Pain as Emotional Fuel for Fiction

Aspiring writers are often advised to “go out and get new experiences”—join a circus, become a reporter, or go hang-gliding off a lofty mountain ledge.

But none of that is necessary. The experiences writers need most are common emotions, which happen to us no matter what we do.

Moreover, the feelings I most need in my writing, the ones that inspire me the most, are usually the ones I dread and try my hardest to avoid: grief, envy, anger, and despair.

I learned this a few years ago when my cat Tu-bear died. Although some people view the loss of a pet as trivial, her death felt seismic to me. An unbearable silence pervaded my apartment. Tu-bear had been with me for twenty years. She was like my family, and knowing that I would never again feel her warm weight on my lap made my entire future seem cold.

Months after she died, I wrote a story called The Dragon-Proof House and dedicated it to her. My main character retreats into a futuristic virtual world — sort of like an online video game — to escape the trauma of losing a child to illness.

The simulation allows her to forget why she came, but even in her virtual world she is haunted by the ghost of her lost toddler. My story, the emotions in it, were entirely powered by my grief over losing my cat.

Given a choice between getting my cat back and writing a moving story, I would definitely have picked my cat. But lacking the power to resurrect felines, I am glad that I at least have my story.

Hate, grief, envy — along with more desirable emotions like love and joy — are the engines of fiction. Without ever feeling the best and the worst of them in myself, I would be unable to convey them authentically to readers.

Knowing this gives the worst feelings life has to offer meaning.

This is an advantage that writers have over non-artists when dealing with emotions like grief, jealousy, sorrow or rage: we can convert them into creative energy.

The emotional turmoil may be as intense for a writer as it would be for anyone, but art gives us a way of catching feelings for later use, a way of looking at them with curiosity—and even a measure of detachment—instead of running from them.

The idea of writing as a coping device is hardly new. Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” According to Neil Gaiman, no matter what happens, whether death or sickness or divorce, the response should always be the same: create great art.

There is no feeling too dark to write about. In the throes of grief, fear, anger, sadness, and dread, there is always, somewhere inside me, an observer viewing it as curiously as a child seeing rain for the first time.

If I remember not to push a painful feeling away too quickly, it briefly stops being harrowing and becomes merely interesting as the writer in me says, “Pay attention. What does this feel like? Take notes. You can use this.”

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