Friday, June 24, 2011

In Terms of Pain

I missed you guys last Friday because I couldn't muster the strength to blog... literally. Thursday, I was in a serious head-on collision not a mile away from my home and I'm lucky to be alive. I'm so, so lucky my kids weren't physically injured. You can imagine my first thoughts were not about writing or descriptive words. But I have had ample time for thoughts since I've been staring at my bedroom ceiling for the better part of 6 days now. And I've thought of something in this awful experience that may be of use to us as writers and narrators.

It's about pain.

How do you write a painful scene for your characters? In my WIP, you'll find phrases like "blinding, searing pain," and "my whole body screamed." And then there's my favorite: "excruciating."

But none of these descriptions is authentic, because when a person feels pain, it's in context of some other, superior emotion. So I decided to share my ordeal immediately after the collision without using the word "excruciating" and you can understand better what I truly felt, beyond the pain.

 When I'm done screaming, everything stops. I can't breathe. My wind is gone. I can't draw breath. And I need to. I so need to, because Sam and Layne are in the back and I don't know how badly they might be hurting. I hear Sam cry, "I don't want my car to crash!" And then there's the smell of smoke. Putrid, chemical smoke. I now have two goals in life: 1) breathe, and 2) wrap my arms around my boys, keep them safe from everything forever.


Just. Breathe. By force of will, the air fills my lungs. I see my glasses on the gear shift and grab them before I open the door. It lurches unevenly, letting me stumble to my feet. I can stand. And if I can stand, then I can hold my boys. I reach Layne first, undoing the five-point harness that lets him laugh as he holds his chubby hands out to me. Sam cries in the stillness. He's so scared. I stretch my arm across the space between us and unbuckle him, repeating, "I'm so sorry, sweetie. It'll be okay." I hope that's true. No time passes, yet I'm on the other side of the car, opening his door and helping him onto the asphalt with my free arm. A nice older man helps us cross the street and settle into the lawn to call for help. The space around us is still but I'm reeling as if there's no floor and no sky. In my arms, Layne lunges to hug his big brother, ever the comforter. I flinch for the first time. 


We're alive. It's a miracle. We're alive. Layne lunges again. My neck twists. I try to hold him with my shaking arms. I know this sensation from childbirth. It's the God-given adrenaline leaving me. My husband comes running across the street. I've never been happier to see him. I hand him the baby and I cry. "My neck."


When the paramedics tie me to a stretcher, my sons reach for me. "I'm okay. It'll be okay," I tell them. But Layne is just a year old and he doesn't understand. It's the first time he's really scared. I thank God Bill is there to carry them home. I thank God the back seat got the least of it. I took the brunt of the force, and that's right. But my arm, my neck, my back - the sharp wrenching will never relent. 


Even at the hospital, several miles of bumpy road later, my mind circles back to Layne and his untimely laughter, Sam and his terrified face. And I keep thinking, They're alive. They're okay. I'm alive. 


And later, There's no rewind. It happened. You're alive. Just live. Because later the pain grows, just as the doctor said it would. And sitting up, even with help, makes the world spin out of focus. 


I come home from the hospital to find my sons terrorizing their babysitter with Kinect Sports. They're all winded and red-cheeked and happy. Happy.


Now I can heal. And pain? That's just an afterthought.   


Authentic pain is always an appendage to something more. For me, my sons trump my pain any day of the week, even now when I'm struggling to regain muscle tone in my arm and neck. How many times have I scooped the 30-lb almost-2-year-old into my arms when he's crying or reaching for me? A doctor would call that stupid, and he'd be right. But there are some things more important than pain.

When your character is hit or shot or tased, they'll feel pain. But something else will trump that pain for them, too - not canceling it out, but making it meaningful. Make sure you're not so preoccupied with a fancy word for "hurt" that you miss what a real person thinks about in a crisis situation. I know I have a lot of work to do on my WIP. Because "excruciating" just doesn't cover it.

14 comments:

  1. I was scared to read this because I still get nervous on the road after my last rear-end hit-and-run (WTF Los Angeles), but I'm really glad I did. It actually helped me, as it always does to hear from people who've also been in an accident. They get it.

    And the trumping is SO TRUE. In fact, the brain desperately flies somewhere else as quickly as possible.

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  2. Katrina, this is a very moving piece of writing. I'm glad that your sons are alright and that you are on the way to healing. I'm impressed that you can already take something from this experience to use in your writing! Thanks for reminding me that writing is about creating an experience beyond the words.

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  3. Hugs to you and your boys!

    Thank you for sharing. I'll remember you next time I write about a character in pain. And I hope I can write the scene even half as beautifully as you did.

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  4. I'm so glad you all are okay. Beautiful post - you had me in tears :) And definitely something I'll think about as I write about my characters when they are in pain.

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  5. I'm so sorry about your accident, and I'm glad you're okay. This post was beautiful, and spot on about pain and how it goes deeper than physical sensations. I hope you get to being fully healed soon!

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  6. I could try to tell you how this post makes me feel, Katrina, but I can't. Best I can do is just say I'm so, so happy to see you back here. You know I'm hugging you through the computer screen. You know I'm hugging your boys, too.

    Thank you for reminding me how powerful writing can be.

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  7. No words.
    Through my useless sobs all I can think of is "I'm sorry". I'm sorry I'm not there, and I'm sorry I can't make the pain be mine and not yours anymore. The post was beautiful and amazing. The problem with pain (mind flashes to CS Lewis, lol) is that when it's gone, we can't remember it. What I great idea to write some things while it's real. Later you can make your stories so much more true. You are amazing.

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  8. Katrina, I'm so glad you're okay. This piece is beautiful and haunting. It's so vivid, it gave me chills. I hope you have a very speedy recovery.

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  9. Wow. That just brings me to tears. Thank you for sharing that. I'm also glad you're okay.

    I know what you mean about the difficult of writing painful scenes. I've had to write scenes of grief that I couldn't write, had I not just experienced the death of my grandmother. Prior to that, I would have been very cavalier about the experience. Sadly, now I know firsthand.

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  10. I so needed to read this. I know now what to do so the scene I've been working on is more authentic.

    I'm sorry to hear that you were injured and, as a mother, I know how terrifying it must have been. I'm glad to hear that you are all okay though! Big hugs to you!

    (Blogger is being a pain again and not letting me log in under my acct to post comments ::grumble::)

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  11. Blogger ate my comment too! I had just said that I'm glad you're all right, your boys are all right, and you're on your way to feeling better. And this was so brave of you to relive this on the page.

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  12. Thank you all for your kind words, hugs, and prayers. Being a writer is all about sharing the human experience, so thank you for letting me do that here. *group hug*

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  13. Beautiful post. I'm just glad you and the boys are okay! Big hugs to all ;D

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  14. Reread this today and cried anew.

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