Warning: Writing Like This Will Make Your Readers Cry

This is a guest post by Brandon Clements. Brandon is a pastor and author from Columbia, SC. You can connect with him on his blogTwitter, or Facebook. Check out his novel, Every Bush Is Burning, which is FREE this week on Amazon.

Can I ask you a question? Since I can’t really hear you, I’m going to, anyway: Why do you write?

To inspire? To critique, teach, or motivate? To remember (or forget)? For self-expression? Because you have a fire burning in your bones, and you simply must?

Out of all the perfectly legitimate reasons that you could write, I imagine you don’t do it to merely entertain. No, you want to touch your readers, move them in some way. Even cause them to cry.

Crying Child
Photo credit: Creative Donkey (Creative Commons)

Shattering the frozen sea

Frank Kafka once said, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

Be honest. You dream about your writing having that affect on someone, don’t you? Because words have had that affect on you.

The frozen sea inside of you has been shattered by stories, truths, ideas, and turns of phrase so astounding that you had no words to respond or even tell someone what it meant to you. Isn’t that why you want to write?

So, how do you write words that will move people, and potentially even play a part in breaking the frozen sea inside of them? It’s actually quite simple:

You write what moves you.

Except that part is not always easy. Because in order to write what moves you, you will have to visit your pain. Your fear. Your weaknesses. Your nightmares and demons. The skeletons in your closet and the horrific possibility of self-disclosure, even if veiled in stories and themes.

Because, as you well know, that’s where the frozen sea inside of you is. If you are ever going to crack the ice of another person’s soul, you have to be brave enough to go first. To be a witness. A testimony. An example.

You have to go first

If you love your reader, you will go first. You have to lead them on this journey. To show them how and why it’s important.

There is enough fluffy, meaningless drivel on paper to fill the Marianas Trench. So don’t add to it. Write something that matters. And write it with conviction:

  • Write about the truths and ideas that are so astonishing you can hardly believe them.
  • Write the story that keeps you awake, tossing and turning at night because it echoes the ache in your soul.
  • Write that memoir, and include the parts that you are terrified of putting on paper, because it will remind you they are real. (Some may no doubt need the support of a friend, therapist, or pastor for this.)

Whatever it is, write about those things that punch you in the throat and stir your insides.

Because if it moves you — if it raises a lump in your throat as you type, it will move someone else.

It might just give them the hope that you’ve been given by other writers, with their words and stories that have inspired and reminded you that you are not alone. Aren’t you glad they went first?

As I was writing my first novel, there were many times where tissues had to guard my keyboard from falling tears. The story I was writing moved me and, thankfully, it has gone on to move others.

Such is the inexplicable magic of words, and I am in awe of the weight they can carry.

This is not just for the reader

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t believe that going first is only a gift to your reader.

It is first a gift for you — and a very meaningful one at that.

We all need to go to our frozen sea, because seas were not meant to be frozen. They are meant to thrash about with life.

So, what are you waiting for? Go find your ax. And get to work.

What books have helped break the frozen sea inside of you? Share in the comments.

Be sure to check out Brandon’s book while it’s free on Amazon this week. This offer expires July 29, 2012. Get it here.

*Photo credit: Creative Donkey (Creative Commons)

89 thoughts on “Warning: Writing Like This Will Make Your Readers Cry

  1. Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin. I cried the first time, and I cry every time I read it with my 8th grade English class. 

    1. Love that you said this Linden!! I meant to include everything Charles has written in my comment. His writing has a true thawing effect. Also really enjoyed a very different writer but hugely compelling story in Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle.

  2. Great article, thank you! For there were many books like that, but one of the most important one was Savitri by Sri Aurobindo. 

  3. The book that definitely touched me was Marala Scott’s “In Our House”.  She doesn’t leave anything to the imagination and I can feel her pain as she expresses what she went through.  I also went through some of the same experiences and it was almost refreshing to know someone out there somewhere could relate to my story.

  4. Shauna Niequest’s books (Bittersweet and Cold Tangerines) do that for me. Every time I read them I come away feeling more hopeful and less alone. 

  5. I would say that when I was younger, Dave Pelzer’s series on his horribly abusive childhood just rocked me to the core. Growing up in a stable, big ,and loving household of 7 kids and multiple pets, I shivered at the terrors I could never have imagined that he routinely faced as a little boy.

    Just a couple of years ago I did a small group study—Beth Moore’s Breaking Free—with friends from church. In the beginning, I found it to be a difficult read, much like the “the cod-liver oil stage when you take it like medicine” Elizabeth George describes in “Putting on a Quiet and Gentle Spirit.” By the time we finished, to quote E. George again, I was at the “peaches and cream stage when it’s consumed with passion and pleasure.” While the study required much honest introspection and painful coming to awareness, it was a truly life changing, ice-breaking, soul-freeing study.

  6. I agree that it’s vitally important that we’re transparent in our writing. However few things terrify me more.

    1. Than that is probably the thing you need to write about most.  Share you fear and terror, I bet readers will relate to much of what you have to say.  Just commenting here about how much in terrifies you will inspire others to admit the same.  You have taken a first step toward being transparent in your writing.  Well done!

  7. Great post Brandon. I downloaded your book…can’t wait to read it!  It’s scary writing from deep inside ourselves. Like you said it brings a deluge of tears, brokenness…but when we let it out…amazingly it brings healing. I admit I do write to inspire and motivate. But there’s this burning fire within me that says ‘don’t settle for mediocre…live to serve, make a difference and somehow encourage others to don’t let their fears hold them back from ‘living in their God-give zone!’  Anyway, I think that’s why it’s been so hard to write my first historical fiction novel…it’s been a retelling of childhood abuse and inner hurts…but it’s also been freeing and healing 🙂 
    BTW a great book that’s really moved me is “One Month To Live” by Kerry & Chris Shook. Also “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd …I cried most of the way through:)

    1. Thanks Lorna, I’d love to hear from you when you finish. Hope you enjoy it.

      Good luck on your novel. I know it will be difficult, but it will be good for you.

  8. Very stirring–motivating. I’ve been writing non fiction stuff, telling myself I’m just practicing for the REAL thing. You’ve moved me to begin work on the REAL thing. Thanks and FYI, I buy just about everything you write.

  9. Great piece, Brandon, and ever so true! I cried a couple of times while writing my first novel and my test readers reported crying in those places, too.

    My favorite book is A Prayer for Owen Meany and I cry every time I read it. Such masterful storytelling from Irving.

  10. I write because I have to, because at times I have no choice. While my deceased husband was going through all the trials of Alzheimer’s disease, writing was my sanity. I am just now able to post some of those writings.


    1. Linda, I just read your most recent post and cried.  You have already mastered this lesson that Jeff is giving us.   I read somewhere that if you can reach out and touch others in a way that helps them not feel alone, through your own pain, you are blessed.


  11. The Long Goodbye: A Memoir, by Meghan O’Rourke;  Night, by Elie Wiesel; Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, By Cheryl Strayed and The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  These are a few of my favorites, but, fortunately, there are many more!

  12. Hey, Brandon, Thanks for that encouragement.

    I have to say that it deeply resonated with God’s work in my life and the reason I write.

    I was the son of a pastor and entered the ministry (worship) myself. Yet for over 30 years I was held captive by a persistent quiet struggle with pornography.

    About 6 years ago, God led me, through His word, to a renewed understanding of the meaning of the human body. To my great surprise, the grip of porn melted out of my life. I truly experienced what Paul said in Rom. 12:2 (transformed by a renewed mind) and Christ said in John 8:32 (the truth *made* me free).

    I was so startled by the change that I had to figure out what happened and why. When I did, I joined with some others who had been freed by the same truth to write a site to help others find the freedom that we were now living.

    And, back to your point, that has become God’s calling on my life (“I will boast about my weakness!”) and I’m under a compulsion to write… something that never was true in my life before.

    The site is: https://mychainsaregone.org

    Jeff, I also have to say a big thanks to you… you’re really impacting my writing. That website is way too “safe.”  And “boring.” And “static.” So it hasn’t really gained much traction or following. Even though the content really is radical in its challenge to common wisdom, we wrote it so carefully that only a very few “get it” and recognize that.

    So, I have now started blog with shorter, more “dangerous,” “edgy,” thought-provoking, and less “explain-y” to see if we can get people to love us or hate us… anything but be neutral/bored.

    We have not released the first posts publicly yet, but if you or your readers want to see it (and any feedback would be welcome!), you can go to https://mychainsaregone.org/blog (PW for the protected content is MCAG)

    So thanks to you both!

    David Martin (“Pastor Ed” on MCAG)

  13. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts was definitely the ax to my frozen sea. Her writing style is different, so it took me a while to get into, but it was totally worth it. She is an amazing writer and my heart was transformed by her words.

  14. I think this is something Ann Voskamp does really well. Instead of breaking your heart with her story, she shows you the shreds of her own heart.


  15. Spot-on, validating and inspiring. It seems I am forever talking to other writers about fear, vulnerability and about what aspects of our humanity to reveal.  But in my experience, no matter how deep I go, it always seems to serve somebody and the vulnerability was well worth the risk. I’m not sure I could write any other way anyway. Great post!

  16. Brandon, you’ve put words to the compulsion I feel and echoed the motivation of my heart. Go first. Be brave. Lead others. These are the very things the Lord has been whispering to me. Feels good to be among good company in this call to write. Thanks for spurring us on.

    1. My sister Joanne is spending two months in the Philippines, helping abused girls in a shelter, and has been sharing her journey on my blog.  She talks about this being her calling, the thing the Lord has whispered to her to do.  It is inspiring to read her adventures with these beautiful girls each day, and it could not have happened if she did not go first and be brave!  A great quote – one I will use in the future!  Thanks for leading me.

  17. “We all need to go to our frozen sea, because seas were not meant to be frozen.” What a simple, stunning and powerful sentence. This post is very timely for me, as I am about to ghost a self-help book and have been wondering how to give it the power it needs to allow readers to really relate to it. Thanks! 

  18. I know this one to be true.  However, I’m agreeing with Schnerples in that it is most frightening for more than one reason. 
    1.  It hurts to go there.2.  Usually, the pain involves family members. . . how can we write publicly about this pain without re-hurting a family member once they see it in print.  Or worse yet, having them respond with, “I never knew. . .”3.  Writing about pain is sometimes ego-driven.  I find it difficult to teeter between my subconscious and superconscious to find a balance.  Perhaps, once I start writing from the ego, my other self will be revealed.   This happens.K. . . I’ll try to make my next post a frozen sea shatterer, however, if only it causes a crack, I’ll be content with that.Shari  https://islandsofmysoul.com/

    1. If you are really concerned about it you can write about your grief through another character eyes. Make it fiction but about you.

  19. So true to my own life and my own writing. It wasn’t until I started changing all my “when you”s in my writing to “when I” that I really learned how to reach people. We must first start with ourselves. 

  20. “You have to go first…”

    Now, as my daddy says, those words will preach. Beyond the Bible being the primary “ax to my frozen sea”, Alicia Chole’s “Anonymous: Jesus’ hidden years and yours” has done more to  cut through to my interior than any other contemporary “reads.” She doesn’t waste words; she also doesn’t write so poetically that I can’t take hold of what she’s saying. I could chew on her thoughts all day long . . . and be transformed by them.

    I’ve always written about experiences that move me; that being said, my life took a turn a couple of years ago–a cancer turn–and the resulting effects of treatment have suppressed my ability to write from a place of deep feeling. Yes, I still write from that place, but it’s harder now . . . a chosen obedience that is often frustrating. Accordingly, there are times when I want to quit. But every now and again, I feel the pulse of yesterday’s pen and words (like your words here) re-awaken the deep place inside of me. And I keep going.

    Thanks for this.


  21. Thanks Jeff for giving Brandon some space.  Both of you challenge me.  I attended the church he serves in SC a little bit after spending the summer in Haiti a couple years ago.

  22. Thanks for the encouragement. For me, L.M. Montgomery, in Anne of Green Gables is the most irresistible, moving master of words. I never fail to be moved every time I read it, and I try not to be moved, but I always fail. I need the courage to write about my own vulnerabilities. There are some things that happened growing up that I am afraid to write about because my sister has not told her children and I’m afraid they’ll read it and be shocked.

  23. This post really spoke to me in a deep way. I sense the Lord wants me to write about those things which I honestly like to forget and avoid. One book which turned my world upside down and left me in a daze for months was Wounded Heart.

  24. So many books that have shattered my frozen sea, but one of the most recent for me was Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Beautiful, thoughtful, prayerful examination of one man’s’ contemplation of the end of his life and the unfinished business that still haunts him. I was left in awe of writing that can inspire, move, and heal – and in deep and contemplative ways. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason, and it gives hope to me that writing about spiritual themes need not be relegated to the backwater of publishing. 

  25. I have read so many books that have touched me where I hide.  If my story about pain covered by grace can help just one person, “break the frozen sea inside of them,” it will be worth it. Thanks for the great post

  26. I have been writing my memoirs for the past 3 years and I am almost finished. Writing from the heart is what I do best even though it can be gut wrenching. What a great post and such good advice, thank you!

  27. Beautiful post, Brandon. Thank YOU for going first – I’m trying to follow by example!

    My “frozen sea” has been opened by:
    “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
    “Desiring God” by John Piper
    “The Beautiful and Damned” and “This Side of Paradise” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    “Room” by Emma Donoghue
    “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

      1. Would love to hear your thoughts when you’re done. It has to be one of the most haunting, chilling but beautiful stories I’ve ever read.

  28. Jeff,
    Another well written post – writing moving content is difficult but it releases those thoughts out of you and readers connect with you.
    Thanks for another great post.

  29. This was exactly my experience in writing “Weak and Loved: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.” It was incredibly painful to revisit some of the things, but I needed to get the story out. Now, I hear how it softens and unfreezes others’ hearts.  This is the high life of an author.

  30. Thanks Jeff!  I’m just beginning to break the ice of my frozen sea and get honest, really honest in my blog, confessions of dirty christian woman.  It’s challenging to put the real truth about your ugly heart out there but the feedback I’ve gotten confirms exactly what you encourage.  It’s good to get a perspective reminder, that I heading in the right directions, thank you for the article!

  31. So many books have had that kind of effect on me– To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon…

    But the book that hit me the hardest (in a good way) was When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. That one pretty much saved my life 6 years ago.

  32. Feed, by Mira Grant. For all the zombie action in it, there’s one scene near the end that put me right through the wringer. And the way the whole novel was set up had me thinking – no, assuming – that it was impossible.

  33. When you write this kind of stuff out, it can be medicating. It’s also terrifying, frustrating, and seemingly impossible to find the right words to capture your emotions.

    I think a lot of people find themselves in that situation, and they give up. They write something easy and safe. They don’t go the distance and challenge themselves to put it all out there.

    I hate to do it. It makes me feel weak at times. Yet, when all is said and done, if I’ve put it all on the paper, I never regret it. Sometimes you just have to pull it out of you, and display it for everyone to see. Then, you can start to get over it.

    Sorry, rambled there for a bit. Good post.

  34. My list is long and continues to grow . Here are a few : Taking Responsibility/Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden, Where We Stand by bell hooks, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Parabel of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Some of these have been read by me more than a dozen times.

  35. Brandon, this stirs me. Stirs me deep. At 56, I still haven’t cracked below the frozen tundra but I’ve come close…or tried. Reading this plunges me into a bit of urgency – not sure how to handle it. Why have I been holding back?  There were times I literally had to wipe my keyboard when tears fell here, too .. why would I stop that kind of writing? Thanks for the encouragement and push. Just downloaded your book – thank you so much. Jeff, you rock, brother. Keep going. 

    1. So glad that it spoke to you Vicki. I understand how hard it can be. Be encouraged, you are not alone!

      Hope you enjoy the book. Would love to hear from you when you finish it!

  36. Brandon – my heart beats with yours. But sometimes it’s just hard to be the first one to go. Thanks for the nudge and encouragement. I fight this battle daily. 

  37. Oh I love this! When I first started blogging 5 months ago I had no clue what I was doing (still kinda don’t). I didn’t know you were supposed to have a niche or know what my “voice” sounded like. All I promised was that I would be as real and authentic as possible. I try to do that every time.

    My first one that wasn’t fluffy was titled “me being vulnerable. yuck.” That made me want to hide for a while. And a few others have followed.

    What you wrote about going first reminds me of one I wrote titled ” Topless {Nobody Wants to be First}” which is exactly about what you said.
    Thank you for writing this! It makes me feel better knowing I’m not out of my ever loving mind when I write some of the stuff I post for all the world to see 🙂  

  38. Perfectly timed for me to read this now. I’m just beginning to chip away at that “frozen sea” and still trembling at the possibilites.

    Thank you!

  39. I write *merely* to entertain. Is there something wrong with that? Is entertainment somehow ignoble and unworthy of our efforts? Are your precious words somehow cheapened by their use in the base pursuit of telling a good story?


    1. I do not think there is anything wrong with writing solely for entertainment. Was just pointing out that many writers have more reasons to write. I apologize for any offense, it was not intended!

  40. I’ve always said I’d rather make people cry than laugh! Interestingly my blog post today has just that intent. It’s a short story highlighting the pain of girls bought and sold in slavery. A window into suffering and a call to action. https://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/2012/07/freedoms-cry.html

    Thanks for your great post it stirred my heart and crystallized why I write what I do. Looking forward to reading your book!

  41. Today while I was driving and thinking of something witty to post about writing, I came up with the phrase, “If words don’t fill you, they won’t thrill you.” (and I guess the reverse can be true as well).  Then I read this post, and the part about how somewhere, somehow, “the frozen sea inside of you has been shattered by stories, truths, ideas, and turns of phrase so astounding that you had no words to respond or even tell someone what it meant to you. Isn’t that why you want to write?”

    Holy cow yes.  Nothing has ever moved me or changed me like the written word.  Time and time again. 

    Thanks for this.  Now I know I’m not crazy.

  42. Should I cry now or later. I’ve been writing and crying, wishing some of the things that happened to my mc didn’t. Yet that’s not my only woe. Oh no, my biggest fear is that this story only will touch me that way. I read blogs and blogs, forum after forum that all scream: your not a good writer unless…… Then, I come here and it’s like a weight is lift every time. I’m so thankful that you write so meaningfully to those who understands how much writing means from the very core of a person. This post motivates me to stop my whining and get on with the story. Right now, what other think doesn’t matter. I have to get it out. I don’t sleep thinking about what’s next. It pains me to close my eyes, so I write on.
    Thanks Jeff, I know this wasn’t just meant for me, but it came at the perfect time.

  43. Jeff – I’ve only recently found you – thank you for being such an inspiration – for showing me that you can follow your heart. I hope you become very very successful – you deserve it!

  44. Useful advice. A successful blogger advised me last week that my pitch needed to be more “moving”.

  45. Really glad I found this today especially since was I crying my ass off. Unexpected and unasked for it hit like a ton of bricks and when it did a huge gap in my story arc resolved and if a reader ever feels even a fraction of what I did and do still now well into the evening, then it will have all been worth the while.

    It was like the instant I realized he was gone he became real and so in a way expired in my mind kind of all at the same time. That’s a helluva feeling.

  46. Damn I loved this thank you Jeff you made my heart beat fast as I read this, a book that touched and moves me was Burro Genius by Victor Villasenor, it is a must read!

  47. So happy to find this…I cried through the writing of an ending to a short story last night and thought I was crazy…although potentially that is true…I love the ability of the frozen sea…just beautiful

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