Writing Through Physical Pain

When my kids were toddlers and in grade school, I was wired shut for eleven weeks after two jaw surgeries. I’d had some health problems over the years, but being wired shut topped them all. I couldn’t talk to my four small children or even call a friend.

I was dying to talk, but couldn’t. So I hurried to my computer where my characters “talked” onscreen. Dialogue flew back and forth, and (rather surprisingly) this mental conversation went a long ways toward satisfying me. Usually I wrote a MG novel in 5-6 months, but it took me just two months to write Danger at Hanging Rock, turning this post-surgical problem into salable writing.

A Real Pain

Writing about pain and writing through pain is possible. Not FUN, but possible. Health problems crop up routinely. They range from short-term problems (like your son’s broken leg), to things needing constant close attention (like diabetes or arthritis). The most serious problems (like terminal illness or a death in the family) affect us all, sooner or later.

However, instead of quitting, we can also transform these experiences into publishable writing, whether it’s a simple case of the flu or a stay in the hospital. It’s tempting with short-term health problems to abandon our writing “until things settle down.” If at all possible, don’t do that.

Instead, stand back, rethink, and keep going. For example, I finished a mystery called Cast a Single Shadow during my four-year-old daughter’s hospital stay. I couldn’t sleep, so I borrowed a nurse’s clipboard and wrote while the rest of the hospital slept.

Chronic Pain: Another Story

I’ve had TMJ, facial nerve damage from several surgeries, and arthritis in my jaw joints for 30 years. I’ve also had five neck surgeries to deal with a chronic pain condition. The two main challenges for writers and artists with chronic pain are (1) finding the energy to write, and (2) fighting depression.

Writing, as you know, demands a high level of energy, and people fighting chronic pain may use 30-50% of their daily energy just fighting their pain. If chronic pain threatens to stop you from writing, try these things:

  • Accept pain as a fact in your life.  Don’t compare your life with anyone else’s or brood about “how life should be.” It won’t help. Books like Judy Gann‘s excellent title The God of all Comfort: devotions of hope for those who chronically suffer will help and encourage you. You’ll realize that many others deal with chronic pain–and overcome  it. You can too.
  • Fight the depression.  If possible, try writing about the positive aspects of your situation. (“Life’s Simple Pleasures” was an article written by a migraine sufferer about learning to appreciate what most people take for granted, like a night’s sleep, a picnic with the family, or planting tulips.) Any type of writing you enjoy is helpful in fighting depression because it tends to distract you from your pain (like when you forget your headache during an exciting movie).
  • Find the energy. Create mini-goals (for example, writing just fifteen minutes at a time). Divide each writing task into thin, achievable slices. Assure yourself that you only have to complete one mini-goal or slice, then stop if you need to. Pace your activities, even on the days you feel better than usual. Pushing yourself only increases chronic pain.

Terminal Illness

Terminal illness and a death in the family tax your creativity the most. The shock, numbness, and months of extended grief can derail even the most  dedicated writers. However, even in these cases, certain strategies can keep you going.

Why would you even want to keep writing during such a stressful time? The point of it is so that you still have a career when the weeks or months have passed. You don’t have to start over at Square One. Yes, you take the necessary time to grieve or deal with things. However, if you put your writing “on hold” until things are “back to normal,” you may find it too difficult to get started again.

Keeping that in mind, some tips during a really rough patch might include:

  • Journal your feelings.  Journal in hospitals, waiting rooms, and cafeterias. Your deepest heart-felt thoughts will provide excellent material for later. They may become fillers, daily devotions or even greeting card verses for people in similar circumstances. Or…no one may ever see your writing, and that’s okay too. Either way, you keep up your writing habit, which will pay huge dividends later.
  • Encourage and coax, but don’t push yourself to write. Burnout occurs when the demands we put on ourselves outweigh our energy supply. Some days you just won’t be able to put pen to paper.
  • Again, write about your experiences.  It can be the best healer of all. To deal with the pain after my dad died thirty years ago, I wrote The Rose Beyond the Wall, a middle-grade novel about a grandmother with terminal cancer.  It was a book written from the heart. Despite its subject, it’s a hopeful book for children, and it sold well in hardcover and paperback. Think about doing the same thing with your experiences.

Remember that “this too shall pass,” and when it does, you’ll be in a position to share with others what you’ve learned. That’s a writer’s satisfaction that money can’t buy.

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8 Responses to Writing Through Physical Pain

  1. Vijaya says:

    What a wonderfully encouraging post. I am no longer chronically ill (just chronically tired from my medication) but I kept nodding my head in agreement. Yes, it is possible and probably a life saver to write through the pain if you are a writer.

    I was smiling when you wrote about your jaw being shut. Mama can’t say no!!! Did your kiddos run amok? I found my kids were extra-mindful about helping out when I was flattened … but on the days I was feeling decent, they’d clamor for attention.

    • kwpadmin says:

      No, they didn’t run amok. 8-) I had really helpful little ones. The hardest was the four-year-old because she couldn’t read. The older kids could ask me things, or I could tell them things, on paper. Went through tons of notepaper! But with the littlest girl, when she was home alone with me all day and no one to read my answers to her, it was harder. By the end of the three months, though, she and I had a pretty good sign language system we’d figured out!

      Actually, it was calmer with the kids during this time. I think I normally over-explained things. But when they asked me something when I was wired shut, and I said NO, I only had to say it once. They could keep asking, but I just kept pointing silently to the NO I’d already written. By the end of the three months, that kind of whining or nagging had stopped! :-)

  2. Kelly Irvin says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. Timing couldn’t have been better.

  3. Great tips, Kristi. Thanks for sharing your history a bit. I also remember Laura Hillenbrand’s story (author of Unbroken and Seabiscuit), struggling to write while enduring Chronic Fatigue http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Hillenbrand and the memoir of stroke victim, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who wrote it with help as he lived (and eventually died) with “locked-in syndrome.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Dominique_Bauby. When I think I can’t write because I’m too tired, too sore, too upset, too anything, I think of them and try to get a little something written down.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Jane, thank you for those links!!! I will check them out. Yes, I used to also think, “If they can do it, I can do it.” Even just a little bit.

  4. George Busby says:

    Kristi Holl , I like reading your blogs. Thank’s for all you do !

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