Go where the pain is. I’m on a flight from Oakland, CA to Phoenix, AZ when I read these words in an article by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni*. It’s not that I haven’t heard this saying before. I have. Even Banerjee was paraphrasing a writing teacher she once had. Yet I feel a surge of excitement and recognition almost spiritual in nature.
Banerjee goes on: Stories are for understanding the nuances of life, for empathizing with characters in spite of — or perhaps because of — their exasperating frailty. …Your real-life conflicts are full of riches to be mined.
In Confessions of a Story Writer (1946), Paul Gallico wrote**, It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. Perhaps, this is also how we establish contact with ourselves.
If we are to bring to life our stories, we must write into and through our pain rather than around it. This is particularly true of memoir. If we are to write the truth of our lives onto the page, we must be willing to face and embrace painful memories of traumatic events, difficult relationships, abuse, poverty, and shame. We must be willing to walk directly into our own darkness, open, vulnerable, unshielded, and with a desire to be transformed in the process.
It is this very transformation that molds story from the raw material of experience.
Our most compelling personal stories lie in our conflicts with others and in the pain of relationships. We must be willing to explore these relationships with curiosity and a desire to see ourselves — and life itself — through others’ eyes. Unless we are courageous enough to write into the pain of these relationships, we may not be able to express the truth of them. Instead, our portrayals will be one-sided, shallow, and ring false.
But writing through pain is not an easy task; pain avoidance is a natural and reasonable response. Many times I’ve sat down to write about something difficult and ended up skirting around my subject, never managing to do more than pick gently at an old wound.
What’s a writer to do? How do we get past our own disinclination?
There are many journaling techniques that can help; the trick is to experiment and find out which ones work best for you. These techniques include, but are not limited to:
- Ginormous lists (lists of 100 and more)
- Creative clustering
- Writing in 3rd person POV (brings distance to the subject)
- Fictionalizing (distance and imagination)
- Letter writing
- Written or recorded dialogue with the person or situation.
Sometimes, I need to use several of these techniques before I am able to get past my defenses and reveal the core of my story. I have also found that writing through my pain and into transformation not only deepens my story, it changes and heals me in the process.
What’s your opinion and experience about this subject? Please share by leaving a comment.
* “The Novelist’s Guide to Writing What (Only) You Know,” Writer’s Digest, March/April 2013
** This saying is often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway.