By Scott Morgan
Writers love pain. New York Times bestselling authors who have their books bought for movies love storytelling, but writers love pain. We use it as a way to connect with other people. We use it to humanize ourselves. We use it to motivate us.
It's understandable. Pain is a natural story generator. Creative writing, after all, is propelled by drama and conflict.
But after the ten or twelve years I've just had, I have no more use for pain. I don't know that I feel it anymore.
So is it coincidence, then, that I don't write that much anymore? Is it coincidence that the end of my pain ‒‒ and the subsequent sensation of general indifference ‒‒ coincides with my utter disinterest in trying to convince the world that I'm right?
You see, I don't want anymore. I have no real sense of desire for anything. Not in that burning, aching, I-have-a-goal sense, at least. So I have no compulsion to convince you that I'm right.
The upside is, I can't be hurt (though I'm often annoyed). The downside is, I can't be swept away. Can't fall in love. With anything.
So this makes me wonder: Is it really pain that makes us write or paint or sing so beautifully? Or is it the ability to feel pain?
I don't know. I have a theory that I'll save for the end. But first, I'd rather bore you with six things I believe about pain.
1. Pain makes us sensitive. Pain brings us together because when someone feels what has hurt us, we want them to know they're not alone. It's a noble impulse. It means we want to help, in some small way, to heal someone who suffers.
2. Pain makes us competitive and arrogant. Like everything, the pain we feel boils down to a pissing contest. We take a perverse joy in having had it worse than others and living to tell the tale. Sure, your dog died ‒‒ but my father died. When I was a reporter in 2001, I learned quickly that people who didn't live in the Northeast (I was in New Jersey) had developed a form of 9/11 envy. They didn't have a story that involved someone being there; they didn't personally know someone who was killed. And those who did have a more inside connection to that day were quick to brag how much worse it was to know what it was like first-hand.
3. Pain makes us cautious. I know. "Duh." Of course pain makes us cautious. It's supposed to. We're supposed to learn not to lick a hot stove twice, it's a survival thing. But it also makes us reticent to take new chances. Pain can make us brave in one way (like when we share our pain) and fearful in another (like when we hide, rather than go out in the world and try new adventures).
4. Pain does not make us creative. There's an old joke: A guy asks his doctor, "Hey, when this cast comes off my arm, will I be able to play piano?" The doctor says sure and the guy says, "Great, I never could before." If you can't write to begin with, you won't be able to just because you got your illusions dashed and your heart broken. If you can write, you can channel your pain into good stories, but if you can't now, you never will.
5. Pain makes you toxic. As creative writers, most of us like to believe in the movie version of pain ‒‒ the one that postulates that when we are brooding in cafés, extremely attractive and sensitive strangers will come over to us and save our souls via 80s movie montage activities and sad-but-satisfying sex in the rain. The truth is, the more in pain you are outwardly, the farther away from you people in cafés will sit. At most, one of the wait staff will tell you that you look sad. But the truth hits you soon enough ‒‒ no one wants to be around a person who's in pain. You might as well have boils on your face and a flask that says "AIDS" balanced precariously on your chin. True pain is very lonely, and no one cares.
6. Pain does not make us unique. We all like to be different. Just like everyone else. And somehow we like to think that our painful experiences make us unique. They don't. Most of us have at least a tangential relationship with horrifying things. I was once asked in an interview which word I hate the most. I said cancer. Everyone who heard me nodded and said "Oh, yeah." Your pain is only unique to you. It's pain's universality that makes it so powerful in storytelling.
Which brings me back to my theory. I don't think it's pain that makes for great stories. I think it’s hope. Love. The ability to feel the belief that things will get better or that by writing our pain, catharsis will show us the solution to our problems.
The slowing of my creative writing isn't because I feel pain. It's because I don't feel anything. Too much pain has taken my ability to feel wonder and naïveté, and love.
My point in all this? Embrace your love, not your pain. It is your wonder, your awe, your passion that fuels you. Not your pain. Even if you're writing painful things.
This post originally appeared in the blog Write Hook in May 2013.
Scott Morgan grew up in New Jersey, but we won't hold that against him. He is the author of Character Development From the Inside Out, How To Be A Whiny Beeyotch: 71 Writing Excuses Meet the Back of My Hand, and the collection of short stories, Stories My Evil Twin Made Up. His latest published work is the short story, Precious.