A painful topic


Silk’s Post #60 — I have a confession to make: I don’t do pain very well. Any kind of pain, physical or emotional – my own pain, someone else’s pain, even the pain of fictional characters.

My natural reaction to pain is to avoid it, turn my back on it, run from it. If I can’t manage that, I try to deny it, ignore it, make light of it. Or just change the subject. Pain is way out of my comfort zone.

What prompted this thought stream are some recent real life passages. The death of a friend. My lameness from hips and knees that recently decided to seize up without notice, just in time to remind me that I’ve passed the milestone beyond which I can’t really claim to be “middle-aged”. The horror of the destruction in the Philippines, where another friend lives. People near and dear to me who are struggling with health issues. There’s nothing like real life pain to kill one’s inner Pollyanna.

Fortunately, however, my own inner Pollyanna is an eternal goddess – she refuses to die. And this post is about writing, not moaning or mourning or making believe life is pain-free.

When people decide to become writers, I wonder how many of them know what they’re in for? It sounds easy until you try to do it. Writer dreams can be so charmingly optimistic. I laugh at my own naiveté just a few short years ago, before I learned that there’s so much more to writing than just spinning great yarns. More than just following the how-to-write-a-bestseller prescriptions. More than just making words sing.

Because I’m finally learning that writers must struggle to look unflinchingly at real life, delve into their own souls with eyes wide open, and then translate the truths they see into resonant stories that move people through the whole range of human emotions from laughter to tears. You can’t create the joy without the pain.

We’ve all heard this ad nauseum: make your characters suffer. It’s almost a writer’s mantra. If your protagonist doesn’t suffer and struggle, what does he or she have to overcome? And if there’s nothing to overcome, where is the story? I get that.

But here’s the thing: writing about pain is not altogether natural. It’s different from the rest of the range of human emotions and experiences, because it’s like the negative pole. It repels us. Okay, there are some writers who find pain attractive, but I don’t personally find them attractive. For me, a relentless focus on pathology is deadening.

In critiquing my 5writer friends’ manuscripts, reading a wide range of authors (both great and not-so-great) in various genres, and re-reading my own stuff, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion. The best writers often seem to be the ones who can write about pain bravely, evocatively, in a way that touches the heart without hardening it.

This is a hard balance to achieve. On the one side are squeamish writers, like me, who are inclined to keep the mean parts behind closed doors. On the other side are sensationalist writers who revel in spattering guts, gore and other forms of suffering across the page the way Jackson Pollock flung paint. And then, there are those who get confused about how and where to plant painful-but-necessary scenes (which, in my opinion, probably includes most of us unpublished writers).

An example from my 5writers group (I’m not naming names). One of the best of the manuscripts we’ve collectively turned out over the past couple of years features a fantastically-limned villain who is truly horrific, yet compellingly magnetic. This is a twisted character who loves to torture. There is a chilling and suspenseful lead up when the villain captures a naive and hapless victim. There’s spine-tingling tension as we anticipate the pain scene. Implements of destruction. Harsh and clever interrogation. High jeopardy. The victim sweats. The torturer gloats. Then the victim, in terror, blurts and yields. And the villain relents. What?! The victim gets off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. The payoff for all that tension is cancelled. Later in the same manuscript, however, there is a scene of indescribable brutality whose main purpose is to demonstrate another character’s capacity for violence. However, this scene is a pastiche that doesn’t really impact the plot and delivers no real tension. Hence, for me, it seemed gratuitous.

I give this example because, a) it’s from an early draft of a terrific book that I believe should, and will, be published, and b) it demonstrates that even when a writer is able to brilliantly master the difficult painful bits, they have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right imagery to serve the story and move the heart.

Ultimately, a story that brings real life to the page – with the boring bits taken out, as Alfred Hitchcock famously said – must have a physical effect on readers. They should feel that roller coaster of emotions in their bones.

The joyful scenes should make their hearts swell and bring a smile to their lips. The tense scenes should have their pulses hammering with fear. The sad scenes should make them bawl their eyes out. And the painful scenes should make them wince, suck in their breath, squeeze their eyes shut.

A writer has to be able to pull all these strings, whether implicitly or explicitly, gently or brutally, depending on the nature of the story.

So the painful truth: a writer’s job is to avoid nothing and confront everything.

2 thoughts on “A painful topic

  1. I am glad your post addressed this topic. Like for you, pain is not something I enjoy, whether experiencing it myself, observing it in others, or for that matter, reading about it. Not because I am squeamish or a whimp, but because I get no joy from watching suffering. I don’t need to read in gory detail when someone’s fingernails get pulled or the detail of a murder or rape spreading over five or ten pages until the poor sod is finally dead or maimed beyond hope. I don’t understand the fascination for such sadistic stuff, and it worries me.

  2. Pain — mine or others’ — is painful for me. And I know I’m reciting heresy here, but I’m not fond of characters being put through round after round of it. Some is okay, but I’m really put off by stories that make Job’s life look like a cakewalk. I know I’m out of step with this, and if I ever hope to find any kind of audience, I’ll have to find away to put enough of it in the book to satisfy readers.

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