Writing about what hurts

Writing About What Hurts

Write hard and clear about what hurts.

I recently came upon this quote by Ernest Hemingway, the master of pithy advice for writers, and I found it very thought-provoking.

It’s a variation of the writing advice to ‘write what you know,’ which many authors have dismissed as being limiting. Some have changed it to ‘write what you want to know,’ which can be much more fun because you are able to research, find new information and expand your horizons.

Dig deep into your pain

But writing about what hurts is about plumbing the depths of your psyche, and it’s something every writer can do, as we all have been hurt in some way or another by people and events in our past. And sometimes not even people or events, sometimes it’s your own mind that can cause you pain.

John Green, acclaimed romance/young adult author of The Fault Is In Our Stars suffered from severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, and after he recovered due to medication and therapy, he wrote Turtles All The Way Down, a novel about a young girl struggling against being at the mercy of her thoughts.

By digging deep into your own pain, you can not only write authentically, but also touch your readers emotionally. Because you can guarantee that whatever pain you are writing about, whether it be the death of a loved one, a relationship break-up or suffering a mental illness, there will be readers who have had the same experiences. And if they haven’t, they will feel as if they have if you write it well enough.  And isn’t that the aim of every author – to have an impact on the reader, to make them feel? 

Confront your demons

Crime/thriller author David Morrell, of Rambo fame, puts it another way.  He says, ‘Write about what you fear most.’

It’s slightly differently semantically from Hemingway’s adage, but when you boil it down, what hurts us is often what we fear.  Our natural reaction to pain is to fear it and avoid it wherever possible.

In this Killzone blog post, Writing About What You Know – Even When It Hurts, author P.J. Parrish recounts the time she was at a conference and heard Morrell give this advice. Immediately she was stunned and close to tears, because she realised that in her work in progress she’d been skirting around her demons, unwilling to confront them.  Consequently, the manuscript felt too artificial and detached. So the next day she started writing from scratch, forcing herself to face the pain.

Morrell says that his childhood was lived in constant fear. After his father died, his mother put him in an orphanage for a while and when she re-married, his stepfather turned out to be a bully who hated children, and there was constant fighting in the home.  Consequently most of his books have been about fear and his characters’ struggles with it.

Degrees of fear

Crime author Patricia Cornwell describes the process of mining your fears as ‘exploring the catacombs and caves of your deepest fears.’  It sounds like pretty heavy stuff, but there are varying levels of fears. There are fears which are circumstantial but don’t affect your day to day life, such as fear of clowns, heights, closed spaces, spiders and many other phobias. 

Then there are the big picture fears that lurk in the back of your mind, may cause you to worry on occasions or keep you awake some nights, and may or may not affect how you live your life – such as fear of nuclear attack, pollution, biological warfare, overpopulation.

Then there are the emotional fears, which do impact on your daily life, often on a subconscious level, such as fear of grief and loss, abandonment, failure, rejection, loneliness.  I would also put  fear of death in this category.

My fear of death

A few years ago, I was experiencing that very fear – caused by nothing in particular that I can remember, although there was probably a subconscious reason. It prompted me to write the short story A Peaceful Death, which features in my free e-book Comedy Shorts, about a man encountering the Angel of Death, who makes some unusual demands.  It was a cathartic experience, helping me to confront my fear of death and put it into perspective. 

That same fear raised its ugly head again after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and I wrote about it in my memoir Making The Breast Of It – Breast Cancer Stories of Humour and Joy. I also had another fear to deal with – the fear of a poor attendance at my funeral, proving how illogical some fears are.

My three biggest fears

After reading David Morrell’s quote, I decided as an experiment to write down my three biggest fears.  They are fear of losing a child, fear of losing my partner, fear of losing my mind and independence. (My mother had Alzheimer’s, so that fear has some rational basis). All loss related. And overriding all those fears, the fear of the pain of grief.

I hasten to add, though, that these fears don’t impact on my normal daily life or keep me awake at night; they just lurk in my subconscious. But I will now keep them in mind when thinking about and planning future novels – although interestingly, the fear of losing a child is an underlying theme in my current manuscript. 

Make your fears universal

An important point for authors to remember, however, is that even though mining your own pain and fears for a novel can indeed be a cathartic experience,  it’s not just a matter of letting it all out and bleeding on to the page. As P.J. Parrish says, you have to ‘take your specific and deeply personal emotions and make them feel universal.’ 

In other words, writing your fears and pain has to be done with skill and restraint, and is more effectively done with the benefit of hindsight.  The passage of time brings clarity and perspective, which in turn results in more powerful writing.

Have your fears motivated your writing? Or have you read books in which it is obvious the author has used his/her own painful experiences to make for a compelling story?

I’d love you to join in the conversation in the comments box below.

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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