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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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“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 façade 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.