Negatives to Positives: Writing the Tough Stuff

By Sherri Langton

Take a minute and think about a negative experience — your personal 9/11 when your world exploded and imploded. Maybe it was a cancer diagnosis. The death of someone close. Abuse. Dementia. If you’ve logged many miles on life’s odometer, several catastrophes might come to mind. 

Do those events just make for bad memories, or can they be used? If you have the typical writer’s brain that scans every situation for possible material, you know the answer to that question. At my first Christian writers conference, author Ruth Vaughn said it well: “God can make creative use out of your misery.” 

I’ve seen Him do just that. Among other events, God creatively transformed my grandfather’s rejection of Christ, a loved one’s chronic depression, and my cancer battle into published pieces. As a magazine editor, I also read hundreds of submissions in which writers deal with everything from suicide to addictions to abortions, pointing readers to the hope of Christ.

I won’t kid you. Writing the tough stuff is hard if you’ve never tried it. Scarred-over wounds reopen and bleed all over again. Memories safely tucked away come back to life. In some cases, you may not be ready for that. But if you are, God can redeem the pain and use it to help readers survive their own agony.

The challenge is committing personal pain to paper effectively. While there are many things to consider in this kind of writing, here are a few points not often mentioned.


Before you begin, ask yourself why you want to write about a negative experience. For catharsis? Good — a degree of healing will come. To help a fellow sojourner struggling with the same issues you’ve faced? That’s great — for both of you. The process of writing forces you to analyze the event: the why behind the what, the ways God worked when you didn’t know it. In return, the reader will discover the meaning behind their mayhem and a hope to hang on to.

Not all writers write out of good motives, however. In a number of submissions to our publication, I’ve detected an edge to the writer’s tone or demeaning language when describing other people. For example, one writer wrote about their marital conflicts and the local church’s lack of support. This writer referred to the board of elders as a group of old men. In anger, another writer scolded family members because they didn’t share in caring for their aging parent. 

Should our writing be honest about people? Absolutely. Readers going through their own tough stuff see right through Pollyanna and platitudes. But while you’re thinking through your purpose, remember: Speaking the truth in love is a critical guideline.

The living

Does your negative experience involve people who are still living, like family members or friends? Even with the right purpose in place, this is ground you must tread carefully. Ask yourself how your story will affect the people you’re writing about. Will your description of your parents’ fights embarrass them? Will it hurt your neighbor when the world learns they escaped date rape? You can change their names and yours, but public exposure of private matters can bring hurt you never intended.

Try discussing your story with the people in it so they understand your desire in writing. Value them over your art. 

Head and heart

A common weakness in writing the tough stuff is that the stories read something like this: “My daughter became ill, so we took her to the doctor. He said he wasn’t sure what was wrong, so we went to the hospital. We spent the night in the ER and finally got some answers the next morning. I called my mother and asked her to pray.”

You caught it, didn’t you? Telling, telling, telling. But it’s more than that. This writing is all event and no emotion. The author never says how they processed what was happening while it was happening. 

When writing the tough stuff, the head and heart must work together. The head recalls details: the mangled metal after the car crash, what the hospice nurse said, the last breath of a dying loved one. The heart remembers the feelings: the fear of never walking again, the hopelessness of being alone, the anger at God who seemed to stand at a distance and gave no answers.

This head-and-heart collaboration allows readers inside your private world to experience the tough stuff with you, and it creates an instant connection with them. Rather than being “the writer,” you become a travel mate on the same difficult journey.  


Author Nancy Mairs devotes an entire chapter to writing about tragedy in her book Voice Lessons: On Becoming a Woman Writer. She says that a writer must do more than share a horrible story. They must show how they’ve changed, what they’ve learned through the event.  

Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28? “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (NKJV). Those words have soothed many a struggling soul. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He added, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me” (v. 28, NKJV, emphasis mine).

So think. What have you learned through the negative event? After you survived cancer, maybe a fresh compassion motivated you to volunteer in an oncology ward. Maybe you reach out to hurting teens, seeing the face of your child who was lost to drugs. Perhaps you’ve released a hurtful past and are embracing life after divorce. In some cases, the crucible may never stop. But neither will its lessons.


Ruth Vaughn was right, but she didn’t tell the whole story. We work in tandem with the Creator as He turns misery into creativity. We have a front-row seat in watching Him fulfill the “good out of bad” of Romans 8:28 — in every situation, every time.

Posted June 4, 2024

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