Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Beautiful Process of Writing from Pain

While having my hair done at my hairdresser’s this weekend, I flipped through the pages of  the February issue of Vanity Fair. No articles had really caught my attention until I saw a black-and-white photo of J.D. Salinger. I read the piece intently. I got goose bumps reading about how real life events –tragic and gruesome- deeply affected Salinger’s life and his writing for ever. Even under a rain of bullets, he furiously typed stories, as one of his soldier friends described. I don’t know if that was true commitment or sheer madness. As I continued reading, I learned the parallels between Holden Caulfield and Salinger himself. Kenneth Slawenski explains in his latest book, J.D. Salinger: A Life, that World War II “shaped the author as well as his most famous character.”

Salinger was a short story writer and was not sure that he wanted to write a novel. On the good advice of his mentor, Whit Burnett, a professor at Columbia and editor at Story magazine, he continued to write about Holden Caulfield. He ended up writing nine stories about his main character and then wove these stories together to produce his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye. Slawenski goes on to say that “The achievement was a catharsis. It was confession, purging, prayer, and enlightenment, in a voice so distinct that it would alter American culture.”

To me this was an epiphany. Who would have thought of pain as a source of inspiration? A former mentor once told our class to write about what we know. Salinger wrote about war and pain because that’s what he knew. This hit close to home as a dear friend and writer shared with me her latest story. She even admitted it was cathartic. The result: a beautifully well-written edgy piece.

Reading about Salinger’s painful ordeal inspired me to go home and write. This article taught me that even a difficult experience can be indeed a source of inspiration.

Are your stories a catharsis, an epiphany, or a combination of both?


  1. Salinger’s first chapter introduces the main character and narrator— Holden in the Catcher in the Rye. The first and second-person narration engages both the psychologist to whom he is speaking as well as the reader. The reader is first struck by the lack of organization which Holden employs to convey his message. The stream-of-consciousness narration seems to have no recognizable pattern; there are many digressions to other subjects making it apparent that Holden himself doesn’t know exactly what he’ll say next.

    Holden first mentions his brother, D.B., who is a writer in Hollywood. Yet Holden doesn’t seem to care for his brother’s activities too much, admitting that D.B. is "being a prostitute." Secondly, Holden describes his dissatisfaction with his school, Pencey Prep., where the slogan, "molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men," doesn’t seem applicable. Holden thinks that too many of the people at Pencey are "phonies"-- a term he uses to describe anyone who exhibits some sort of human frailty. Often these frailties include conceit, apathy, and ignorance.

    The end of the chapter includes Holden’s retreat from the big football game to his dorm room, and a narration of his troubles with the fencing team. The team had to forfeit the match when Holden left all their equipment on the wrong train. Holden is embarrassed by this, but is quick to judge the team, blaming them for the mishap. Later, Holden admits that he’s getting kicked out of Pencey Prep. because of his poor grades. This too, seems to cause embarrassment, but again, Holden blames others by saying, "the more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has." This is my favourite chapter in the book.

  2. Great post Claudia. Great question you're asking also. I have started to write for catharsis, and to a certain extent, I still do. It's a way to evade the day by day struggle of 9 to 5 work. A way to say "I have something in my life worth more than that".

    Don't get me wrong, it's a calling. If you're a writer, your destiny lies inevitably behind a keyboard. But for some, it's a more satisfying feeling than for others I guess.

  3. I would say my stories are a combination of both. I must say though, the words seem to poor if I write when I'm in pain.

  4. Hi Isa,
    thanks for your detailed comment. Wow! I never thought of having a favorite chapter in this book (or any other book for that matter). But you're right, his writing style helps the reader see the chaos in his head. That's genius!
    Glad to hear you liked this classic.

    Hi Ben,
    Thank you! It's amazing that a lot of people use writing as a catharsis (or not), but the end result is what matters. If you find it healing, then your writing is twofold. Like you, I write because I have something to say. I am very observant and I get inspired on what I see or hear. It was not too long ago that I wrote a story from a personal POV and back then I had no idea that it was coming from pain. Now I'm glad I wrote that story.

    Hi Racquel,
    Isn't it glorious when words pour from within? whether they're from pain or happiness, the inspiration just flows ;)

  5. Hi Claudia, great post! Well, I certainly can attest to writing from personal pain! Writing my memoir was very difficult, harder than I thought it would be. It was cathartic and looking back I am able to realize new things about myself I wasn't aware of before. If I knew how tough it would be to write about the trauma's I have gone through I am not sure if I could have done it!

  6. I wrote my first novel as a way to deal with my post-partum depression. It was pure therapy. I escaped through my characters and setting. I didn't write for publication, only the enjoyment of writing itself. Who would have thought?

  7. I know very little of JD Salinger except that he wrote one of my most favourite books of all time with Catcher in the Rye. I could read this over and over again and just fall in love with it forever.

    I'm not a good enough writer to be able to turn a personal catharsis into a work of art. When I try - the piece becomes maudlin and unreadable!!! I discovered through experience that I am able to I write "better" when I am so distanced from my stories.

    Take care

  8. Hi Cathy,
    I know you wrote your memoir from having gone through such a difficult period in your life. As you said, writing also taught you something about yourself. I'm glad to hear you discovered so much from your writing.

    Hi Laura,
    Writing can be rewarding as well, and yes, who would have thought? Look at you now! You're a published author!

    Hi Kitty,
    At first, I was like you. I wrote stories that were not so close to me. My characters were a complete figment of my imagination but as I experienced more and more with style, I found out that pain can drive anyone to write amazing stories because you're writing from your heart.

  9. I think quite a bit of my writing comes from past pain or angst. It drives me to write about similar situations and provide the comfort I never received.

  10. I think that most of us write from what we know. And sometimes that can be pain. Just look at all the great works of art--the sonnets, the paintings, the songs produced. Many of them display a poignancy that reaches out and says something on a deeper level. We may find ourselves relating to that particular song. Why? it goes and gets us where we are most vulnerable. Isn't that the human condition? As a writer, I am grateful for all of life's events, be they happy or painful, to explore my own potential for healing and growth. Claudia, thank you for your thought-provoking post.

  11. Hi ladies,
    thank you for sharing your comments with me. Yes, I'm learning that painful experiences are life lessons and when we put them on paper they turn into wonderful works of art ;)
    No matter where our inspiration comes from, I think writing is an outlet to express happiness, sadness, pain, joy, peace, and everything in between.

  12. These are such poignant ideas...I often don't write about painful things. It's too painful. Even this much of a confession put my guard up! ;) After reading your post and the comments, though, I want to give it a try. Maybe it could turn cathartic? It may be worth a try!

  13. Hi Carla,
    You don't have to write something that's personally painful to you. Inspiration can come from somebody else's pain. Give it a try. If it's too much for you to bear...then put it aside. When you feel stronger, you'll come back to it.

  14. Hi Claudia,
    Upon reading your post, my first thought was, doesn't all writing come from pain? But I guess that's a little too dramatic. I write as a means of slogging through and processing my own thoughts. I can't claim to have had many epiphanies.

  15. Hi Adam,
    Well, writing is art, and artists find their muse in different places whether it's pain, loss, love, death, joy, or any other human experience.

  16. I journal when I am going through difficult times...I always have. I'm sure at some point I will go back and reread them and use the material in some way in my writing, but at this point they are a release.

  17. Hi Sharon,
    great idea! using some material from your journal is as good as any other form of inspiration.

  18. Funny I stumbled across this post you wrote after telling you I couldn't write because of the emotions it stirs in me. Well I guess I will just have to.
    Something keeps sticking in my head regarding this though. My ex said to me, as we were splitting up, that I am a wonderful and gifted writer, if only I didn't write about so much angst. But that's what I know! It is what pushes me.
    Oh well, screw him. I think I'll go write some angst tonight! Thanks for this post.

  19. Oops! I hadn't seen this comment so I answered your other comment (above) first. Glad you found this post, Abby, and that's serving you as inspiration. Keep writing!

  20. Writing, is, in essence, akin to bearing your soul for everyone to gaze upon, applaud, critique and dissect. If those things are good or bad, it is neither here nor there, it is what it is - a journey from your imagination, tapping in to the inner most core of what shapes you, be it your conscious, subconscious or unconscious mind, all will have their part to play in the construct that is your writing.

    I find it difficult to believe that any writer can perform their style of magic without some part of themselves being included within the mix, in fact, I would go so far as to risk saying it is virtually impossible. For me, it is like saying, 'I've never been afraid', or 'I've never make mistakes'. Unless, in the first instance, you have a medical condition that affects the brain structure called the amygdala, which deals with emotional learning, fear is part of the human experience.
    As for never making mistakes? Impossible - it's part of the evolutionary cycle: we make a mistake, we learn and adapt and evolve.

    So, writing is an evolution - full of mistakes, full of emotions. To 'cold tap' an entire written work is impossible. But I'm open to opinions on that :)