I want to tell you about the dumbest thing I ever did as a writer.
It was about 11 years ago, and my husband and I were a part of a newly formed church. We had been going through a lot of spiritual gift classes and conversations about what it meant to use our special abilities for the glory of God.
As a new church, our ultimate goal was to reach people in our community, develop relationships, and perhaps even lead them to Christ or, at the very least, get them to come on Sunday morning.
At the time the church was formed, I was two years out of my Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing program. For my master’s thesis, I’d written a collection of short stories centered on a rock band from my hometown of Kent, Ohio, whose dreams of stardom are annihilated when the shootings at Kent State University take place in 1970.
You can read about it more in this blog post, but it took me a while to discover what “my material” was. Through a lot of trial and error and the wisdom of a classmate who finally propelled me to make a change, I realized that Kent was where I came from.
My family was connected to the music scene that took root in the region during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as well as the tragedy at Kent State. It was a story I needed to tell through my fiction, one that I was not only interested in but that my readers would be, too.
But things were different now. I was at our new church, learning about ministry and how to use my gifts. And as I attended these workshops and training sessions, I started to wonder . . .
. . . was I really glorifying God in my work?
I started thinking about my characters. They were deeply sinful people. They did drugs and had promiscuous sex. They cheated on each other and were serial liars. Not only that . . . but there was swearing in the book.
Surely, God could not truly use my work if it wasn’t pointing people directly to the Gospel.
So, I made an important decision about my work.
I was going to abandon those dirty sinners from grad school. I was going to clean up my act. I was going to become . . .
. . . a Christian Novelist.
I even knew exactly what I was going to write as my breakout Christian Novel.
It would be an end-times novel about someone being saved during the Great Tribulation.
“Like Left Behind, but way better!” I told my husband.
He admits that at the time, he was a little baffled by this and had doubts, but at the time, he wasn’t a writer and figured I knew what I was doing.
Moreover, when I told everyone at church about my decision to become a Christian End-Times Novelist, they were thrilled. Maybe even a little relieved.
And with that, I started writing my Christian End-Times Novel.
I was prompted to revisit this book's (unfinished) manuscript recently. It’s got some merits. On the line level, it’s well written. Despite the subject matter, there’s not a ton of melodrama. There’s an element of intrigue to it. As a reader, I felt drawn into some parts of it. Apparently, I also did research on chemistry, which is big for me.
But for the most part, it’s a rehashing of a bunch of theological themes that don’t belong in fiction. I even pulled an Ayn Rand and dropped a three-page speech in it.
That’s the problem I have with agenda-driven fiction, even if I agree with its basic ideas. It isn’t having sincerely held beliefs that’s the problem—it’s the use of storytelling to convince people to do or believe something.
If you feel strongly about something, you would be better off writing nonfiction.
This brings me to my main point: writing an original story means using your unique means of expression for your own purposes.
Original Writing Doesn’t Come from Following Other People’s Directives
Sometimes, well-meaning people will tell you what they think you should be writing. Their intentions are good—they wouldn’t offer advice if they didn’t think you had talent.
The people at these church workshops I attended subtly communicated that writing “Christian fiction” was the way to truly glorify God with my gifts. They meant well. But they didn’t understand that glorifying God often means using your gifts to minister to hurting people.
Stories designed primarily as evangelistic tools don’t minister to those people. What I realize now as a Christian who is also an artist is that my stories about rock musicians and their toxic methods of dealing with unspeakable loss and tragedy glorify God through my gifts more than my attempt at writing an end-times novel that included a three-page gospel message.
Many people who read this blog are Christian people, and I hope this message resonates with them. But even if you follow a different faith or none at all, this is also for you. Don’t discount the fact that what you feel drawn to write can impact readers.
You create original material when you latch onto the subject matter and characters you are passionate about.
Pick a Form That Fits Your Content
Sometimes, you start writing in one genre only to realize you picked the wrong genre for your idea. I’ve had this happen a number of times. Since I’ve started writing flash nonfiction, I’ve discovered that most of the poems I’ve written in the last fifteen years are supposed to be short essays.
That doesn’t mean I’m not good at poetry or shouldn’t write it. It just means those pieces were supposed to be essays.
If you want to write about a life experience or an issue that is important to you, consider choosing nonfiction over fiction.
Yes, it’s okay to fictionalize your life. But sometimes, those ideas work better as personal essays.
If you’re a Christian and want to write something that conveys the gospel to people who need Christ, that’s great. But I speak from experience that a personal essay will always be more effective than a story with overtly Christian themes. Always.
I say this as a former atheist who was appalled by Christian movies and stories. But when the real people in my life shared their genuine Christian faith with me, I began to reconsider my beliefs.
This doesn’t even apply just to religion. If you feel passionate about a particular political or social issue and are compelled to share your views, people don’t want to hear talking points or propaganda. They want to listen to your story.
Whether I agree with someone’s beliefs or not, I always want to hear their original story of how a topic has impacted them.
Choosing the proper context and genre is how you make your original story speak to people.
Trust That Your Story is Original Enough on Its Own
One of my favorite writing teachers, Jonathan Rogers, frequently says that the job of a good writer is to give readers something they can’t get anywhere else.
Without exception, that directive applies to anyone who wants to write. We all have life experiences and beliefs to share that our readers can’t get from any other source.
That was the critical problem behind my attempt at being a Christian Novelist. There is such an unnecessary overabundance of end-times stories that I had nothing to contribute, not even a “better” version of it.
While there are things about that attempted project that are intriguing or interesting, that story was never going to be genuinely original. Especially considering that I didn’t really care about my own story. Especially considering that I felt coaxed into doing it rather than choosing to do it on my own.
You always, always must be authentic in your writing. You won’t be giving the gift of your original life experiences and ideas to readers otherwise.
Want to Talk About This More?
I know that the pressure to be original and the fear that no one will want to read your work is very real, and sometimes, you need someone to talk to in order to work that stuff out.
That’s why I make myself available for free 30-minute Zoom consultations where I’ll answer your questions and discuss your pressing issues.
I like to call it a Virtual Meetup.
It’s totally free, and there’s no obligation to sign up for anything or buy anything. I just want to help because I know how hard this can be.
Click here to find out more, and if it sounds cool, grab some time on my calendar. I’ll look forward to talking to you!