This past weekend, I went with my friend Erin on a road trip to Nashville, Tennessee. On Friday morning, I was sitting on my bed in the hotel room, just taking it easy and reading a biography of Flannery O’Connor after breakfast while Erin was doing her hair in the bathroom.
I had intentionally left my laptop at home, so my mind could have a break from my book. I also thought I needed to let my chapters marinate a little before I started working on them again.
I was expecting an email from my editor, so I grabbed my phone and sure enough, found a note from my editor about the final section of chapters in my book.
I’m so thankful for my editor because she shares with me how my chapters have encouraged her personally and how she can tell that I have prayed over the things I have written for this book. But I’m also thankful for her because she points out my blind spots. Yes, the simple blind spots like “This paragraph is too vague” and “You need to use a different word here.”
But she points out the massive blind spots too. Her note last Friday told me that I wasn’t addressing specific fears in my last section of chapters. She gave me a list of questions to consider the story in a deeper way; she told me to pray about it and examine myself so I can give more to my reader.
As soon as I read her email, I thought, Whoa, she’s right.
And then, a sigh and a groan and a tightening in my gut. I THOUGHT I HAD ALREADY GONE DEEPER! I THOUGHT I HAD ALREADY GIVEN AS MUCH AS I COULD! Is it worth it to push myself to go back to those places of pain for the sake of my readers? Will it benefit my readers? Is there really more to understand and to share?
The truth is that since February, my editor and MY GUT have been pushing me to go deeper as I write and rewrite my chapters.
When I first decided to make my book a memoir of not only building my house, but of the season of my twenties, I knew I wanted to add a few chapters at the beginning of my book. I wanted these beginning chapters to show some glimpses of who I was before I built my house and to show the themes that God was teaching me in my early twenties. The first chapter I wrote is a sweet yet honest reflection of how growing up behind my three older sisters has shaped me.
The next chapter I wrote is about one of the most painful transitions I’ve ever experienced—something I’m still a little confused about, something I can still muster up bitterness over if I’m not careful. This chapter is called “My College Crush,” and it’s something that I would never tell on a blog because I’d be afraid it would be taken out of context. But I felt I needed to share it in my book because somehow I’d be dishonest to my readers if I wrote a memoir about my twenties and left out one of the most important things that happened in my twenties.
Over the next few months, I continued to push myself to be honest in my chapters.
But then at the end of September, I read an article by Sarah Bessey called “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” And a month later, I’m still talking to my friends about this article because as a writer, I felt super convicted.
Here’s the background of the article: Six years ago, Sarah Bessey’s son was born in an emergency situation—she delivered her baby boy unattended in a parking garage! Thank God, she and the baby were okay. And because all turned out fine, the story quickly became Sarah’s go-to anecdote to get some laughs when she spoke at events.
But Sarah recently realized that she hadn’t dealt with the trauma of her son’s birth—the trauma of all the scary details, of all the painful “what if’s.” She realized that she had “sanitized” that story as she told it to others and even to herself. She came to a conclusion that goes much further than what we write about in blogs and books: “We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”
Like I said, as a writer, I felt super convicted.
I hadn’t been intentionally sanitizing any stories—which is pretty typical for us, right? We try to be brief, tell the story, and then move onto the next thing that’s on our schedule. Like… I’m fine now, no harm, no foul, no worries, no reason to wallow in the mess.
But after I read that article, I pulled out the table of contents for my book. I identified about 5 chapters that I knew I had sanitized somehow. Because I had had time—years—to distance myself from the messiness of these stories, it was easier to present a neat and clean version of them.
But if anything, I want my memoir to be real and true. (I’m a millennial after all; we value authenticity.)
So with a blue pen, I scribbled the notes of “add a little more of my heartache here” and “reveal more of the conflict here.”
Instead of reaching for my laptop, I grabbed a notebook out of the drawer, and like a good writing workshop, I did the exercise of free-writing for about a half hour. For a few weekends in a row, I practiced free-writing and let my conscience remind me of what parts of the stories I was leaving out.
And then for the parts that I couldn’t even recall, I found my old prayer journals from those days. I laid the journals out on my couch and read through the prayers that I had written about the situations I was now including in my chapters.
I started weaving those details into my chapters. I didn’t expect the process to be so emotional. It’s not that I was crying as I wrote my stories, but I felt raw, like maybe anything could bring me to tears. Like the next thing I knew I was wiping tears off my cheeks whenever I heard sad songs play on my iTunes.
Even though I didn’t totally understand it, I knew what was happening: MY BOOK WON’T LET ME NUMB!!
I can’t explain how vulnerable it makes me feel. And just like anytime I do something that’s harder than I expected, I asked myself, Why am I even doing this? Why can’t I go back to my comfortable place?
So you can see why I THOUGHT I WAS GOING DEEPER before I got my editor’s email last Friday.
But now it’s time to go deeper still. Such is life; such is art; such is faith. #WeWontShrinkBack
 Bessey, Sarah. (2015). “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” http://sarahbessey.com/sanitized-stories-we-tell/.
Mary works at Brookville Road Community Church, where she leads children's ministry and women's ministry. She is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.