Why we need pain to write
In experiencing difficulties, we may open ourselves up to our best, most compassionate work
Published: August 9, 2011
|Even 30 seconds of silence felt sublime. But then the coughing would erupt again, sending my 2-year-old son, Tyler, into a fit of wheezing, heaving and crying. Listening to him deal with a nasty flu was like putting my heart through a meat grinder.|
And yet. Because I’m a writer, it’s becoming harder and harder not to see pain as a necessity for creating truth with words—even in writing fiction.
Perhaps John Gardner, author of Grendel and On Becoming a Novelist, gives us the ultimate call to action when it comes to pain and creation. “Art,” he once wrote, “begins in a wound.”
He should know. When he was only 12, he accidentally ran over his younger brother with a tractor on their farm, killing the younger boy. Gardner’s battle with guilt and depression, some claim, lasted his entire life.
But the suffering he so tragically endured also served as a candle from which to draw light for his words. In a sense, Gardner the writer had to tell stories as a way to deal with the pain of the accident.
Are we any different as writers? I’ll be the first to admit that I would like to avoid that unwelcome guest, Pain. When he shows up at my front door, I have often tried to persuade him that he had the wrong address, or, if he’s sure the address is right, would he like a cup of joe and a chat in lieu of performing his duties? Pain always seems uninterested in my pleas.
Then again, I am a writer. The very best work I have crafted has come as a result of the pain I’ve felt in my own life, or from seeing pain affect the life of someone for whom I care deeply. Because it is pain that makes the heart break open, and an open heart is necessary for writing. A writer must be able to then translate pain—his own or another’s—into compassion. As soon as compassion begins, so can creation.
In my first year as a seventh-grade English teacher, I had gotten close to a handful of students who were facing huge foes: One had an abusive mother; one had a dad who walked out on the family earlier that year; another’s parents were embittered in an ugly divorce; and the last had been relentlessly bullied.
I offered every kind of support I could. I connected my students with the proper counselors in the school, and I got on my knees at home and prayed. But another option presented itself: write.
I banged out a rough draft of a middle-grade novel tentatively titled Atticus & Me. With my students’ faces in my mind, and their pain in my heart, I wrote almost in a state of obsession—producing 20 to 30 pages every evening after teaching during the day. I cried through those pages, and I battled my students’ adversaries—and my own—in the writing.
After two weeks of constant work, I had a terrible novel in my hands. Since our school budget was short, and we had no more class sets of novels to read and still two months of the school year left, I photocopied the manuscript and we read it together. All 80 of my students and I.
Two years and nine drafts later, Atticus & Me helped me land an agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I met her at a conference, and we corresponded for four months before she offered to represent me and Atticus. The moment was beautiful for me, yes, but it was most profound to think of my four students, for whom Atticus was created in the first place.
I now find myself oddly at ease about whether or not the book ever makes its way into the real world through Random House or Little, Brown or any other publishing house. Instead, I have found that my fingers—when they write with a compassion that can only be borne of pain—are capable of producing many more words, many more stories.
In using the pain of our own lives and that which we see in others to fuel our writing, we not only teach ourselves to feel compassion, but we also learn to craft stories that house the most authentic of all emotions and actions: love. And who would daresay that a writer could write without love? While Gardner is right that art begins with a wound, we might add that it ends with a way forward—a crack where hope seeps in.
Luke Reynolds is the editor of three anthologies and also writes for a middle-grade audience. Web: lukewreynolds.com.