Sunday, February 2, 2014

Does Pain Make Your Writing Better? (Get Ready for the Emo Post)

When I was a teenager, I joined my local choir and discovered a talent for singing. My range was good, my tone passable, my pitch on point. The teacher suggested I audition for solo parts. The one criticism that she and others consistently raised, however, was that of feeling.

"You hit all the notes," someone once said to me. "But you don't understand the words. You need life to teach you what they mean."

At 15 I scoffed, but with time I came to see the truth in that observation. Living and, more to the point, losing, made me a better singer. I'm willing to wager the same thing holds true with writing.

I've written a lot here about literature, but very little about my pursuits or personal life--not because I feel it would be improper but because I have literally nothing, save perhaps affinity with the ukulele, to ham up. That's all that's stopped me: boringness. Well, that and the fact that I am allegedly here to impart words of publishing wisdom. But when my pursuits and personal life conspire so well to be instructive, why not exploit them?

In that vein, I'll tell you something you may not know about me: I, like many of you, am a writer. I won't bore you with the details of individual projects (though they are all, rest assured, superb, and have been withheld from public view only so as not to shame other authors), but they do exist and I pursue them for the same reasons you do--love of the craft, love of the characters, and a sense that I might be able to capture something of my own emotion and convey it in a way others can be affected by. Or something.

Something else you may not know about me: I had a near-death experience last year. Told you the Emo was coming.

I am not, by the way, referring to my flight home from PNWA with an entire troop of Boy Scouts fresh from a showerless nature retreat, though that in any event proved nearly as fatal.

No, what actually nearly killed me involved a shower stall, a persistent cough, sauteed vegetables, and, for some reason, Kelly Clarkson music. It was my own stupidity, really. I knew I was sick. I knew I was missing more and more work. I knew I was unaccountably weak. I knew I'd started to enjoy Doomsday Castle, which alone probably implied some level of impairment. And then one day, BAM.

The experience of waking from a coma in a hospital bed, of not knowing where I was or how I'd gotten there, is one I'll never forget. The experience of tripping absolute balls also stands out quite prominently. I don't know what they had me on, but it would have been so much fun if it wasn't being administered because I'd nearly been murdered by my own lungs.

But for real, guys, this was not good. My brother drove down from his home out of state. My mother cried. My father was so moved as to attempt a joke, which of course made a previously tolerable situation just unbearable. That being said, this turned out very well--and not just because I got to be high as a kite for several days without breaking any laws. For one thing, I made a full recovery. So yay. And for another, I noticed something when next I sat down at my keyboard to pen one of my own stories instead of editing someone else's: I had more to say.

Something about so nearly losing my life opened, at least initially, a great vent of fear and pain within me, and I found that the memory of that experience in turn yielded writing that was more poignant, more cognizant of mortality, better able to express loss and fear and pain.

Anyone in my generation who can claim not to have been affected by the Harry Potter franchise missed some crucial part of childhood. That story was a common thread in all our lives. And it, too, was enhanced by suffering. Its author, JK Rowling, lost her mother as she was composing the draft of the first novel, and she has stated on several occasions the death made Harry's own ache for his parents that much more palpable.

So what's my advice here?

Lose a parent!

Be chronically ill for nearly a year and then almost die!

No. But we've all experienced hardship of some kind. So I suppose what I'm trying to say, with difficulty because we've spent so much time here discussing the technical aspects of writing, is to dig deep and remember your most visceral pain--whatever it is--when writing. Not to the point that you're blubbering at the keyboard, but to the point that you can credibly relate pain--and credibly relate the relief that happiness always is. It's never just there. It's always liberation from something else.

So what do you think? Does pain make your writing better?


  1. Is that you with the purple hair? It's a great shade.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. Life, pain, and facing mortality definitely makes you a better writer. As a matter of fact it has the potential to make you better at a lot of things.

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  4. I'm glad you recovered. How scary that must've been.

    I recently heard a comedian on the NPR show "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" say that she lost her mother and got cancer in a short amount of time. Instead of hiding it, she made it comedy on her tour. Ironically, the openness made her even more popular.

    My choir teacher used to tell us we didn't have enough life experience to put emotion into our singing. That used to bug me. And I still don't completely agree. Many children, unfortunately, have had some dark experiences. Think of Harry Potter. His early life wasn't without pain. Maybe tapping into them is another story. I know that I use my painful experiences to help me write MG and YA--but many of them are my teen experiences. Somehow the perspective from a greater distance makes me use them in a different way.

    Provoking post!

  5. Glad you made a full recovery!

    I think life experiences - including pain - make us stronger human beings and therefore stronger writers. Empathy takes us a long way but those experiences we feel deeply shape us forever.

  6. First, let me thank you for withholding those manuscripts from public view--very thoughtful of you to refrain from shaming the rest of us who are so unworthy ; )
    Second, glad you fully recovered. Sounds like a terrifying and enlightening experience. And lastly, "Amen!" The life event that deepens our perspective doesn't have to be as traumatic as a near-death experience, but it does have to be real. In our teens and twenties, most of our "pain" is self-created drama. We know there's more to life, so we manufacture the emotions. Probably not intentionally, but the majority of us lead pretty sheltered lives so on the emotional pain and loss scale, we're in the shallow end of the swimming pool. I look back at the stories I'd written in my 20s compared to now and can see such a big difference--a shift from all melodrama and angst to real feeling. Experience, not age, let us get to that point.

  7. Glad you recovered!

    I enjoyed reading this post. I've loved writing since I was a kid, but I set it aside for a long time and didn't start seriously writing fiction until a few years ago. At times, I've wondered where I would be if I'd started seriously writing sooner, then things like this will make me think maybe waiting was for the best. I wouldn't be as good of a writer without the life experiences I've had fueling my imagination and fleshing out the prose.

    Great post. Thanks for visiting my blog. :)

  8. That would be incredibly scary to wake up in the hospital and have no idea how you got there. Glad you're better now.

    I've experienced a lot of pain in my past that I use to help bring out the emotion in my story. Nice to know it's good for something. lol