The Christian storytelling boom: vulnerability, openness and emotional burnout
'The internet prizes the harrowing personal essay. But sometimes telling your story comes with a price.'
A new piece by Laura Bennett, published by Slate last week, examines the boom in first-person confessional writing - particularly sensational pieces full of shocking details and controversy. She tells us that it's nothing new, of course: 'first-person writing has long been the internet's native voice' - something that anyone who has ever had an online journal knows to be true. I spent a decade of my life pouring out my heart in such journals, where I made friends, moderated and set up communities, and eventually, saw countless people make the move from 'friends only' journalling to public blogging.
Bennett's piece focuses on the way that increasingly, people are writing about some of the most disturbing aspects of their lives in the name of confessional journalism. Echoing the second wave feminist mantra that 'the personal is political', the women she profiles (and it is almost all women) are 'reaching for the universal even as they dig into the acutely personal'.
The evolution of Christian publishing and blogging has meant that, in the past few years, we've seen a move towards 'story' and personal essays as a key form of communication. The blogrolls and webrings (remember those?) of years gone by have given way to stylish sites that act as a vehicle for gifted storytellers, focusing on particular themes and hosting linkups: A Deeper Story (a pioneer of the genre, now defunct), Threads, The Mudroom, Bedlam, She Loves.
The benefits of the first-person boom and why it has captured the imagination of Christians are obvious: for a start, it has seen marginalised voices centred in conversations and regarded as voices of authority. We have a long way to go in this respect but the fact remains: these days, you don't have to be a church leader or an academic to speak with authority on something and get people to listen.
Blogger and author Tanya Marlow is optimistic about the opportunities first-person writing is giving people. "I am heartened to see a recent growth of good-quality Christian memoirs being published," she says.
"Most Christian books are penned by famous male church leaders. Blogging and storytelling has given a platform to women whose voices would not ordinarily be heard, and stories that would otherwise be silenced, and now their writing is starting to enter the traditional publishing world too."
Tanya communicates through storytelling because it's the most effective way to deal with the subject she writes about most frequently - the spirituality of suffering.
"For something like the subject of suffering, I want to tread carefully, honouring each person's unique experience. For me, this means the best medium for talking about suffering is storytelling - it communicates the truth sideways, more gently than a formula with 'shoulds' and 'clearlys'," she says.
My first-person 'debut' online was a two-part blog post on finding my identity as a Christian feminist, written in 2009, when I'd just started writing publicly. When it got picked up and featured in a blog round-up by a national newspaper, I realised for the first time the value of telling your story in a way that people can relate to. As a young woman agonising over how I 'fit' into the church, I felt alone. All of a sudden, strangers on the internet were telling me their stories and I began to talk to women who had, at some point, felt just like me.
The key here is that first-person storytelling is relatable and enables people to feel a sense of solidarity and shared understanding, often through the way it elicits an emotional response from us - in the way that a more newsy or academic piece may not. Through discussion of the realities of our lives we learn from each other and create change.
Bennett chooses to focus mainly on the way women's lives have been affected by the first-person boom. She believes that although these essays are not solely the preserve of women, there is more pressure on women to write in this way. Sites relying heavily on first-person pieces tend to be women's interest sites. When a form of writing is primarily seen as 'for women', it's easy for it to be ridiculed, and for the writers to be patronised. In the Christian publishing world and blogosphere, however, many men seem to have adapted well to the vogue for storytelling.
Blogger Danny Webster, whose writing has focused on a range of topics from relationships to politics, thinks there are more opportunities for Christian men to write first-person essays, although men are still less 'visible' overall.
"I think it's more acceptable in Christian circles because there's something pastoral and confessional about it, which means that even if people don't do it themselves they recognise it as a laudable endeavour," he says.
More often than not, however, it's the 'dark side' of confessional writing that receives the most attention: the backlash against controversial opinions, the trolls, and the pressure to grow your audience and come up with new, ever more interesting tales.
Some years ago, it seemed that many more people felt the blogosphere 'wasn't for them', because they saw it as dominated by people writing angry opinion pieces. But things changed - as storytelling became popularised, it brought new voices to the fore - some gaining platform to the extent that book deals abounded.The opinion pieces remained, as did the theological debates, but the Christian blogosphere was in thrall to 'story', and everyone had one to tell.
But there, too, was the pressure to 'tell your story'. Everyone was doing it, but what if your natural writing style didn't lend itself to beautiful prose? What if you wanted to keep your personal life to yourself? What if you wanted to write about topics that weren't currently popular and you felt they would just be ignored? If you were going to be vulnerable, wasn't it easy to create a persona that purported to be 'authentic' but was actually anything but? I've seen flickers of discomfort, and debates on 'playing the blogging game', where people have described these factors as the reasons they no longer write.
"There is definitely pressure to come up with personal revelations and vulnerable pieces," says Tanya Marlow. "The blogging world is now so oversaturated that it is not even enough to be simply 'vulnerable' - only the truly shocking, controversial or salacious headlines are guaranteed to be read. Commenters, sadly even Christian ones, can be merciless about people's experiences."
Danny Webster agrees. "Being vulnerable online becomes addictive, and it perpetuates an environment that demands more and more and in return gives less and less," he says, adding that he stopped regular blogging about his 'story' because of the emotional toll it was beginning to take.
As 'storytelling' has become privileged, it's also important to point out that it has been used as a way to deflect criticism. Giving your opinion on something is one thing; giving your opinion on something, dressed up in emotive prose and focusing on a personal 'story' is another - because it's hard to take issue with the point someone's making if it comes through the lens of their lived experience. A writer can articulate ideology in this way - however problematic - and assume it grants them immunity from being disagreed with or challenged. This results in hurt - and often, everyone's least-favourite social media phenomenon: the pile-on.
We must make sure that what we write is, in Bennett's words, carefully conceived. In a bare-all world that 'incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure', the temptation to write about what's going on in our personal lives for our online audience can be irresistable. The online community can be a place of incredible friendship, solidarity, and love. It can also, just as easily, betray our trust, turn on us, and make us feel let down and ignored, as well as encouraging an unhealthy focus on metrics. Now is the time to be more mindful than ever of Nadia Bolz-Weber's comment: "I only preach from my scars, not my wounds."
Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge