There's issue fiction (stories written specifically to deal with an issue) and there's fiction with issues (it's not specifically written to address an issue, but issues are brought up in them). You can write either. But as Mary Weber pointed out, the important thing is to write what's on your heart.
Where do you need to see God move?
This question wasn't really related to the impassioned talks about issues (it came up during the part about the heart of the story), but I really think it's the perfect question to use when you talk about issues. Because our issues are the issues our readers face. The things we've overcome (or are struggling to overcome) are the things our readers are struggling through. And having it out there in fiction, in tangible words and intangible feelings, can help them process. It lets them know that they're not alone. They're not strange. Other people are facing the same problems they are.
There's a difference between clean and safe. We can write clean--even if your character is a gangster who has a foul mouth, there are several creative ways to characterise that without actually using swear words (you're a creative writer, aren't you?)--but we shouldn't necessarily write safe. Talking about issues isn't safe. Talking about rape and depression and harassment and racism and equality isn't safe, but they need to be talked about. They need to be addressed. And sometimes your fiction, while it isn't safe or necessarily clean, may be able to provide a safe space for traumatised people to start dealing with or processing these issues and their impact on their lives.
And maybe, when you address the issue in a way that is honouring to God, they can come to realise that there is another option. There is a way out. They don't need to succumb to what the world is pressuring them to do or be.
Trust that the Holy Spirit is active and speaking in your writing process.
The question is sometimes this: when is it too much? Where do you cross the line between "being real" and "being offensive"?
I don't know. I can't tell you. I highly doubt any of the speakers at the conference will be able to give you an exact answer. There are many factors involved: the audience you're targeting, the publishers you work with, your own conscience. But one thing that came out pretty loud and clear was the fact that if you are writing this with God, the Holy Spirit will guide you.
I wrote this down (it's either Mary or Jim who said it, I don't remember who; it's probably paraphrased anyway):
TALK ABOUT ISSUES. Don't shy away.
Ask yourself: What crosses the line for your spirit? How far does the Spirit want you to go with it?
Then go with it.
Ted Dekker fielded a question about writing about issues (I think) and his answer was this: agenda-driven fiction only addresses the choir. It never converts anyone. Write to discover. Write to see. Be authentic.
And when you are authentic, genuine, about the realities of life, that's when you really speak into the lives of others, whether you meant to or not.
As a tag-on note, we've just finished the workshops for Voices 2017 and I am truly, truly deeply honoured to have been able to sit there and listen to the stories these 15 women have had to tell.
The stories were deeply personal, unapologetically raw and extremely powerful, covering topics such as depression, body image, self-esteem, death, sexual assault, harassment, mental illness, marriage, love, abuse, and faith--all the things that women go through in their lives (there's probably more that my brain refuses to remember right now). There's no sugar-coating, no shying away, just honesty and vulnerability; a voice speaking up from and in the darkness.
There's power in that honest sharing of lives, made possible by the agreement to create that safe space. And that's what I'd like to believe our fiction can create.
A safe space for the weakest voices to be heard.