#Tell His Story Featured Writer: Seth Haines
During 2013, dozens of talented writers are joining me to cheer you on in your storytelling. These guest-writers will share a few helpful words with you right here every Tuesday night, to encourage you as you #TellHisStory. (Come back after midnight Wednesday to link up your God Story by clicking here. From now through Easter, we’re considering “The Lenten Journey,” though you are free to share ANY story that God lays on your heart.)
And now, I’m delighted to introduce you to my friend, the very talented Seth Haines.
I love a good story, something moving and authentic, something that feels real.
But as a Christ-following story-teller, I confess that writing authentically is sometimes difficult. After all, shouldn’t our stories reflect the character of Christ? And if this is so, how do we deal with doubt, pain, seedy characters, or precarious (if not embarrassing) predicaments? Are we allowed to write in a way that renders the world as it is, or should we soften it, make it more palatable for our parents, priests, and fellow parishioners?
It’s tempting to paint the world in Christian language, isn’t it? But the starkness of the Gospels, the authenticity with which Christ’s story is told should inform our art. In the synoptics, we find the life of Christ recorded in gritty detail — the pregnant unwed mother, the murder-minded religious leaders, the whore who abandoned her demons for a Christ with no interest in her wares. There was the naked stalker in Gethsemane (Mark 15:51, 52), the scalawag betrayer whose entrails exploded from the tree of his hanging (Acts 1:18), and the doubting man who stuck his hands in the scabs of Christ (John 20:27).
As it was, it was told. Truthfully. Authentically. It’s this kind of authentic narrative that fuels the holy tension of the Gospels, that maintains the dichotomy of sinners and Savior.
So when you write, do it honestly and with integrity. Tell the story as it is, without the whitewash to which we are so prone.
Write the truth. Write it real.
I am a working stiff who enjoys good sentences, good music, good food, and fishing the running rivers of Arkansas.
I am blessed to be the husband of Amber Haines and the father of four boys. I have been trying to shake the haunting of Rich Mullins’ lyric “nobody tells you when you get born here how much you’ll come to love it but how you’ll never belong.” (To no avail, mind you.) It’s a privilege to scratch out words when the opportunity arises. Thanks for reading.
(Seth blogs over here. His wife, Amber, blogs over here.)
QUESTION FOR YOU: Seth says that as a Christ-following story-teller, writing authentically is sometimes difficult. Would you agree? Do you have tips to share, or a question for Seth?
Subscribe to Top Ten With Jen & Get Freebies
Enter your email to get inspiration delivered straight to your inbox. You will also get immediate access to exclusive FREE resources on my website.
You have Successfully Subscribed!
- On Writing:Tell it Real | Seth Haines - [...] “Are we allowed to write in a way that renders the world as it is, or should we soften…
- Seth Haines | On Writing:Tell it Real - [...] “Are we allowed to write in a way that renders the world as it is, or should we soften…
Writing authentically, warts and all, is definitely difficult. One part of me doesn’t want it to get in the way of the story — like it would be a trigger or a turn-off. Another has the idea that it just might help someone else.
A third part of me wants to know who the whore is that you referenced. A trigger of a whole different variety. You are surely not mixing Mary of Magdala cured of her seven demons and who became Apostle to the Apostles with the unnamed sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair? Yeah, I know, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice got it wrong too. We can thank one of the early popes for that.
(Confession: I just finished reading a book on Mary Magdalene and how the myths and legends and archetypes got built around her.)
Thanks Leanne. … I have struggled, too, with authenticity … how far is too far… I’m dealing with that right now in a chapter of my manuscript. My editor has definitely been helpful in that regard. A second (or third) set of eyes always helps. I’ll be eager to hear what Seth says about that…. Thanks for asking your question and offering some clarification about the Biblical reference.
Say, can you share the name of the book? I’d be interested in checking that out. Take care, Leanne.
Leanne, Seth was having trouble with my commenting system tonight, but was gracious enough to send a response via email. Here’s Seth:
The reference to the “whore” is actually a mishmash of characters in scripture, which would include the promiscuous woman at the well, the woman brought to Jesus caught in adultery, the unnamed woman who was a “sinner” (as you reference, and the traditional (if not scripturally clear) reference to Mary Magdalene.
The point holds, though, that without the grit of those stories, we wouldn’t know the full power of the Gospel. As Amber and I have been reading the Gospels again, I am astounded by how raw and amazing these stories are, especially in the context in which they were written. I can’t help but think they would have been such a blessing to the broken reader.
Thanks for the question. I genuinely live good scriptural pushback and questioning. Iron sharpening, and all of that!
I can finally reply now. Sorry for sending message through Jennifer! 🙂
With respect to authenticity (warts and all) I think there is definitely a balance. I think you can share authentically in a way that is neither trigger or turn-off, but I think we always have to ask the reason for sharing. What is the purpose of penning it. (Incidentally Billy Coffey has a good #TellHisStory word on purpose.) Whenever I’m describing something with any amount of grit I always ask 1) is the grit necessary to the story, 2) does it advance the purpose of the piece, and 3) will it get in the way of the story.
It can be tricky, but sometimes I think we’re called to engage in these types of delicate story telling. And maybe sometimes we’re not.
Great post, Seth. I do write gut-wrenchingly honestly–and I might add at God’s leading, as I’m sure you do. There are some things He’s led me to share, and some not. I think I can write authentically without telling all my story all the time. When you write truth, Seth, when does your truth infringe on someone else’s? Or do you think it ever does? In other words, when there is something unsavory or unflattering about your story, but it was because of what someone perpetrated against you, are you at complete liberty to bare *their* story in that light, because it has become a part of your own? I ask because of a painful incident which occurred to me recently. If I’m unclear, just ask, and I’ll try to reframe my questions. You’re a fabulous writer, and I might add, so is Amber! What a combination the Lord has orchestrated with the two of you! May the Lord bless you both as you split open the world with your words.
When you write real, you will almost always run the risk of infringing on another person’s story. There are a couple of pieces I’ve written where I’ve had to be very mindful of this, and change names, circumstances, places, etc. And sometimes, I take very real circumstances and fictionalize them to protect the sanctity of another’s story. I think of these two pieces in that vein:
In addition, there are stories that I *want* to share, but that I have to keep hidden. I think of various experiences I had last year with fledgling churches in developing countries. If I were to tell those stories at all (much less honestly), if I were to include places, lives could be in jeopardy. I know this is an extreme example, but their stories are sacred, and it’s better that I just leave those be.
Make sense? Push back?
YOur counsel is wise. Thank you so much for responding. Yes, we can change names and times and circumstances, and that’s a good way to overcome this diffculty if divulsion in raw writing. And I would certainly agree that there are times when, ethically, we are simply not at liberty to go public, such as the situation you mention above. I fully agree. Another solution (particularly if you are writing for a publisher) is to get written permission to publish from the person whose story you are sharing. My concern over this situation perpetrated against me (that I mentioned in my first post) is that if I write the story, despite that I would change names and other identifying factors, the person, herself, will recognize that it’s she about whom I’m writing. I have no doubt. Obviously because what I would say is unflattering, I couldn’t ask her permission to publish. Any ideas there? Is it better not to write about it, even though I think it could help others?
This is such a difficult one for me, as a journalist, because I never changed the name or the circumstances of any story I wrote — ever. I strongly discourage the use of anonymous sources in my journalism classroom. I’ve always received permission from the person, or gotten a “no comment.”
But when it’s a personal essay, this becomes much more difficult. I would be inclined to get the permission of the person first, asking if I can use his/her name. If the person declines, I’d ask about changing names or details. If the person declines again, I’d have to weigh the merits of telling the story with the relationship I might risk jeopardizing. And, of course, I would also have to consider the possibility of libel. Truth is a defense in a libel case, but it gets a bit more complicated with the public disclosure of private facts.
I’m with JDL, here, and also, let me offer this…
Sometimes, I think stories should be submissive. In other words, if the story is likely to harm a relationship or damage a reputation, and if the damage will be viewed as manipulation or “dirty laundry,” sometimes the story should submit to reconciliation. Hold the story back. Commit to reconciliation and forgiveness.
I’ve held a few (read as “100s”) of stories captive because their telling would be seen as manipulative or harmful. That’s where gospel-centered wisdom has to come into play, I think.
Them there’s my two pennies.
Wondeful advice from you both. THank you Seth & Jennifer.
THIS was an excellent exchange. So glad I subscribed to the comments so I didn’t miss it!
Lynn, your comment is something I am wrestling with myself, as the story I feel called to tell does not shine light favorably on others, some who are very close to me and whom I love very much.
Seth, I so long to authentically share about Christ’s work in me because He has authentically met me where I am and changed my life. It is exactly that raw reality in the gospels which is part of what draws me to Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t much for whitewashing…
Right on, Amy. He wasn’t much for it.
AMy6, I’m taking the liberty of responding, *only* because you addressed me. =] This is just I, but I think I would put love over a public story. The story with those you love (even if there are difficult chapters) can be written in the day-to-day encounters with the people you mention, without ever being revealed in a book or blogging screen. If these relationships are tenuous, perhaps you can love the people better without exposing difficulties for the world to see. If/when your story that involves others is ready to be told publicly, you can do so at God’s leading and with their permisison. But if you are wondering, my counsel would be to put your love for them over publication. The other thing you can do is to tell a painful story in your journal, in quiet confidentiality between you and God.
I pray God will show you what to reveal and when.
May He bless you as you write for Him.
Glad you’re here, Amy. And agreed: Jesus didn’t dig the whitewash.
One of my favorite writerly quotes: “A good story ought to perform a service by making us better, stronger, wiser, or happier than we were before. It makes us laugh or cry. It imparts wisdom. It teaches lessons about human nature and our place in God’s creation. It addresses our need to find coherence in our lives. It gives us a sense of continuity within the overall stream of human experience.” (p. 69 from “Story Craft” by John R. Erickson; author of “Hank the Cowdog” children’s series)
Balancing authentic truth and God’s Truth sometimes creates quite a place of tension. Although grit is good, we surely don’t need x-rated scenes, gory details, or potty mouth vernacular to impart our own redemption stories or that of fictional characters…
Thanks for this insight, sir Seth.
Thanks for that quote, Darlene. It’s golden.
“Balancing authentic truth and God’s Truth sometimes creates quite a place of tension. Although grit is good, we surely don’t need x-rated scenes, gory details, or potty mouth vernacular to impart our own redemption stories or that of fictional characters…”
Although I agree with this to some extent, I’ve recently written a piece of longer fiction that might push some of these envelopes (not all). Sometimes in telling a real and believable story, I think you have to be willing to explore the edges your comfort zones, especially when it comes to fiction. That being said, I try to pray earnestly through the scenes, the story, and ask whether the scene advances the story to the ultimate glory of God, or whether it’s just for the sake of shock-value. One tact is acceptable, I think. The other might not be.
Amber and I are reading through the Bible in a year. We’ve been carving our way through Gen, Exodus, and the Chronicles (I mean that very literally). Man are there some gory details in there. But they all serve to point us to Jesus, ultimately. The stories wouldn’t be the same without some of those details.
Those are just my opinions, though.
Thank you for the response. I appreciate it muchly.
Thanks to you, Seth, for making room for the gritty side of life. I guess the other option would be something akin to white-washed tombs. Or taste-less salt.
oh, and those hauntings from Rich Mullins? i get that, too.
tasteless salt… yes. I think so.
Oh Rich. He’s the best forever.
Really good advice, Seth. I took a workshop with Lauren Winner last fall, and she noted that Christian writers tend to sentimentalize. I know I do that from time to time – I often try to wrap up my blog posts all neat with a big, tidy bow. It’s hard to write the ugly truth and wait for the redemptive ending.
“…tend to sentimentalize.”
Oh man I get this. Let me name drop here (cause I know you know her) — Ann Kroeker. Her editing at The High Calling? Amazing. She’s the best at keeping a writer from over-sentimentalizing, from trying to wrap it up with a bow.
These are good words, Michelle. I wish you’d write more about this.
Me, too! I agree with Seth: Write more about this, Michelle.
oh, this is good stuff. When we stay real, His work is highlighted in the glory due to Him. Not whitewashing it all. I have moments I feel a war with this many times.
It is a war, sometimes. A war indeed.
My work in progress has some very raw and ugly parts, but isn’t that where our Lord’s redemption shines brightest?
I too had concerns about jagged edges, but truth is truth, and real is real, right?
Truth is truth… real is real… I like that. See my comment below regarding fiction. I wonder if you’d have two cents to add on that?
For me the question is in the language I use. I struggle with word choice specifically about using expletives in my writing. I could certainly leave them out but there is something inauthentic about putting a “shoot” where another word would give the phrase more weight, the weight it really needs.
And yet, I used to tell my high school students that they were smart enough to come up with a more descriptive, less offensive word.
I don’t know if this is correct, but I do draw a distinction in writing fiction and non-fiction. I try not to use expletives in my non-fiction because, like you say, there are more descriptive, less offensive (or polarizing) words. But what about when you’re writing fiction, when you’re crawling into characters that have a different voice?
I have some characters that I am certain would use language that I have been afraid to write. I have tried to remain authentic and convey their emotions in other ways.
Is this just a chicken’s way out?
I don’t think this is the chicken way out. I *think* (and JDL can also speak to this) that you have to know your purpose and your market. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an artistic decision one way or the other so long as it serves the purposes of Maker and market.
Would agree here. Depends upon the audience. I used to be able to string together quite a series of … um … choice words, but rarely do these days, so it’s not a part of my vocab. I tell me girls that there are more creative words to choose than the easy ones people turn to. God has given us such a rich vocabulary. That being said, if I truly felt the word was necessary in my nonfiction, I’d truly have to use it. If I felt it fit the character in fiction, I’d have to use it. I think we always have to ask ourselves: “What does the story demand? What is true?” … I must add: I do think it’s been kind of annoying lately, when people throw cuss words around in their blog posts, in a way that seems to be an attempt to add a bit of shock value. It feels goofy to me. I’m not offended by the use of those words, it just feels like someone is trying too hard to be relevant.
I like this Seth. This dose of reality. I love the authenticity of the gospels, and I love that it boils down to this: God accepts us, all of us. I try to write authentically – what helps is I am never writing for a specific audience or following….I don’t promote my blog so am left to just be me. One day this may change – but for now – I like not having demands or expectations – I think those create with them the need or the lure for less authenticity, perhaps? I dunno. Thoughts to ponder on.
Hi Fiona! So great to have you here. I love what you say, about not feeling bound to an audience. I’m sure this frees you up greatly in your writing. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
Thanks, Fiona. I like what you’re saying about a specific audience. I bet preachers feel this pressure keenly. How can you authentically address situations when your congregation might not like it? And if they don’t, and they leave, then what?
I know a lot of people have said this before, but we really do write for an audience of one.
Here’s the problem with trying to sculpt the story to fit nice and neat into a pretty box with a bow around it, no fuss, no muss, no questions left unanswered: We aren’t trusting God to use the story as is. Life is messy. Worship is messy. Just last week, I caught myself doing it again, trying to orchestrate a sweet ending.
Thanks for your words today, Seth!
Yes, Marilyn. I couldn’t have said it any better!