Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Writing About Pain

I got a cortisone shot today in my hand, the third of three. For those of you wincing, I’m allergic to anesthetic. The ones YOU get have anesthetic mixed in; mine are straight up. Not that I want to one-up anyone, but as much as your cortisone shots hurt, mine hurt worse. It’s excruciating for 10 minutes, and then it just plain hurts for the rest of the day. Lucky me.

After I got past the first 10 minutes of pain and could think, I started to think about writing (knowing I had a blog post to write today). And after I moved my hand a bit to make sure I could actually write the blog post (yes, I should have done it earlier), I thought about how we describe things.

The more vivid the descriptions, the easier the reader can enter the story and feel like they are living what you write. We use specific words, choose our adjectives wisely, limit our adverbs and use active, rather than passive, verbs. We incorporate multiple senses.

Scenery is fairly easy. We can look out our window and describe what we see. If we don’t see a specific scene, we can look it up on the Internet or find a photograph and describe it. Again, we’re “there” so it’s pretty simple (at least in theory) to get our readers there too.

Things we do every day, or frequently, are also easy to describe. They’re part of our lives—some of us know firsthand the drudgery of carpooling or cleaning. We cook and can do a pretty decent job of describing the sights and smells of the food.

We can also pretty easily describe joy and satisfaction, for most of us experience it frequently, even if it’s only in little ways. But the more difficult emotions to describe are the painful experiences that our characters are going to go through—sadness, mourning, devastation, physical pain. For most of us, we don’t have those experiences often enough to have them in the forefront of our minds. We have to think back to a painful experience, put ourselves into that original spot and draw from there.

Most of those uncomfortable experiences are not ones we want to relive and we certainly don’t want to record our feelings at the time we’re experiencing them, at least, not in any clinical way. Those of us who keep blogs or diaries can go back to those writings at a later time, read the rawness of our emotions and transfer those emotions to our characters, but doing so is not without a risk to us.

But for me, today, I was in a painful spot that I CAN use for future reference, almost immediately. Sure, as I said earlier, it was excruciating. But it was a physical pain, not an emotional one. Sitting down now to record how it felt when the needle pierced my flesh, or the burn of the cortisone, or the physical ache afterwards, will not make my hand feel worse. Nor will it bother me and cause me to have to leave my computer for a break. The feelings are fresh, but physical. And now is a great time to write them down, so that the next time I want one of my characters to experience physical pain, I can refer back to my “cheat sheet.”

And, hey, if none of that works, at least it gave me something other than my hand to think about! J


  1. Somewhere I read 'you know you’re a writer when you think “I could use this” even when you're in agony after breaking your ankle'. In your case, it's after a cortisone shot!
    Never having had such a shot, I have no concept of the pain but I can sympathise with you! What's interesting about pain is that it is very subjective, since some people have high pain thresholds and others low thresholds. I've read descriptions of childbirth pains (of which I do have some experience!) and in fact couldn't relate some of them to my experience at all.
    Maybe the same applies to our sense-based descriptions which, perhaps inevitably, tend to mirror our own feelings and reactions.
    An interesting and thought-provoking post, Jen!

  2. Jennifer, I'm so sorry you're hurting, but it's nice to see you looking on the bright side and using this experience as a way to make your writing richer. :)