wrote about Jeremiah’s hardships, Thomas’ doubt, and Paul’s sufferings.  And yes, they recorded Moses’ faithfulness, David’s songs, and Jeremiah’s courage.  Thankfully!

We’re glad they thought to record the dark side.  Think how much poorer we would be had the writers of history chosen to record only the pleasant, “uplifting” events and experiences and left out what Oliver Cromwell called the “warts and all.”

There’s something about reading of another’s pain and misfortune that captures our attention and instructs us more than hearing of their successes and promotions.

I have known far too many pastors who were forced from their churches, some outright fired and others sent packing with embarrassingly little severance.  Invariably, when I talk to such a brother whose injuries are recent and whose future seems scary, I urge him to get a book and start writing.  “Keep a journal.  Write this down.”

They wonder if they will get through this and may think they will never forget this, but they’ll do both.

Recently, when a friend began telling of the rupture in his congregation that resulted in his sudden departure, astonishingly some six or eight years after the event, I could see the pain was still fresh, the wound yet open.  I told him, “Start writing.  You need to get this out and on paper.”

He protested, “I can’t.  Those people are still around and I don’t want to stir it up again.”

I said, “You don’t have to publish it.  Just write it for yourself.  Put it in a Word document, save it in a folder.  Go  back from time to time and add to it, edit it, think about what it means and the lessons to be learned.”  And in time, I told him, “When and if you do publish it, you can decide then whether to use names or to create fictitious names, or to rephrase some evens to make them less painful.”

Over 17 years ago, at the urging of an editor friend, I wrote the account of my abrupt departure from a church where I had gone three years earlier intending to spend the rest of my ministry.  That article, which appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Leadership Journal, can be found on my website (www.joemckeever.com). When we repost the link to it annually on Facebook, invariably pastors write to say they are experiencing the same thing at that very moment.

My story is not unlike your story, it turns out.  Yours will be like someone else’s.

–People feel connected when they read the story of your pain.  It’s so easy to feel isolated in our affliction.  True, knowing this does not erase the pain or cancel the problem, but it helps to be reminded, as Peter wrote, “that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (I Peter 5:9). We’re not alone.

–People feel affirmed when they learn that their struggles are similar to what they have experienced.  It’s so easy to second-guess ourselves when the powers-that-be are undermining our ministries, criticizing our preaching, and doing all they can to see that we are soon unemployed.  Did I do the right thing in speaking plainly to that committee? in sharing this news with my wife? in preaching that sermon, writing that letter, making that phone call?

–People feel hope when you tell your story and they see you emerged intact and even stronger.  “Perhaps God can use this too,” they will decide. And He will.

So, go ahead, servant of God. Write the story of your illness and treatments, your mistreatment and your failures.  Tell us about the time you lost your job, declared bankruptcy, and had to move in with your in-laws.  Or live in your car.

When John Claypool’s daughter died, his book, “Tracks of a Fellow Struggler,” ministered to an entire generation of grieving parents.

Maya Angelou’s account of her painful upbringing carries the wonderful title of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and should be read by everyone.

Tell us of the death of your spouse and how you coped with the grief, with the suddenly empty house, with the sleepless nights.

Why should you tell us these things?  Because doing so is good therapy.  You will be leaving a record.  It might help someone.  Because the Spirit tells you to do it; you have no idea what He wants to do with this.  To be able to look at your experience objectively.  And for your children and grandchildren (Psalm 102:18 fits here).

When my son Neil and I were trying to write the obituary for my wife of more than half a century, the mortician, a longtime friend, had good counsel.  “You’re not writing this just for the community at large,” said Louis Muhleisen.  “You’re writing this for the future.  In time, some of your and Margaret’s descendants are going to be researching the family and when they come across this, you want them to know who she was, what she was like.” So, write it for the future, he said.

Here are some suggestions on how to write about those painful experiences in life…

One.  Just open the laptop, start a Word folder, and start typing.  You can edit it later.  Right now, just get things down on paper (so to speak).  Don’t wait for inspiration, for things to work out or become clear.  Just do it.

Two. Be careful about confidences.  If necessary, tell something in the third person (make it happen to someone else or have “a friend” say the words) to protect parties.

Three.  Write conversationally.  You’re not C. S. Lewis.

Four.  Only at the end should you draw conclusions from your experiences and list the lessons learned.  Don’t get preachy.  Just tell the story.

Five.  Add scriptures where they are helpful, but don’t overdo it.

Six.  In time, when you consider publishing it, have a few good friends to read it and tell you the truth.  I had to tell one brother there was too much anger in his book.  He said, “You’re the fourth person to say that.” So, he revised it.

Seven. There’s an odd thing about this: People are more inclined to read about your pain, your conflicts, your failures and disappointments than your unbroken string of successes and promotions.  Now, that is not to say readers will enjoy hearing of setback upon failure, sickness and defeat upon difficulty and bankruptcy.  Far from it.  But if your story is redemptive, if it tells how you come out on top, then it will work.

Eight. Beware of bragging.  If you tell about your accomplishments, your degrees, and your successes, just do it lightly.  Let’s not have any of this “When I got my doctorate” or “When my college named me as its alumnus of the year…”  No matter how you phrase that stuff, it sounds egotistical and puts distances between you and your readers.

Nine. Do not wait until you have it all sorted out to start writing.  Once you get started, you’ll be amazed how the process will open up before you.

Ten.  At first, don’t worry about style or grammar.  Just get something down.  (“Do a lot of bad writing,” one instructor said.) Then, from time to time, as you open the laptop, start by reviewing what you’ve already written and tweak it. Edit out redundancies and repetitions.  Correct the typos.  Tighten up the prose.

Eleven.  Pray for wisdom throughout the process.  Pray for your readers and for yourself.

Twelve.  Consider keeping a journal in which you will write each day about that day’s happenings.  It’s not a diary, but a record of what you were thinking, who came to see you, something you read, how you are praying, etc.  In my journal of the 1990s, I wrote for a half-hour every night.  And on Saturday nights, I wrote out the gist of my sermons for the next day. So, a full decade of that pastorate provided nearly five hundred sermons, the notes for which are available in those 50+ volumes of that journal.

Thirteen.  Work on proper English usage.  Make sure subjects and verbs agree.  Know the difference in they’re, there, and their. And do not say “some of you” or “many of you,” for the simple reason that no group of people will be reading your writing, but only an individual here and a single person there.  Say “you.”

Questions people ask about this…

One. “How do I write on a subject that has been covered in a hundred books by writers far better than me?”

Answer:  Tell your own story.  That’s never been done before.  You are the authority on your story.

Two.  “How do I keep a high standard for my writing?”

Answer:  By constantly reading what others have written.  Find books by gifted writers and read them in two ways:  Read them for content, paying no attention to style.  And then, go back and study the writing style.

Three.  “Isn’t there another way to tell my story than just opening up and letting it fly?”

Answer:  Sure.  When Bertha and I did our “Grief Recovery 101,” she basically answered four questions I gave her. So, you can use the Q&A format.

Another approach is to tell your story in third person, as though it happened to someone else.  By doing this, you may be able to take more liberties with persons and events.  And you can put difficult words in the mouth of a character, a device that novelists and cartoonists do all the time.

Four.  “How do I finish my story?”

Well, you could tell us where God is in your story, if you haven’t already done that.  You could draw lessons from what you went through.  You could give an update and say what happened to those people in your story.  And you could admit to things you realize now you did wrong.

Mine your experiences, my friend. They are pure gold. We want to read about them.











6 thoughts on “Writing about those painful personal experiences

  1. I was going through difficulties when Dr. Claypool wrote Tracks of a Fellow Struggler…I’ll never forget how refreshing his honesty was in that book. It was a real help to me at that time. Your article has prompted something in my spirit…I have always felt I wanted to be a “steward of the pain” of some of my life experiences…you may have just been used of God to provoke me to action in writing! THANKS as always!

  2. This is an excellent idea even if you aren’t in full time ministry. Some life experiences are so mind and life altering and it is encouraging to read of other’s challenges and know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Having gone through a year’s separation and then a terrible divorce (which, unlike a death just goes on and on) it is encouraging to see that broken hearts do mend and go on to be happy in life. Always enjoy reading your posts.

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