Writing someone else’s pain

How writing pain out serves the writer

I realized recently that one of the things writing does is to serve as a break for the writer.

For the few hours dedicated to writing, a writer who needs it can block out her own pain, the pressing need to make her own decisions, the major and minor tragedies of her own life.

During the writing time, it’s all about the characters’ pain, decisions, tragedies. Those parts of the psyche that are dedicated to dealing with Life, and which are sometimes raw from that dealing, get a break, a respite, time off.

In the same way I am drawn to surf the web, looking for stories – and not the goody-goody ones where everything is sweetness and light and everyone is happy, but the ones where tragedy is involved – I am drawn to writing because, for those hours, I don’t think about myself. Or if I do, it is to find a source for the pain I have inflicted on a character, to ‘teach her a lesson.’

Pain is the human condition

Anyone who has been alive more than a few seconds knows pain. We spend our whole lives learning to deal with it, to accept it, to sometimes beat it, to find the good things in spite of it. Many of us with CFS deal with a fair amount of physical pain as part of a chronic illness. Those who have fibromyalgia often have unremitting pain as their primary symptom.

It isn’t so much that we’re driven to seek pleasure, though pleasure – the bliss of a full tummy, the satisfaction after love, the simple pleasure of walking without pain – is what tells us we’ve arrived at a better place.

We would never seek pleasure if we weren’t in pain. The whole story of the Garden of Eden is of loss – followed by the drive to regain what was lost.

Pain is the driver. And writing is a pleasure that sets aside my one small life. In favor of living many other ones as fully as I feel like developing them.

A two-way street

There is always something I can use, something that needs to be converted from petty to predicament, something that needs to have its sting drawn. That is the normal condition of life. If it seems I get somewhat more than my fair share sometimes, well, others have it worse – but I can use it to write.

Conversely, if I need to write something, I can always search my own experience for something with the same flavor, if not the same magnitude. A small injustice from a shop clerk or another driver will serve as the basis for a life-changing injustice for a character. All I have to do is dial the emotion up or down, add a bit of nuance, and set it into place like a plant into a garden spot, to grow and fill the space.

But I hadn’t realized that during the time I am transforming the feeling I am also free of the feeling: there is a distance between us which means I am no longer my pain. We are distinct, different, disconnected.

The purpose of writing down pain

It quantifies pain to be written down. The immense becomes measurable, containable.

If there is time during a period of pain, I write it down. I save it. I mull it over. I get all possible versions out of my head, so they don’t get lost. And the sorting helps: if one version isn’t quite correct, a piece from another will fit the puzzle better, fill the hole. If there is no time then, I do it later, but it niggles at me until captured. The pain wants to be used, to be understood, to be accepted, to be known.

Most of those truly personal notes won’t get shared, not unedited. A few will be shared with those who are very close to the same pain, if they wish.

The majority of the notes become fodder for writing, because much of what I learn comes from analyzing my own reactions and surprising myself: I honestly didn’t know how much it would affect me when Gizzy, our chinchilla – my chinchilla (though she obeys my husband better) – seemed to be starving to death with abundant food available. She stopped eating completely – not a good sign for a small mammal – and fought so hard not to have the special food force-fed to her that I gave up, even when she was skin and bones, literally, under the plush fur. She got the medicines from the vet as long as I was supposed to give them to her, a quick bolus with a tiny syringe into her cheek after I captured her – against her will. But she wouldn’t let me feed her, nor take any of the treats I offered, nor eat her regular food. I wrote over 8000 words during those weeks and the weeks after, chronicling the ups and downs, preparing myself to live without her – and the miracle I was granted when she turned around.

I am not a pet person. I told the vet that. He said, “You have four kinds of hay for her – you are a pet person.”

Writing controls experience

While I was writing, I could put a limit on the experience, take a break from the thoughts churning in my head, because they each had to take a turn, become coherent, turn into words and sentences and paragraphs before I could put them down – making the inchoate, fully developed. Fixed in a medium.

I wrote when the pain of spinal surgery and the fog of painkillers made me crazy, notebook after notebook. The possibility looms again – I will have to re-read those notes before I can make a decision. While I was writing, I was getting some kind of control over the pain, and setting it aside so that it was not all-consuming for the time I could write.

Normal people use other strategies to deal with their pain. Writers write. And then use it, mine it for meaning and metaphors.

I don’t know if this is good or bad. I just know that it is.

What do you do with pain?

11 thoughts on “Writing someone else’s pain

  1. Alice Audrey

    LOL “You have four kinds of hay for her. You are a pet person.”

    Did you ever find out what the problem was? We lost a chinchilla to overheating a couple of years ago.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I work hard to keep it cool enough for her – we have whole-house AC, and a portable unit that goes in her room – it can get very hot in NJ.

      The vet even consulted a more-exotic vet: he said he’d never seen an Xray like hers – it showed what looked a bit like a beaded necklace in her intestines (hard to tell on Xrays). But when I got her to eat, a wheat-grass blade at a time, nothing every showed up on output.


  2. clairechase51

    I am a nurse. Nurses don’t like anyone to have pain. We try to alleviate pain in so many different ways. Distraction is a way, but distraction by writing and creating characters with their own trials and tribulations was new to me. It makes sense…. I’m so glad you figured this out for yourself and that you shared it with us.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I didn’t distinguish physical from mental pain – both varieties can have this effect. I was thinking more of things like dealing with family crises and personal ones, but I have an enormous amount written from after the spinal surgery and that pain was excruciating and physical.

      So often there is nothing you can do with the pain but endure. I set pen to paper instinctively – but just realized what I was doing.


  3. juliabarrett

    If there is no pain, there is nothing to conquer. I am in awe of you- the way you write through your own pain. When we are in pain, either we turn inward and cannot empathize with another’s pain, or we turn out and, well, write or reach out or empathize.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Our inner pain – being a mother, being a daughter, being a woman in this world – is what we have that makes us humans. The physical pain is a small part of that (but useful – artists use everything INCLUDING the squeal (the pig’s pain)).


  4. Sandra Manning

    A nice article. Of course writing has to be about pain of some magnitude, because if everyone was fine and happy, there would be nothing to write about. To butcher Tolstoy, happy families are all boring in the same way. Your article does raise interesting thoughts though, since I,sometimes quite literally, torture my characters. But what strikes me most about the article is the side note on Gizzy – which illustrates how we develop ideas of our identity, i.e. your statement that you are not a pet person, and cling to those ideas, sometimes despite empirical evidence to the contrary. I wish you good writing.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I also try to torture my beta reader.

      I stand by my comment: I am not a pet person. I will not replace her. But I AM Gizzy’s person – however she was vouchsafed to me. Thank God for my pet-loving friends who were there for support and to answer questions when I needed them. You were very much appreciated.

      I wish you good writing, too. And you can’t give a character pain if you don’t know pain – it won’t sound true.



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