Are you an overcomer? A few simple strategies can help you tell your story and help others.
Writing about painful experiences is no picnic.
Death, divorce, health challenges, mental illness—all these things and more can be hard to talk about. But if you’ve been through one of these life-changing experiences, you may feel you have a story to tell that could help others face down similar problems.
At The Book Professor®, we call this type of book an “overcomer story” because it tells a story of not just meeting tragedy, but successfully navigating it.
Our authors have told stories about all sorts of tragedies: illness, death, divorce, loss of career, loss of identity, abuse, estrangement, betrayal, mental illness, and more.
“There are so many problems in the world that sometimes we don’t even know how to name them anymore, much less solve them,” says The Book Professor® founder Nancy Erickson. “But the answers are trapped inside of everyday people. We tell their stories: what they’ve been through, what they’ve endured, what they’ve overcome, and they then become the source of hope for others.”
Are you an overcomer? If you have a story that would help others, here’s some advice on how to write about difficult or painful material.
Identify Your Book’s Purpose
Hopefully, your goal in writing about difficult material is to help others. Keep that front and center as you write.
Readers don’t want an invitation to wallow in an author’s misery. They want encouragement, hope, a picture of someone just like themselves who faced the same problem and made it through.
That doesn’t mean sugarcoating your story. It means focusing on how you solved the problem and directing the story toward a positive ending. Your book may make a reader cry, get angry, or feel uncomfortable, but it should also inspire hope, and new ideas about how to overcome challenges.
Don’t Doubt Your Story’s Value
Does the world really need a story about my divorce?
Do I have anything valuable to add to the mental health discussion?
Everyone loses their parents; my struggle isn’t unique.
Our authors often struggle with doubt like these. They doubt the value of their stories. They worry that their personal tragedies are too common to be of interest to others.
At The Book Professor®, we feel the opposite. If your problem is common, that means you have a huge audience looking to someone like you for hope and guidance.
Problems that seem like abstract statistics from the outside, such as divorce and cancer, feel devastating to each individual who experiences them. Connecting to another individual’s personal story can bring comfort and inspiration.
When Writing About Pain Is Painful
If you decide to write about a painful experience, chances are, you will have to face and navigate that pain in new ways. There’s no hiding from or glossing over the sharp edge of emotion when you dig into the memories of painful times past. Some authors may need to work with a therapist to gain support in facing these difficult feelings.
However, authors often find that telling the story brings its own sort of comfort. Shining a light on the pain can sometimes diffuse its power to hurt. It can help you make more sense of events that felt senseless. It can also grow your confidence as you review how far you’ve come.
“I always tell our ‘overcomer’ authors, writing about this is going to hurt—it’s going to really hurt—but it might be the last time it hurts,” says Nancy.
As you gather your material and organize your ideas, remember that you’re not writing a book to make people cry with you. You’re writing to offer help.
With that in mind, it’s wise to structure chapters in problem/solution sets. What problems did you encounter? How did you face and overcome each problem? You may not have fully solved every dilemma in your life, but show us how you came to a better place.
How Much To Share?
If your story involves graphic or upsetting information, or will reveal unflattering things about people in your life, you might wonder how much sharing is too much. Should you ever hold back parts of your story?
We advise our authors to write the story raw when completing a first draft. This is done during Module 2 of our program. Tell whatever you want to tell, however you want to tell it, in that first draft.
During Module 3, you move into the editing stage. Here is where you can reassess how much of your material you want to keep, and what you might need to leave out or soften.
Again, this is not about sugarcoating. You have permission to tell uncomfortable and painful truths. But some things can be communicated in a way that is easier for readers to engage with. For example, instead of describing sexual abuse in graphic detail, an author might simply state that, “My father slipped into my bedroom every night,” conveying the tragedy of her story without crossing a “TMI” line.
It’s also important that you not be vindictive toward the people you write about. You can truthfully describe other people’s behavior and explain how they hurt you, but avoid the temptation to use your book project as revenge.
For example, don’t air someone’s dirty laundry just to embarrass them if that laundry has nothing to do with your story. Don’t describe them in a humiliating way. And if you’ve ever fantasized about said person falling off a cliff, best leave that part out. Tell the facts of how people behaved and how that affected you, and let their behavior speak for itself.
Remember that while your story may reflect poorly on people in your life, the way you tell that story also reflects on you.
What If I Make Family/Friends Mad?
This is a question that almost every “overcomer” author at The Book Professor® faces at some point: what if the loved ones who appear in your story are upset at the way you’ve portrayed them or their actions?
The short answer is, you can’t control how people react to your writing.
The long answer is to circle back to your original purpose in writing the book. Hopefully, it’s to help others. If this is your reason for writing, then that audience—the people who need your help—should take first priority as you write. Your family and friends’ feelings rank below that.
Keep in mind that you have a right to tell your story the way you experienced it.
“You get to tell your story the way you lived it, regardless of what other people around you were thinking or perceiving at the time,” explains Nancy.
It may help to use the editing process, or Module 3, as a safety net. If you feel hesitant about sharing parts of your story, you can always tell it in an early draft and decide later whether to take it out. You can decide how to smooth, soften, or omit before publication.
And yes, some people will disagree with what you’ve written—and that’s okay. Some people won’t agree with you. Some people will be shocked to learn how other people, namely you, view them. As long as you haven’t written out of a spirit of revenge, stand firm and let others worry about their reactions to your story.
And keep in mind, not everyone will read the book. The aunt who made unflattering comments about others in Chapter 3 may never crack it open. The grandpa whose misdeeds you brought to light may not be alive anymore, or you might wait to publish it until he has passed. Is that classmate who body-shamed you at age 12 going to even know you wrote a book? Not if you don’t tell her!
Tell Your Story
Maybe you have an overcomer story to tell, but you need encouragement and accountability to get it done. Check out The Book Professor’s Executive Group MASTERMIND class, where you’ll join a supportive cohort of fellow writers.
Our course material will help you stay organized and on track as you tell your story, and your cohort will cheer you on and offer feedback.
Contact us today to learn more.