Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Affliction: A Writing Tool for Touching Readers

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By Kelly Irvin

Affliction. It’s not a tool I often see included in the writers’ toolbox in articles and workshops on the writing craft. However, I’ve learned during my writing journey that it can be one of the most powerful tools we writers wield in shaping stories that speak to our readers.

Affliction is defined as “a state of pain, distress, or grief; misery. A cause of mental or bodily pain, as sickness, loss, calamity, or persecution,” according to dictionary.com, which goes on to say, “Affliction suggests not only a serious misfortune, but the emotional effect of this misfortune.”

It’s that emotional effect of affliction that is most important to us as writers for Christ, who suffered the greatest misfortune for us. As writers, our life experiences affect how we tell our stories. They affect how readers feel when they read our stories. Those stories give readers hope and make them feel less alone. How much depends on how much we’re willing to peel away the layers of protective skin and use our pain for spiritual growth—ours and theirs.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”

As writers we’re uniquely situated to help a mass of people—our readers—through difficult times. We can help them through tragedy, health issues, loss, and grief to that place where God holds their right hands and carries them through. They can see themselves as silver honed by the fire. They can see Him as the God of all comfort.

Sometimes they may want stories that are sweet and light—stories that help them escape their troubles for a few hours. Other times they may want—or need—stories that help them realize they are not alone, that help them see their way on a dark road to an unexpected destination.

If we believe God gave us the spiritual gift of writing, then we know he expects us to use it to his glory. Whether we like it or not. I’ve often been in the “or not” column in recent years, but I’ve also seen God working through me to touch readers.

Those of us with medical issues can use that reality to paint realistic portraits of life with affliction. A writer in one of the workshops I took at ACFW a few years ago described being in a terrible car accident. When she was in the ambulance, she thought, “I have to remember this, what it looks like, what it smells like, what they’re doing to keep me alive. This will be great for my story.”

Sound crazy? I’ve done it. I’m sure many of you have too. The details of being wheeled into the operating room for a 12-hour surgery that may kill me or leave me paralyzed are engraved on my brain. I know what’s it’s like to get the news that while the surgery was a success, I’ll never walk normally again. I know what it’s like to be told that I have a progressive degenerative disease that may leave me with the inability to walk, talk, or move my hands, to chew, to swallow my food. And then a month later, learn I have Stage 4 ovarian cancer and began a treatment journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

It’s no fun, but as a writer, I’ve come to recognize God can use every small detail, every emotion from this journey, in the stories I write. We all have our afflictions. If you’re writing for God, use them, dig in, and make them work for you to glorify Him.

I’m not talk about repeating our stories in a thinly disguised autobiography masquerading as a work of fiction. I’m talking about using the details of our most challenging life moments, but also the guts of them, the inner most inner most. I’m talking about those feelings of betrayal, of abandonment, of fiery anger that rages in the dark of night. Use those feelings in your writing. Your readers can relate to them, I promise.

A few years ago, I wrote a novel called Love Redeemed. It was a finalist in the ACFW Carol Awards contemporary romance category. In it, I used my grief over the loss of my brother in a boating accident when he was only 30 years old. It took 20 years for me to use that experience in my writing, but when I did, it came flowing out in the characters who experienced the loss of a younger sibling in a drowning during a family camping trip. It welled up in me in a way that made this the easiest—and the hardest—story I’ve ever written. Readers could relate. They wrote to tell me so.

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In Upon a Spring Breeze, the first book in my new series, my grief over the loss of my mobility and my health runs through Bess’s sudden, tragic loss of her husband, and Aidan’s loss of his best friend. I received this email from a reader/reviewer:

“I was touched throughout the story of Bess and her loss of her spouse. It happened to me, but I had 33 years with my first wife. Yet, it is a nightmare that few can imagine, especially when it is due to an accident and not an expected result of a lingering illness. You told it pretty much like it is, only it is worse than can be put into words. Like Bess, I was able, through God’s blessing, to move on and now have enjoyed 16 years with my current wife/soulmate. Thank you for the opportunity to join in your ministry to reach people through storytelling. Some could be helped by this story when in a grief experience of their own, about 2-or 3 months after the loss, at least from my experience. But everyone travels the grief and loss path differently.” (Alan Daugherty, reviews as Harold Wolf)

I’m using my childhood experience with verbal/physical abuse in newly released Beneath the Summer Sun, book two in the Every Amish Season series. I hope it will help a woman have the strength to leave an abusive spouse and get help. I hope it will help women who’ve experienced abusive relationships to believe they can experience a healthy, beautiful love with God’s help. These stories are reminders of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

I keep close to me a copy of a devotional by Joni Eareckson Tada called “Let Affliction Have Its Perfect Work.” In it, Joni, who has been in a wheelchair for 50 years, says suffering is like a sandblaster that strips away the fa├žade and gets down to the core of who you are.  “When you are reduced to the basics of suffering, when you have no where else to turn, when you are empty and exposed . . . God can then fill you up with Himself. The ’you’ that so often wants to take control of your life is removed and what do you have? Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

If like me, you’ve ever shaken your fist at the sky and asked, “why me, Lord,” I hope you’ll find your answer in the gift He’s given you. The gift of writing for Him.

How have life experiences shaped your writing?

Jennie Troyer knows it’s time to remarry. Can she overcome a painful secret and open her heart to love?

It’s been four years since Jennie’s husband died in a farming accident. Long enough that the elders in her Amish community think it’s time to marry again for the sake of her seven children. What they don’t know is that grief isn’t holding her back from a new relationship. Fear is. A terrible secret in her past keeps her from moving forward.

Mennonite book salesman Nathan Walker stops by Jennie’s farm whenever he’s in the area. Despite years of conversation and dinners together, she never seems to relax around him. He knows he should move on, but something about her keeps drawing him back.

Meanwhile, Leo Graber nurtures a decades-long love for Jennie, but guilt plagues him—guilt for letting Jennie marry someone else and guilt for his father’s death on a hunting trip many years ago. How could anyone love him again—and how could he ever take a chance to love in return?

In this second book in the Every Amish Season series, three hearts try to discern God’s plan for the future—and find peace beneath the summer sun.

Two-time ACFW Carol Award finalist Kelly Irvin is the author of the critically acclaimed Amish of Bee County, Bliss Creek Amish, and New Hope Amish series. Her newest release is Beneath the Summer Sun, the second novel in the four-book series Every Amish Season from Zondervan Publishing. Her work has also appeared in four Amish anthologies, An Amish Market, An Amish Summer, An Amish Christmas Love, and An Amish Christmas. Kelly is a retired newspaper reporter and public relations professional who lives with her husband in Texas. They have two children, two grandchildren, and two ornery cats.






43 comments:

  1. I'm not a writer Kelly, but there have been books that touch my life in a circumstance I happen to be at the time. It's amazing how God puts that story in my hands at the right moment when I need it! It could be something the characters are struggling with or a past hurt they are trying to overcome or any number of things. I love it when God does that :-) I've email authors before and told them just how their story touched my life, they always appreciate it!

    I know that my life, while not perfect (but who's is?), has been,at times, used by God to touch another person right where they are at. Things I've been through that can help minister to someone else going through something similar. Even if it's just to be the person to listen to them :-) I KNOW God uses even the brokenness of our lives to touch others. He's done it in my life so I only pray He opens doors so I can do the same for others.

    I love this post! There's so much truth to glean from it and encouragement. Thanks for sharing your heart Kelly, it reminds me that God wastes NOTHING in our lives :-) That's powerful!

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    1. Trixi, there's a talent . . . gift . . . I can't quite come up with the right word, but it's a special thing to be able to let yourself be ministered to by a book. God does that, of course, but you have to be open to it, and as an author, I'm so happy people like you are able to let God minister to them, and then tell the author! We definitely do appreciate those emails from readers so much!
      God wastes NOTHING--So true! And very wise, Trixi! Thanks for this!

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    2. Thanks for your kind words, Trixi. I love it when readers send me notes about stories that have touched them. It gives me encouragement to keep writing.

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  2. Kelly, what a beautiful and painful post. God bless you for finding in hardship, a way to help others and serve God.
    The most obvious answer to your question is....for me.....COWS. Yep, I'm surrounded by cows. And that seems to come out in my books...

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    1. And cowboys, Mary. Don't forget the cowboys. :-)

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    2. Cows always make me think of the first time I took my daughter to visit my sister on her farm. We went fishing and the herd of cattle kept getting closer and closer to our spot by the pond. Erin was not happy. She said, "The cows are staring at me." She got back in the truck. We still tease her about it.

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  3. Kelly, what a thought-provoking post... and so true. I draw on my past and my experiences with broken families and broken children to layer my stories because it seems to be a universal theme these days... and if one child is blessed and one parent sees the light God offers, well, then I've done my job well!

    Beautiful post, and thank you for your honesty....

    I've worked two jobs for thirty years... still do. And when I was working a host of hairnet and nametag jobs, waitressing, selling Tupperware, selling wedding gowns, working with emotionally disturbed kids, making fancy desserts for a big grocery market... I would think how I'd use all of this knowledge in my books when God gave me time to write... well he did... and over 40 books later, I've used so much of that learning curve to help others.

    Doesn't matter what you do...

    It's all in how you use it to make the world a better place.

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    1. Wow, Ruthy! I didn't realize you had 40 books! That's phenomenal! You amaze me.
      I love what you said: It's all in how you use it to make the world a better place.
      So true.

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    2. 40 books. That's amazing. When I first started writing fiction, I had a full time job and two kids in middle school. If God puts that calling on your heart, there's no ignoring it!

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  4. Kelly, what a powerful, painful post. Thank you Shi much for sharing. You've given me a lot to think about.

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  5. Good morning, Kelly! Thank you for sharing your from-the-heart journey through affliction and how you are reaching readers with God's message of hope in the midst of it all.

    While everything that has happened/is happening to you isn't "good," God does promise He will "work for the good" those very afflictions that we experience here on earth if we, like you, look to Him and seek to serve him. Thank you for this very thoughtful post to start our day and for sharing "the story behind the stories" with us.

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  6. Kelly, thanks for sharing your journey with us in such an honest way. God turns bad into good, and I think it's important to keep that in mind as we write. Despite the bad in the world, God is good! Always!

    Thanks again for sharing!

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  7. Kelly, thank you for sharing your path with us. You have been through so much! You are my hero for today.
    It is painful but so necessary to tap some of these things. I have been fortunate to have faced very few physical challenges, but have known depression, betrayal, loneliness and especially the feeling of not being good enough. I'm learning to use these in my fiction. If God allows any kind of pain, it is so we can grow and also use it to help others.
    Thanks for reminding us why we do this.
    Kathy Bailey

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  8. Kelly, thank you for sharing your pain and how it affects your writing. In my new novel that releases April 1, I tapped into my own experience of how two people with wounded hearts marry and eventually find healing together with God's grace. Most of us carry around wounds that are painful, but by sharing them with our readers, we help us all.

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  9. Thanks for this post. Last week while I was in the ER, I was thinking i needed to observe everything for a couple of my books that are in the editing and rewriting stage.

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    1. The mark of a true writer... :-)

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    2. Yep, that's me. Thinking I need to write this down!

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  10. Wow, Kelly. I'm so sorry for what you're going through. That is so hard. How wonderful that you've chosen to let God be your peace and to use your hardships for his glory. That is not easy, to get to that place.
    For me, I think I have a really hard time with this. I've been going through some really hard things, but subconsciously, I shy away from going too deep emotionally through my characters. I realized this four years ago when I was writing The Huntress and realized that I was having a hard time letting my heroine experience her own pain. I just didn't want to go there. It happened again with my last book, as I was again in a really hard season. It hurt too much to let my characters hurt. I just didn't want to go there. But you must. I hope I didn't mess it up. I hope I got it right in the rewrites and edits. I guess my readers/critics will let me know. :-)
    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kelly. I wish you healing and joy and peace from the Lord. He is our victory.

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    1. It's so hard to write about pain when you're in the middle of dealing with it - I know I need some distance from it. Time to process it.

      After my second miscarriage, someone told me that now I could help others who have the same experience. My thought then was that helping others was the last thing I wanted to do - I was buried too far in my own grief and pain. But now, years later, I am able to help others...but I never try to give them the same "comfort" I was given.

      Keeping you in my prayers!

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    2. Jan, nobody should ever tell you you can "help others" while you're still going through something. Period.
      KB

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    3. It does take time. And how much time is different for every person. It's a journey. After three years, I still have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and think I can't stand being like this. Losing my ability to walk normally was hard in some ways than the cancer diagnosis. I miss the physical me. I work everyday to accept that there is a greater good at work here. Even if I can't see it. And this struggle works its way into my writing. I'm a work in progress. We all are!

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  11. Good morning, Kelly, and welcome to Seekerville!

    You're so right - that word "affliction" isn't a popular one, but we have all experienced it.

    Pain - either physical or emotional (or both) - is part of the human condition. How we respond to it is what reveals Christ in us (I love that quote from Joni Eareckson Tada!) And as Christians, we can use our experiences to help others through their pain by pointing them to the Great Comforter.

    And to answer your question - yes, I use life experiences all the time in my writing. I try to use my writing to help people see that there is a Home waiting for us, no matter how broken our lives are, and that overriding theme has grown out of my life experiences.

    Thanks for the inspiring post!

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    1. I like the quote from Joni too. She is an example of using her pain to help others.

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  12. I think I'll try coming in through a different program tomorrow. Maybe Chrome.

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    1. I always use Chrome for Blogger - two children from the same mother, LOL! I hope it works for you!

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    2. Kathy, i found your comment in spam and released it. I don't know why some get caught like that!

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  13. If authors never had pain in their lives, how would they ever connect with their readers? When God says He'll use pain and hard times for our good, writing is just one more instrument for Him to use.

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  14. Joni has been such an inspiration--for so long! I guess we all have to remember that the invisible afflictions can be just as, or more, difficult, and often lead to loneliness. Thank you for your post today Kelly. It really touched me!

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  15. Kelly, you're an inspiration! God bless you for sharing your struggle.

    I often think we need to have a few life experiences under our belts, so to speak, before we can write compelling stories. Perhaps that was just my need.

    My mother died tragically and suddenly when I was a young woman. I draw from that time of shock and pain and loss when I write my stories. Early on, my characters often experienced the loss of someone close to them. Perhaps I've healed from the grief because my stories have shifted a bit recently, yet that emotion is still inside me and fuels my writing.

    God uses everything, when we lay it all at his feet in prayer. Nothing is wasted. Being able to impact another through our stories is a privilege and honor. Truly, we are blessed!

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  16. Kelly, welcome! And what a beautiful post. Thank you for those inspiring words. I've definitely shaken my fists and cried, "Why me?" And then almost immediately cried out for help. Your post really touched me today. Bless you for sharing with us.

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  17. Kelly, what a powerful post. You're so right that every affliction, every pain, can be used in a positive way to reach readers. For me, it was realizing that the pain didn't need to be used right away, and in most cases was much to fresh and raw to use.

    There are things in my life right now that I know will inform my writing in the future, just as things from my past inform my writing today.

    Your post was such a blessing today.

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  18. Thank you for sharing today, Kelly. It is a testament to God that you are able to use all the pain you have been through to share with others who may need to hear your words. I have tried to use my experience of losing my daughter to a congenital heart ailment at 17 months of age. It isn't easy to write about, but maybe someone else in a similar situation will find comfort in my words.

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  19. I take heart from the many comments here from other writers who've been through the fire and continue to write stories that encourage and offer hope to others. Writing can be an isolating occupation. Sharing our stories is really helpful!

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  20. Kelly, thank you for this powerful and honest post. I love the idea of using every emotion, detail and experience in from our lives in our writing. I'm currently working on a memoir about what it's like to be a caregiver to my father who has Parkinson's and dementia. It's hard writing. I pray it will be something other caregivers will read and that it will help them process their own emotions and help them to understand that they are not alone in their journey.

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  21. Kelly, bless you. You've taken so many hits and turned them into fodder for your stories.

    Some of us have had lesser trials in some areas, more in others, and we take those tragedies and triumphs and use them in our stories. Oftentimes, the result looks nothing like the tragedy or triumph we experienced, but the emotion is just as powerful.

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  22. I am not normally fond of change. I do like the changes made in Seekerville though.

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  23. Wonderful post Kelly. I so appreciate your encouragement to be real and vulnerable with our lives. We never know who is going to be impacted, but surely if God walked us through it, we can somehow use that walk to bless another.

    Thanks for the great post

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  24. This post rings so true. As Christian writers we must be willing to share stories around the hard subjects. I love reading books where it plucks at my heart because I or someone I know has experienced the same deep emotions. I can relate to taking mental notes for a scene. One of my characters is given a paralyzing drug to give the appearance of death. I wanted to capture her helplessness at being able to hear and feel things around her while she couldn't move. I had an MRI, as you knw you can't even scratch your nose. I allowed my mind to take in every sensation and imagined I was the heroine trapped in a paralyzed state. I feel it made the scenes while she is under the influence of the drug more believable. At least I hope so.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  25. Hi Kelly. Thanks for being so open and so encouraging. Every experience, every failure, every victory, every loss, every joy--all of these can help us as we relate to others. Sympathy is always appreciated but I believe that empathy is latched onto and held by those going through a situation.
    Blessings!
    Connie

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  26. Wow, Kelly! You don't even know me or have read any of my books, both published and those in progress, and you know that I write about affliction: drugs, suicide, broken dreams, grief, chronic illness, depression. So far, I have written about the following: -(fictitious) rock star becomes a Christian
    -teenage girl gets clean from drugs and becomes a Christian by following a local Christian rock band
    -a young woman becomes a widow and listens to Prosperous Souls to get her through the grief
    -a young single woman is diagnosed with endometriosis and meets the man who is her husband around this time
    Thank you for writing this post.

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