Write Into Your Pain 14

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.

I agree.

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.



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14 thoughts on “Write Into Your Pain

  • patsy ann taylor

    Healing through writing? Yes. I believe it. Our pain informs our writing whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose. Journaling is one place to pour suffering and hurt onto the page, and fiction is enriched by using the honest emotions that bubble up through the pain in our everyday lives. All of the techniques you suggest are worth trying. Thank you for the ideas. Patsy

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Hi Patsy, and thank you for your comment. I think this is about more than pouring pain onto a page, or even healing (though that’s certainly a benefit) — it’s about actually mining that pain for the diamonds it contains, and offering those diamonds to our readers.

  • Pamela Williamson

    Love this post, Amber. I can so relate. There’s a few pieces I’ve written that I could only write in the 3rd person, it did give me some distance, and when I presented it to my writer’s group for feedback I could hide behind the fact that they saw it as a short fiction piece. Not a good thing to do though, a couple of the people didn’t like the little girl in the story. The little girl was me, so it turned out to be a little uncomfortable after all. Now if I write something non-fiction in the 3rd person I write it in the notes section when I upload it to our writer’s site so my fellow writers know ahead of time. 🙂 I’ve taken an incident in the lives of my siblings and I and fictionalized it to get it down on paper. It captured the event precisely, but the little fluff I added was just the touch of distance that I needed. You have to do what it takes to work through it and get it down on paper. Great advice. Thanks. 🙂

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Pamela, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m guessing that writing about your life in the 3rd person allowed you to portray the darker aspects of yourself, as well as the more “acceptable,” as evidenced by people not liking the character of the little girl. If you can write yourself as a complex character who some may not like, then consider yourself successful! 🙂

      Now, if you can remember that even when you’re portraying yourself on the page (in fiction or nonfiction), you’re still only creating a character, that character is not “you,” and she is a narrator with whom you have a very close relationship, it will help you weather criticism of the character (we’re talking character, not criticism of the writing … that is a different issue).

  • Stephanie Wood

    I love how you wrote about doing something that is a difficult yet so rich for us IF we’re willing to embrace the emotions that are buried under the conflict and pain. Opening the door to these emotions and walking through the threshold is the heroine / hero’s journey. What awaits on the other side is the part of myself that I had denied and buried so long ago that I don’t even recognize it. I was so unaware of these emotions for so many years – to the point that I would tell everyone that I had no issues. Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t ignore certain patterns in my life. I “found” a person who taught me how to unravel the issue and become more aware of myself and my patterns by:
    – writing the story down in my journal; and if I couldn’t write it to work with a buddy to “talk it out”;
    – looking for trigger words in the “story” (anything that raised a strong emotion in me);
    – writing / dialoging more about those areas if I could;
    – pulling the words out into lists on paper (yes, finally get it on paper if I hadn’t already) – and then looking up the opposite of each word;
    – dialoging on paper about the desire / fears of those opposites – which helped me to see the unconscious / the blind spots that were recreating the same scenarios over and over in my life.
    – taking these “to the mat” to see more and more of myself, the pain and fears lurking beneath the covers, reclaiming those parts of myself that I had denied so long ago…..
    All of this is to say that I love your suggestions! thanks!

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Stephanie, thank you for sharing your experiences and processes. I love your additions — in particular, looking for trigger words (those emotionally resonant alarm bells), looking up the opposite of each word and then dialoguing about the desires and fears of those opposites to help reveal blind spots. Wow! Good stuff. Thank you for sharing. I’ll add those to my list for the future.

  • Barbara Toboni

    I wrote a blog post for Wisdom Has a Voice titled, Writing From a Place of Sadness. In the article I explored this process in writing my short story called “A Moon Song” for the Wisdom Has a Voice anthology. My mother died young, at the age of 48, from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I wanted to connect with her character but was afraid of living through the pain of losing her again. I also didn’t want to sound like a victim. But writing through those painful memories I realized it was the only way to arrive at my mother’s truth and write a better story. The link to that blog post: http://wisdomhasavoice.com/blog/page/2/

  • Dawn Herring

    Writing can truly be cathartic especially when dealing with painful memories. I appreciate the journaling approaches you offer here that can help give us distance or simply a fresh perspective on old wounds that tell our story. Writing is a brave action; telling our story is even more brave. Journaling helps us move through the process and make it less daunting.

    I have chosen your post, Write Into Your Pain, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 4/3/13 for all things journaling on Twitter; a link will be posted on the social networks, on my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in my weekly Refresh Journal: http://tinyurl.com/cweey3b.

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: Listen and Learn. Julie Luek joins us!

    I appreciate your perspective and point of view on this issue of pain and writing our story; thanks for the helpful hints.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Your Refreshment Specialist
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Dawn, thank you for your kind comments and choosing this post for your #JournalChat Pick of the Day. And for the reminder that writing takes courage.

      I can’t make it to your #JournalChat Live on Thursdays, but I encourage all my readers who can make it to check out the conversation.

  • Meka Brown

    When I sit down to write, memories of painful experiences bubble to the surface asking for release. I have a hard time writing about these memories, and when I decide to write them down I end up writing around the memory and not really saying what it is I want to say. I am going to try these techniques out to see which ones will work for me. I may definitely need to try the third person technique because I am so tied into these experiences emotionally. Thanks for sharing this, I really needed it.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Meka, thank you for sharing about your struggle to write about painful experiences. Writing in third person is definitely one technique that I’ve found helpful. In addition to the techniques above, another is to meditate for a few minutes before writing, bringing myself into a calm and trance-like state. Please stay in touch and let us know how it goes.

  • Cheryl

    I am find it very hard to write through my pain but I hope to learn I have stories to tell and share
    Thank you for your blog. I hope to get my
    blog up and running so, I am trying to learn to work wordpress.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Cheryl, thank you for sharing your thoughts and struggle. I know you have stories to tell and I hope you find the resources here helpful to your writing journey. As for writing through pain — it can be difficult. My main message about this is to be compassionate toward and to trust yourself: sometimes, writing through your pain is the best thing to do and sometimes, it’s better to wait and come back to the writing after you’ve had time to process whatever is causing the pain and you’ve been able to gain some perspective. Only you know what is right for you in this situation.