Chip MacGregor

May 21, 2013

Do I need to be done with an experience to write about it?


Someone wrote to note, “My critique partner told me I need to put aside my nonfiction manuscript, since he doesn’t think I’m really healed from the incident I’m writing about. Is that good advice?”

Hmmm… Okay, let me think about how to answer this question politely, but clearly. I don’t know you. You may be a mess. You may need counseling. You may not be ready to write a book. And I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that a nonfiction book is a tool that offers a solution to a question – so maybe if you haven’t worked all the way through it, you don’t have the solutions to offer yet. And that would mean you probably don’t have a book yet. 

Having said that, I don’t universally agree on the “wait until you understand it before you write about it” theory. The fact is, some of the best writing we have comes from people struggling IN THE MIDST OF pain. Take a look at James Agee’s Death in the Family or Brennan Mannings Ragamuffin Gospel or Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. One of the reasons we like those books, one of the reasons they resonate so well with readers, is because they don’t have all the answers. They are people struggling to find answers and, sometimes, coming up short. We live in a world that has questions and brokenness and pain — one that often doesn’t even believe in the notion of there being an “answer.” Letting others see the process we’re going through can prove helpful. So maybe you don’t really need to have all the answers to do a good book. 

I hesitate to make that argument, of course, because I’m afraid it will lead to me seeing more reflective poetry, angst-filled books on bad relationships, and screeds against groups who have hurt you. But while it’s always nice to see somebody who has gone through dark times and come out the other end victorious, remember that great literature can sometimes raise questions, not answers. 

Don’t you sometimes get tired of apparently Prozac-laden religious writers who want to tell you how they moved from difficulty to success, and sell you their twelve-step answers? Isn’t that one of the reasons people view Christians as out of touch? I represent a lot of faith-friendly books, and I see stuff all the time from people who have been through hard things. While I appreciate the fact that you’ve survived, the event itself doesn’t mean there’s a good book in it. The fact of difficult times does not make a book. People in Oklahoma are struggling with the aftermath of terrible tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they should all do a book. A good book generally has a great (if sometimes terrible) story to tell, and causes us to reflect on life or think about changing our lives in order to live more effectively in some way. So don’t send me your “I was healed” story unless there’s something more to it than “I was sick, now I’m well!”

Nor does the individual’s response to difficulty always make a book. (Or, to continue on the same theme, “I was sick, now I’m well. Praise God!”) Some people can’t write. Sometimes the rest of us can’t really connect to the story. My point is that even the BEST story about an active faith has to have some redemptive quality, plus some touchpoint in my life for me to care about it. To “write from the heart” means, to me, that you’ll share what’s really there — neither papering it over with Bible verses nor whining about the lousy hand you’ve been dealt, but revealing what you’re feeling, what questions you’re asking, what (if any) answers you’re getting. And doing it with great words, so that I appreciate the art as well as the story. AND, for it to be a great book, revealing something universal or transcendent about the experience.

To give this perspective, let me move the discussion into the realm of fiction. I was on a panel at  a conference one time, and somebody asked me what sort of novel I’d like to see. That’s a softball for me: “I want to read a novel that changes me.” I routinely come across fiction that entertains me. Nothing wrong with that — it’s largely why we buy fiction, and it’s the sort of thing that pays the bills for those of us who make a living in publishing. But occasionally I’ll come across a novel that makes me see the world with new eyes. A bit of writing that touches me by its power, revealing parallels between my own world and the world of the novelist. By going through that story, vicariously experiencing their struggle, I gain a new perspective. I learn a new way of thinking about my own life. Yeah, sure, sometimes the author shares an “answer.” But other times, the writer simply helps me to grapple with the questions. And THAT’S why I read. Does that help?

I’d love to see how you wrestle with this topic. Feel free to leave a comment. 

Share :


  • lesa says:

    Chip, my friend Keri Wyatt Kent sent me to your blog and scrolling through I found this post. “great literature can sometimes raise questions, not answers.” This is what I love about reading great works and it so confirms that my writing also does not have to answer questions. In fact it would be better if it got my reader to look for answers for themselves. So good. Thanks!

  • WmAnthonyC says:

    I think it’s an important distinction to make about writing through pain and having those pages be ones you send out for publication. I always suggest distance and some time removed to allow the writer to reflect, after all memoir is a reflexive art, not journalism. By all means, write as you experience, but clearly understand there will need to be some time before the writer revisits these pages in order to gain the perspective and reflection needed to make the particular, universal.

  • Carla Anne Coroy says:

    Like Chip said, it really depends on the person and the situation. I wrote my non-fiction book while I was still living it. In my case I had no choice but to write my story, and what I learned, before “everything was good” because there was no guarantee anything would ever change. I write for married women whose husbands are away or unavailable to participate in family life. Think military wives, long-distance trucker’s wives, wives of incarcerated husband’s, women married to men with long-term chronic illness… you name it. Married women who feel like single moms (I call us Solo Moms.)

    I was given the same advice at one point. “You shouldn’t write this until you have a happy ending.” The biggest response I’ve received from my book – by far – is that fact that I didn’t have a happy ending and I’m NOT telling people how to “fix” it but rather sharing how I’ve learned to live in the circumstance well. It’s not pretty, it’s not easy, and for me, 18 months after it hit the shelves… it’s still not over. I’m so glad my publisher understood that.

    Some stories never have happy endings, and so the healing will always be an on-going process. So I agree with Chip… it really depends. But by no means does a not-yet-completed healing process disqualify one from writing. As for publication, it also has to have relevancy, good writing, and as I’m learning more and more… a great platform! 🙂

    Thanks, Chip! I loved your answer!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Really appreciate your thoughtful response, Carla. I agree with what you’re saying — sometimes it’s the living in the midst of the problems that creates the most thoughtful book. Thanks.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I once wrote a memoir about a few things I experienced as a young adult. The writing itself brought me healing, so I would never tell somebody to put that kind of manuscript aside until they were completely healed. At the same time, I would never seek publication for that story. I wrote it because it changed me, and I shared it with my husband and a couple of close friends, and that’s as far as it will ever go. Sometimes, we are obedient to God and successful when we get the words on the page, whether or not anybody else reads them.

  • Kristen Stieffel says:

    I think the critique partner meant well. The writer may need to step back a bit from the publication path. But on no account should she stop writing. The writing will bring the healing.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    It’s interesting that the other comments are all about fiction, and I agree completely with them. I’ll admit I don’t read a lot of nonfiction because so much of it is just what you said, Chip. Twelve-step answers that lose me by step three.

  • Judith Robl says:

    And I want to write a novel that changes people… It isn’t easy. But that’s the goal. Still working on it.

  • Iola Goulton says:

    “I want to read a novel that changes me.”
    That is the simplest definition of a five-star read I’ve seen. Like you, I read a lot of novels I enjoy. But those aren’t the novels I remember. I remember the ones that change my thinking or my way of seeing something. And I don’t find that often enough.

    • Rick Barry says:

      Lola, you rightly picked out the core statement, in my opinion. While there is certainly an audience for mindless entertainment, a story that not only entertains but leaves us pondering for days to come is ultimately more powerful.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Iola. Appreciate your comment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.