My YA Contemporary novel, Love and the Sea and Everything in Between, has been out for about two months now. The reviews and feedback are rolling in, which is simultaneously the most exciting thing and the most t e r r i f y i n g thing. Most of the reviews have been positive. The love and support I’ve received from readers – especially those in the Indie Author community – has blown me away and I have met so many new and amazing people.
Those who have been kind enough to leave reviews for my work have inspired this post. Like I said, most of the reviews have been positive, but I’m also thankful for those who have offered critique and feedback. People who think of my work critically will, in the long run, empower to me improve. I think the two main criticisms I’ve received are that 1) the story is edgy and 2) the faith themes aren’t as prominent as they would’ve liked them to be. I wanted to address these criticisms directly because I don’t want there to be any room for speculation as to my heart behind this story.
For those of you who know me in person or who follow me on my personal social media, the first thing you probably learned about me was that I was a Christian. It’s all over my life. The content that I post (and don’t post) represents that. My faith is the language of my life; everything else is built around that. And I have never been one to water down my message. I’m a fourth generation pastor. I was raised in the church. I’ve seen things and been through things that you wouldn’t believe. Through all of that, the Lord has given me a very specific message and the longer you know me, the clearer that message will be.
So that’s me. I’m an all-in, from-the-inside-out, bubbling-over follower of Jesus and no one could ever get me to shut up about it. Everything else flows out of that reality. My writing, my music, my painting, my work, my hobbies. Everything. I tell you this because in order to understand the story that I wrote, it’s important to first understand the person who wrote it.
So, why was Love and the Sea gritty, raw and edgy?
When I first wrote Love and the Sea, I was coming out of a season of heartache and hurt. The first draft was written for NaNoWriMo in 2015 and, at the time, it was just a way to process what I went through. So you can imagine that first draft was pretty raw. From the get-go, I knew Love and the Sea was going to deal with some hard stuff. At first I didn’t know that I was going to publish it or let the world read it, but as I began to step into healing in my own life I knew I wanted to help others who were walking through similar situations.
When I endeavored to create a story that would change peoples’ lives, I knew it couldn’t be shallow. I also knew that this wasn’t going to be just for Christians – it was also meant for those who, maybe, have walked away from faith or have never even known faith. I didn’t want Love and the Seato be sterile, dry, or easy. It needed to be gritty and intense – because, frankly, that’s what these situations I’m writing about are like. Just ask anyone who’s ever walked through it or known someone who has.
See, sometimes you have to get down in the dirt with people. We writers are uniquely equipped to do that through the gift of storytelling. There’s a way that you can tell a story about the darkness that goes on in peoples’ minds and hearts without glorifying or romanticizing that darkness – and that’s what I wanted to do. Here I had a character who was struggling with his mental health, with depression and suicide, who was giving into self-destructive tendencies such as cutting, smoking, and drinking. I wrote a story where this dark and self-destructive character fell in love with a girl with hurts of her own. And the reality is – and we see this everyday – that self-destructive people often try however unintentionally to pull others into their patterns of behavior.
I applaud all my readers and reviewers who noticed this, who saw how Adam’s own self-destructive tendencies began to influence Liz because of their close relationship. Most of all, I applaud the readers and reviewers who noticed that and it made them upset. It should make us upset! The reality I want people to understand is that this is what’s actually going on around us. All over the world, broken people are influencing each other. This doesn’t mean that those who are broken are villains. But we do need to recognize these patterns in order to be able to keep them from continuing. We have to first expose the cycle of self-destruction in order to break it in ourselves and help others to break it in their own lives.
And why wasn’t faith a bigger part of the story?
Faith is a huge part of the story. Adam is in an extremely dark and broken place for the majority of the story. And this is a reality that a lot of teens and young adults are actually facing right now. There was no way I was going to sugarcoat the hurt, the fear, the anger, the depression, and the sorrow because I want those who are in that place right now to know 1) they’re not alone and 2) there is hope. To sugarcoat or to soften what they’re going through – what I went through – would be to do a disservice to them, it would dishonor their pain, it would undermine their story. And I’m not going to do that.
But I’m also not going to silence the message of the hope found in Christ.
The key for me was learning to find that balance. Life isn’t a sermon. Why would I write a story that felt like one long sermon? Life is a series of choices and encounters both big and small with the reality of Christ in our everyday lives. It’s moments of victory and visitation mixed with the mud of ordinary, broken life. And, just like with Adam, the truth for so many people is that hope comes like a flicker of light at the end of a long, dark season. It isn’t always radiant and explosive. Most of us who have experienced healing through Christ didn’t have some miraculous, overwhelming encounter that forever changed us. For most of us, hope was something we had to fight for and it started with our quiet, humble acknowledgment that hope exists outside of ourselves and outside of others. This is what happened with Adam. He finally realized, through his own mistakes and the wisdom offered by others, that he couldn’t put his hope or his faith in people. And in recognizing this, he finally opened himself up to that supernatural, healing hope which exists outside of self and others. It wasn’t this spectacular thing because that just isn’t realistic. And it sets unrealistic expectations of what personal and spiritual breakthrough should look like – and I think those expectations have destroyed the faith of a lot of young believers because they didn’t learn how to hear God in the quiet as well as the hype. Instead of some open-heaven experience (though those are important and life-changing too), Adam came into his own faith in a quiet, whisper of a way.
I didn’t want to write a pretty story. I didn’t want to write a story that treated Christianity like a feel-good, sappy, goosebumps kind of faith. Because the reality is that all of Christianity is a contending, fighting, bleeding, breaking kind of faith. It’s falling and getting caught in a forest of thorns and having to fight your way out, knowing all the while that Jesus is right beside you, fighting with you. It’s a messy, brutal thing that breaks us of our comfort, our pride, our indifference, and our perspectives in order to open our eyes to things unseen.
To treat the Christian way of life like a children’s story when in reality it’s a war story would be to do it a disservice. I cannot ignore the stories of those who made mistakes and walked away only to find their way back to the feet of Jesus. I cannot ignore the stories of the doubters and the misfits and the outcasts and the troubled and the downtrodden who, despite all their confusion and their wondering and their anger and their fear and their shames, have managed to hold fast to their faith like it’s a battle-tested sword. I cannot ignore the stories of the broken Christian who brought his pieces to the feet of Jesus and said, “It’s not much, but I’m yours.” And I cannot ignore the quietly supernatural encounters, the moments where heaven felt as real as the tears on my face, where Jesus felt as near as the family at my back. I didn’t write a pretty story and I didn’t write it for pretty people.
This is my heart behind Love and the Sea: To honor the brokenness and pain endured by so many and to remind myself and others that sometimes hope and healing come as a flicker and not a wildfire.