A Writer’s Brain Under Duress Is Still a Writer’s Brain

One of my critique writing partners recently told me that she liked reading my post about my parents’ divorce because it reassured her that one doesn’t have to have suffered in life to be able to write dark or gritty material in fiction. (And if that seems weird to correlate to my parents splitting up, then you’ll have to go read that post to understand better.)

It’s true I certainly believe a writer will do better having some sort of experience with a difficult situation (coupled with good research), but it certainly doesn’t have to be first-hand experience.

On the other hand, direct personal experience obviously is a boon to a writer looking to include it in her story. “Write what you know” may be a broad statement to include “what you know of the human experience”, but it clearly includes specific knowledge, too.

My past week has included two trips to the E.R., both resulting in overnight stays in the hospital, among other things. Sure, there’s a lot I can pull from that (in fact, at one point they moved me to the hall because they needed my room, and I was only waiting to be admitted. I told E.R. staff that it was writer’s gold for observation.), but where I decided to really dig in was what followed the most recent hospital visit.

Cardiologists added a new medication to my regimen and a side effect is headaches. Let me tell you, I had that side effect in spades, that side effect took over like a Penguin-Random House merger. If you suffer from migraines, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you much for you to understand.

[SIDE NOTE: Very fortunately for me, this side effect will ease away as my body adjusts, which is not something migraine sufferers or anyone else who has chronic pain can say. Also, I recognize that while my experience was intense, I was still able to think through it. I don’t want to minimize the pain that those who suffer from chronic episodes of any sort that rate 9-10+, disabling them from any kind of functional activity.]

One night the pain was so intense, it radiated out from the front of my head, down the back of it, down both sides of my neck, and into my forearms. Regular pain medications couldn’t keep up.

There wasn’t much I could do at that point to distract myself imaginatively from that pain, but after some of it receded and decided to just have a romp only in my head, I let my writer brain go to work. Maybe I couldn’t make lemonade, but I sure could squeeze something from that experience, right? And maybe distract myself in the process?

How could I effectively describe the pain without using “throb” or “pressure” for example? How, in the future, can I help my readers feel the pain with my characters?

It felt like bolt gun practice.

Yep, that was a good start.

And obviously we can use the thesaurus.

“Throb”: beat, pound, thud, drum

“Pound”: beat, batter, pummel, hammer, clobber

There are some good ones there, but hey, we can do better than that can’t we? We’re writers, not middle school students working on a grammar worksheet.

Let’s see.

Margie Lawson might suggest twisting a cliché for “fresh writing”:

My head pounded. < — Total cliché.

My head pounded as though there was a construction competition and the current event was a jackhammer contest: who could break into my head or out of it first?

The Incredible Hulk squeezed my brain while Captain America pushed back with his shield to keep my head from exploding. (I live with a bunch of Marvel superhero fans.) 

Some people love fireworks. Try having all the dud ones explode in your head at the same time and you might change your mind.

Donald Maas might suggest emotional detail:

The pain in my head curled tighter, tighter around until I no longer cared about who wronged me or what those wrongs were. All I could feel was the physical necessity of pushing through the bolt gun firing in my head. (I had to put that bolt gun in somewhere…)

Have I given you a headache yet (in more ways than one since these examples aren’t thrilling me, either)?

How about the relief?

As my head became unshackled, I smiled, too tentative to bound in joy, knowing how quickly the chains could cuff me again.

Wait, that’s only partial relief, isn’t it?

Well, now you know where I was at when I wrote this post. 😀 😀 😀

Let me hear from you – what are fresh ways to describe physical pain? Or what about the release one feels when the pain passes?

For this post’s song, I thought I’d better go with something soothing rather than headache-inducing – maybe that will further loosen the creative juices…

What do you think? I'd love to discuss!

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