Kathi and Michele talk about what it takes to write a difficult story. As a three-time cancer survivor, Michele knows what difficult looks like. Intimately. That knowing and so many moving, deeply personal parts of her story prompted her to write her latest book, Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves. You get a special, behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to write the hard parts of your story.
In today’s episode, you will know:
- How much do you tell?
- How do you write to relate with, but not overwhelm, your audience?
- How do we navigate a shared story without invalidating our own experience?
- How do we tell a hard story and still honor the people we love?
Writing At The Red House
Do you have a story to write? If so, either “How to Tell the Hard Parts of Your Story” or “Everything Memoir” Writing at the Red House Retreat is for you. Personal stories need to be crafted in a skilled way. Learn from industry experts and featured writers in residence, Michele Cushatt, Susy Flory, and Kathi Lipp, as they take you through the ins and outs of crafting your unique true story and how to best share you and your story with the world. Rooms are filling up. Book NOW.
Leave your question about writing your hard story and get entered to win a copy of Michele’s book, Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves. (Don’t miss your chance to buy a copy for you or a friend. The link is below!)
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Transcript of this Episode
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Communicator Academy Podcast #167
Writing Your Hard Story – Part 2
Kathi – Well, hey friends. Welcome to Communicator Academy, where our heart is to equip and encourage men and women to become the communicators God has created them to be. Joining me today is Relentless – Part Two! It’s Michele Cushatt, who’s the author of the new book, Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves. Now Michele, we are talking about telling your hard story. I’d mentioned in our first podcast, I got to see you work with people in telling their hard stories at The Red House. We had a retreat around this.
Michele – It was so fun. So rewarding.
Kathi – Who would think that a whole retreat of women who have been through Hell, which they really have, would be so much fun?
Michele – I’m all about finding the humor. We laughed quite a bit.
Kathi – We laughed a lot at that retreat.
Michele – Let’s just say I ate more than my share of peanut M&Ms on that trip.
Kathi – You started a tradition there. We have peanut M&Ms at every single Writing at The Red House.
Michele – I almost ate my weight in peanut M&Ms and that’s saying something.
Kathi – I’m so glad. That makes me so happy.
Michele – That and Boomchickapop. I was first introduced to Boomchickapop at Writing at The Red House: Writing Your Hard Story and as of today, I go through one or two bags of Boomchickapop every week. I’m just saying.
Kathi – Can I tell you what I learned about at Writing at The Red House that has destroyed my life? Crunchy Mochi from Trader Joe’s.
Michele – I didn’t know Trader Joe’s had Mochi at all, let alone Crunchy Mochi.
Kathi – It’s Crunchy Salty Mochi, which Tonya Kobo introduced me to. Can I just tell you? I am suffering from TMJ jaw pain right now.
Michele – Is that because of Mochi?
Kathi – I believe it is.
Michele – Sorry! I’m not laughing at your pain.
Kathi – You are a little bit, but we’re good enough friends that it’s okay.
Michele – You’ve got jaw pain because of Crunchy Mochi. Bless your heart.
Kathi – I know. Now Roger gets all the Crunchy Mochi in the house, and I just get to do Jamba Juice. It makes me a little sad, I have to be honest.
Michele – I’ll have some Boomchickapop for you.
Kathi – Boomchickapop, the sweet and salty, is the best thing ever.
Michele – I’m telling you, the purple bag. I’ve got one in there that I’ll be cracking open later today, and I blame Writing at The Red House for peanut M&Ms and Boomchickapop.
Kathi – You can’t blame us for peanut M&Ms.
Michele – Yeah, I kinda had that addiction before, but as all addicts, I need to blame it on somebody, so you’re it.
Kathi – Okay, I think I need a Costco trip today. That’s where you can get serious bag of Boomchickapop.
Michele – I know! It lasted for three or four days instead of one.
Kathi – Okay, that’s a little frightening. So, as we were feeding our faces with Telling Your Hard Story, and by the way, Michele is coming back in 2020. Here’s how awesome Michele was: Everybody, except for one person who has a physical ailment, everybody who was at that retreat in 2019, has signed up to come back to the 2020 retreat. I’m so thrilled. I cannot wait. So we made Michele add another retreat for brand new people about Writing Your Hard Story. So, if you’re in the midst of, or are thinking of writing your hard story, you’re going to want to get in on this. We will put the details up in the podcast notes. I want to continue our conversation. If you didn’t hear episode one, go back and listen to that. Michele talked about how do you fight through the resistance of telling your hard story? The resistance will come up. But, number two, I’m just going to ask the question simply and let you talk. How much do you tell?
Michele – That’s the question, isn’t it?
Kathi – It’s a big question.
Michele – It’s a big question and if you don’t wrestle with it; if it doesn’t take you weeks to wrestle through that, you’re not spending enough times with that question. It should be the hardest part of writing this kind of story, really, truly. How much do you tell? They’re your books, but ultimately, they are about our audience. We’re trying to serve a need, so we have to always be thinking, “How much do I tell?” Ultimately it comes down to this: I need to tell enough to meet the need without hijacking the overall objective and connection with the audience. If I tell a sensational detail, it might capture attention, but if it ends up causing trauma in my reader, then I have been reckless and irresponsible with telling my story. So, for example: throughout Relentless, in between each chapter are snippets from my dad’s last letter that he wrote me. I asked him to write it before we even knew he was going to have pancreatic cancer and die. This was about 18 months before we found out that he had pancreatic cancer, but I felt like it was one of those God things. I had a day when I was like, “I need to tell my dad he needs to write his story.” So, he wrote this letter to me, 14 pages long, telling me the truth about his childhood.
Kathi – What prompted you to ask for that story?
Michele – I’m not entirely sure. I knew snippets of his story, but this was 2011, so I was just beginning to write and get more into writing. I realized, as you watch your parents get older, I realized we didn’t have anywhere where he had written down his history. I knew, as he was getting older, that someday he’d be gone and none of us would really know the full extent of that story. So, I asked him. I remember where he and I were sitting when he and I had this conversation. I was sitting outside on the deck at my house right now. I still remember. I said, “Someday, I might want to write your story.” So, he knew that was part of what I was thinking. He ended up feeling very honored that I’d even asked. So, throughout Relentless, I include snippets pulled directly from this last letter he wrote me. Some of his story, I don’t want to share it here, but there are certain aspects of his story that are so raw and traumatic, that I opted not to include them in the book. They may have created sensationalism, and I’m certain there would be people who would buy it for the car wreck in the story, right? But my concern was that there would be people reading it that telling this particular aspect of Dad’s story would re-traumatize them.
Kathi – You don’t want to be responsible for triggering somebody in the midst of a book.
Michele – As I was going through Dad’s story, I only told the pieces that revealed some of what he struggled with, in ways that wouldn’t retrigger somebody that has gone through horrific childhood trauma. As far as my own story, the same: How much of my story do I tell that actually furthers my objective? What parts of my story am I telling just because I want to dump it on somebody else? I have to think through that and be extremely honest with myself.
Kathi – Because you should share those parts of your story, but probably with a therapist.
Michele – Yes. Exactly. That’s the other thing I did. I was going to my therapist the entire time I was writing this book. That was a very critical piece, especially when you are telling a hard story. You don’t want the pages of your book to become the therapy office.
Kathi – I love that there are some parameters there for you. You were not writing a book about childhood trauma, but there were aspects of it. I think, most of us, when we’re writing a book, we have these experiences. We are not just there reporting the experiences, we’re saying “How does this fit in with the story I’m trying to tell, and trying to equip the readers?”
Michele – Yes. Exactly. So, the purpose of this book was all about wrestling with the questions of “How can the existence of pain and the existence of God co-exist?” We equate the presence of pain with the absence of God. If we are suffering, that means God must not be with us. That’s especially hard when you consider childhood abuse, trauma and neglect. “Where was God when that happened? Where was God?” The ultimate whole premise of the book is wrestling with our faith in places of suffering. Well, my dad’s story and my story are merely the backdrop to introducing that conversation, but the purpose is very clear. It’s all about the unshakeable presence of God.
Kathi – Did your editor want you to tell more? Want you to tell less? Was there a back and forth on that, or did you feel like you guys hit it where it needed to be?
Michele – For the most part we hit it where it needed to be and that’s maybe because I’ve had the same editor for three books now. I can anticipate what she would say. What was helpful was, I could go back to her and say, “This part, this part, and this part feels really vulnerable to me. Have I gone too far?” and she would let me know. She’d say, “Yeah, this is too far. We probably don’t need to have that.” Honestly, truly, in every case, she said, “Nope. I think this hits the mark. I think you’ve said just enough.” The one thing we wrestled with was sharing the elements from my dad’s letter in between the chapters. It wasn’t because of sharing too much, it was making sure it didn’t distract from the overall objective of the book. So, we spent a couple weeks just talking through that. “Is it distracting? Is it too much? Is it confusing for the reader?” Ultimately, we finally landed on the fact that no, it helps connect this ongoing thread of God’s presence. Not just with me, Michele, but with generations of our family and generations of your family, as well.
Kathi – So, part of my question here is: You’ve got this great relationship with your editor. You’ve got this great book. When you’re writing a hard story like this, there are people who are not going to relate to any of the trauma that you and your dad have gone through. God bless them. They’ve had other things happen in their lives, but this isn’t it. How do you relate without overwhelming your audience? I know part of it was not sharing the sordid parts, but you want this book to be used in groups. You want this to be using in study. How do you make it applicable for your very specific hard story, to connect with such a diverse group of readers?
Michele – Man that is really the challenge. The best books are the ones that wrestle with that. The books that lose it are the ones that never turn the corner and never connect it to us. That’s why we don’t finish reading them. So in each chapter, I would open it up with some kind of narrative. Since narrative is my style, I open with some kind of narrative. At the end of the first section of ever chapter, there’s usually a page or two of some kind of narrative, I turn a corner to my audience, to the fact that the whole purpose of this is trying to identify the theological inaccuracies that are in us that we don’t realize, that make us question and doubt the reality of God’s presence. So, I’d find different ways to make that application. They may not have early childhood trauma, or any kind of medical trauma, but nobody has had a perfect set of parents. Nobody has had a perfectly ideal family experience. Nobody has a faith that is a 100% all the time. All of us have experienced some kind of relationship with an authority figure that has gone a little haywire. That translates into our perception of who God is. That’s where I have to turn the corner from my story to the more universal story of my reader.
Kathi – Okay, I love that. Absolutely. Sadly, your dad passed away four years ago. Am I getting the timing right on that?
Michele – Five.
Kathi – It’s been five? Oh, good golly.
Michele – Can you believe that?
Kathi – No, I can’t believe it. I got the dates confused. You’re right. It’s been five years.
Michele – 2014.
Kathi – So, I didn’t get the dates confused. I got my math confused.
Michele – Which is fair.
Kathi – Our dads passed away within months of each other.
Michele – Yeah, it was weeks, actually.
Kathi – It really was. It’s interesting, because in Clutter Free, I didn’t talk about my dad’s hording at all, and since, I’ve been more free with that, because I’ve had permission, to a certain extent. My mom has allowed me to have permission. Your dad passed away, but your mom and your brother are very much with us. Were you able to get buy-in from them? Did you feel like you needed buy-in from them? What did that look like?
Michele – Now we’re getting to the heart of this. This was probably one of the hardest parts of this whole book process for me. I don’t want to disrespect anybody in my family. My aim wasn’t to disrespect. Even five years ago, I would never have written this book because of my fear of damaging relationships. Part of my own maturity and growth is also learning to own my own experience. My experience, in childhood, is different than my brothers. That doesn’t mean mine is wrong and his is right, or vice versa. We had different experiences because we are two years apart and he’s a guy and I’m a girl and we are wired up differently and everything else. I had to also learn to accept my experience is valid even if it didn’t 100% line up with my mom’s or my brother’s. I did want to get buy-in, though. I didn’t feel like I had to, ‘cause this is my experience and my story. I didn’t feel like I was obligated to, but out of love for my mom and my brother, I wanted their buy-in. So, in January, I sent a fully completed manuscript to both my mother and my brother to get their input. I had conversations with them of my intent, my heart behind it, and wanted to make them aware, so there were no surprises, but also to say, “If you see anything in here that is not factual, please let me know. I want to make those changes.” At the same time, I told them, “I recognize that your experience is different than mine, and that’s okay.” To their credit, both my mom and my brother have come a long way in their ability to allow me my own experience, even if it’s slightly different than theirs. So, my mom and I have had multiple conversations. The other thing I would say, it’s been five years since my dad died. There’s been enough time that has passed. We’ve been wrestling through this together for five years. It’s not like I sprung this on them at the last minute.
Kathi – Right. Which I think is really important. Sometimes with a sensational story, there’s a rush to publication. I’ve read books recently that have said, “This is my experience. This is how X relative remembers it.” There’s a new docu-series on Netflix about the human brain and it’s shocking how much we forget and how much we get wrong.
Michele – And I make that comment in the opening chapter of the book. I say, “The truth is, I’m 48. Forty-eight years is a lot time to forget.” I’m not so much talking about facts and trying to recreate exactly what happened. I’m trying to hone in on how whatever happened impacted me and my perception of God. That’s valid. Regardless of all the details, whatever happened impacted my perception of God. God has led me, in the last few years, through a process of reconstructing my faith on truth and not lie.
Kathi – I love it, Michele. Okay. Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves. I’m going to have a link down in the show notes because I want you guys to get this. I want you to see what a hard story can look like in caring hands, and what God can do with that story.
Michele – Let’s do a give-away. Want to do a give-away?
Kathi – Yes! Okay, so guys, on this second episode, if you would comment. I would love your questions about writing your own hard story. So, if you do a question, I’m going to finagle Michele’s publisher. I’m going to get two copies of the book that we can give away. I would love to do that. Michele, thank you for answering hard questions. Even the questions about the hard story are hard.
Michele – I know. As I keep telling everybody, I’m determined my next book is going to be about donuts. Maybe Boomchickapop.
Kathi – Can we co-author that one?
Michele – Yes! Peanut M&Ms and Boomchickapop.
Kathi – Apple fritters for everyone.
Michele – Three Keys to a Happy Life. That’s what the book is right there. We’ve got a title and everything.
Kathi – I love it.
Michele – Alright friends, thank you so much for hanging out with us today. Personally, thanks for letting me talk about my book baby. You guys have been so very kind. You’ve been listening to Communicator Academy. I’m Michele Cushatt.
Kathi – And I’m Kathi Lipp.
Michele – You’ve been given the best message in the world. Now, go live it.
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