Tell Us Where It Hurts
Many writing prompts or pieces of advice for those sitting down with the compulsion to write but no clear starting point in mind, boil down to: tell us where it hurts.
Begin there. Then follow the hurt until you get to something beautiful. Or redemptive. Or at least complete. Maybe even profound.
Hurt is a good starting point for writing. Not because pain has any intrinsic value or intrigue. Most pain is boring and unexceptional. Everybody hurts much if not most of the time. No, hurt is a good starting point for writing because the most painful things in our lives tend to be tied to the most wonderful.
The more something matters to us, the more capacity it has to destroy us when it disappears or changes or somehow goes wrong. The more you love someone, the more it hurts to lose them. The more you want something, the more you suffer when you don’t get it. The brighter the crystalline crescendo of the high, the deeper the gut-wrenching despair of the hangover.
If you begin with hurt, at the very least you’ll write something people can relate to. You’ll be honest. Almost without trying, you’ll write something with palpable intensity, something that screams and claws at the reader.
Try a little harder and you might write something with the kind of arc that appeals to our innate sense of order in the world: a movement from disintegration to integration, from disequilibrium to equilibrium, from being lost in the woods to finding a way out. Nothing hurts forever. Usually, the pain fades or we find a way to heal it. If neither is possible, then it becomes a part of us and we submerge it in the depths of our psyches, permitting it to come up and breath just often enough to let it live.
Try a lot harder and maybe what you say about your pain will be so real and human that it transcends you.
People want to hear about pain because so many of us are walking around searching for someone who knows how to say the words we’ve carved into our palms with bloody fingernails. If they catch the faintest wisp of it in your words, they’ll follow it anywhere.
Realism is not a prerequisite for relatability. It’s more of an impediment because everyone can project themselves onto the unreal and the abstract, not so much the specific and the grounded.
Nine times out of ten, however, all you’ll produce is a glorified diary entry.
If your head is a mess, it’s more like ninety-nine times out of a hundred. It will be a stew of self-pity and you’ll discard it with disgust.
You’ll keep writing about hurt anyway because it feels good in the process. It feels good to try to give shape to the nameless ball of swallowed screams that squirms in your chest. To try to unravel who, what, why, where. Do it for your own edification to begin with.
Write this way for years and you’ll discover there are infinite ways to explain the same pain. Nothing ever happens for one reason. No one remembers anything as it happened. Events do not condense down into one final account of what happened and why and what it did to you and how it ended.
But sometimes what you tell is not for you. In which case you get the luxury of certainty. You get to pretend the hurt has a definite shape and conclusion.
When you read history books, remember that the more sense they make, the less true they are. Past high school, no one should believe that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the First World War or that the Roman Empire fell because of Christianity.
When you write about your hurt, remember that the tidy chains of cause and event are for the reader, and maybe they are for falling back to sleep at night, but they are not really for you. The messy, scrawled parts are yours to keep.
Tell us where it hurts so that we can hurt a little less and you can understand a little more. Don’t do it if you want to never ask the same questions again. Don’t do it if you can’t distinguish between the parts that are for you and the parts that aren’t.
Some of the most moving writing is the result of the writer telling the story of their hurt, then subtracting themselves from it.
They leave strange vacua snaking throughout the paragraphs, like the paths of woodworms through ancient kitchen tables. You get to crawl in and try on their pain. See if any part of it matches up to yours. Wonder if the trail they left could be a path to your own escape. Their absence is your license to take liberties.
A certain formulaic kind of writer will hollow their work out to its barest, paper-thin shell and leave nothing save space. In extracting everything that is them, they let everyone in.
Once you learn this trick — of taking everything save the hurt out of a piece of writing — it’s hard to resist using it. But it’s a cheap, mawkish trick. Hurt that is a loose, billowing fit for everyone is a snug fit for no one. The more specific we are about pain, the greater the solace we offer to those who see their own in it. Braver, too.
All the same, it doesn’t need to be about you. When you start to write down where it hurts, it’s usually obvious almost straight away whether this is for you or for other people.
Writing about your pain does not need to be autobiographical. You can spin it into fiction or abstract lessons or present the pain as detached or let it lead you somewhere else. Knowing where it hurts is only a starting point. It can lead to somewhere happy and you can exorcise the bad parts. Or it can be a mere foil or a way of reaching something else.
In one form or another, tell us where it hurts is a common prompt because it’s limitless. You’ll never run out of hurt. To paraphrase a friend, the worst thing to happen to each person feels to them like the worst thing to ever happen to anyone.
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