Pain can be an incredible powerful emotion, one that can often overwhelm the body and mind. Whether emotional or physical, it is something that we all experience at some point in our lives, and is a fundamental part of the human experience. It goes without saying that it is therefore a fundamental part of storytelling, particularly where we are telling our own stories.
Pain is at the core of some the best novels ever written, as familiar characters suffer we can relate because, more often than not, we have been to those dark spaces, and our experiences have opened up wells of compassion and empathy within us that are easily identifiable through the pages of a book.
When we address themes of trauma in our writing, the reader becomes connected with that trauma as they place themselves in the character's shoes. It is for this reason that texts dealing with profound trauma such as ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ (Angelou, 1969) have such a significant impact and remain with us long after reading. Roger Luckhurst states that trauma is:
‘A piercing or breach of a border that puts inside and outside into a strange communication. Trauma violently opens passageways between systems that were once discreet, making unforeseen connections that distress or confound.’ (Luckhurst, 2008, p. 3)
Does that mean we have to use violent language and a harsh approach when writing pain or trauma? On the contrary I argue the opposite, that pain can be expressed in the most subtle of ways, yet still be gut-wrenchingly true to life and powerfully effective. Avoiding the use of cliched language is perhaps the first step. Words like ‘hell’ and ‘anguish’ are often too strong, we are effectively immune to them in a society that throws these words around like confetti. Afterall, a simple dinner with the in-laws might be described as being like 'hell', we might want to just 'die' when we tripped over in the street. You can begin to see how this language might lose its power and poignancy in a narrative. Strong emotion can instead be shown incredibly effectively using a sensory approach.
Emotion is complex. Along with the senses. We rarely experience a single emotion or sense in isolation. Think about eating a bag of chips in a car, you see the windows steamed up, the tang of vinegar is in your nostrils, the taste of fried potato on your tongue, the dampness and condensation is making your skin moist, I could go on and on. Now, imagine crying while eating, the feeling of food being stuck in your throat, the taste of salty tears...you get my drift. These experiences and emotions flow through us and are continually changing, multi-facetted, a mix of complex and often conflicting thoughts, feelings and experiences creating...pain.
As writers we can begin to mix these emotions to create a truer sense of a character's experience. Much like an artist mixes paint to create the truest colour, we can find the right formula of emotion and/or sensory detail to create the truest voice for our writing. For example, a woman who has been betrayed may experience feelings of shame alongside hurt, a victim of abuse may struggle with anger. Researching how people process and deal with particular emotions then opens up a myriad of ideas on how to portray a character. Have a look at this helpful website: The 6 Types of Basic Emotions (verywellmind.com) and also at Dr. Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions below for more inspiration!
However you approach the problem of pain in your writing, whether it is your own or fictional, I hope you begin to dig deeper and find a powerful voice for it.
Peace and Light
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House.
Caruth, C. (2016). Unclaimed Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gutkind, L. (2021, March 5). Creative Non-Fiction is True Stories, Well Told. Retrieved from Creative Non-fcition: https://creativenonfiction.org/
Luckhurst, R. (2008). The Trauma Question. Routledge.
Philip, S. (2016). Traumaturgy: A Dramaturgical Methodology for the (Re) Processing of Traumatic Memory Through the Performance of Autobiographical Trauma Narratives. Edgehill University.