The Gift of Wounds

photo by alice popkorn
photo by alice popkorn

None of us makes it through life without some kind of pain and loss and heartache. We are all of us, broken or wounded in some way. Some of these wounds arise from tragic circumstances: the loss of a loved when far before their time, abuse, neglect, betrayal.

But sometimes brokenness happens simply in the way any much used item becomes broken: a handle falls off after too many years of lifting too heavy a load, we crack due to extreme variations in temperature or weather, our insulation no longer insulate, or maybe we’ve just rusted through. Some of our wounds will be self inflicted as we humans have an astounding ability to get in our own way.

The thing is, these wounds and losses are necessary—as much a part of life as breathing, for without them it’s hard to make the case that we’ve been truly living.

It is in the acquiring of those wounds that we become truly human. As painful as they are—they can also bring wisdom and strength, compassion and humility. If we let them.

They can also bring bitterness and calcification, close us down and shut us up tight.

That is what makes stories so essential to the human experience—they take the creators’ wounds and turn them into something more—a gift that we dare to give the world.

I first came across this concept of wounds as gift in a book by Robert Rohr while researching theology for assassin nuns. And while he writes about spiritual matters, it occurred to me that the concept was equally true and relevant for writers.

While wounds bring suffering, they also allow us to grow and change and transform ourselves into something more.  That is one of story’s most important roles—showing us how to do just that with the circumstances that life has thrown us.

This is why books and paintings and drawings and music are so important to us, not only individually, but as a society: it illuminates the pain and joy of life and renders it fascinating and compelling, but also healing.

As writers, I believe this is at the very core of what we do—we take the raw stuff of our pain and doubts and fears transforms them into something that is, in turn, transformative to others.

I cannot emphasize enough how this DOES NOT MEAN all our stories need to be dark or tragic ones. Sometimes the absolute best way to point out such things is with lightness or humor’s sharp bite. Even what can appear to be the most escapist form of art, serves a purpose in that it allows us to attain some psychic space from our own pain for a while. It gives us the breathing room to acquire enough distance to tackle our problems from a stronger perspective. Escape can be an important, natural step in the healing process.

I suspect that writers and other artists are those who are the most fascinated by the world’s quirks and foibles and broken places. Not in a feeding off others pain way, but because it resonates so deeply with the jagged edges of our own broken spots and affirms that this is what it means to be human.

It is our wounds that make us human, else we would all be mannequins, robots, or simply annoying (or boring) as hell.

It is also why writing can be so scary, because that real and true connection is at the heart of our relationship with our readers. So an important (and hopefully comforting) thing to remember is this: Your wounds and scars will often not be obvious to your readers. Life’s painful experiences come in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  In writing about them, they don’t need to be the exact same experiences you went through—but rather they simply have to spring from the same well.
It can be hard to learn to accept—let alone appreciate—our own wounds and understand how they can be a gift, both to ourselves and others. This is, in fact, something I struggle with daily, even as I recognize and appreciate the wounds of others, I work pretty damn hard to hide my own.

When you think of your friends and acquaintances—who are the most comforting to be around? Those that live in a closed up state of denial—never admitting to, let alone processing, life’s pain? Or those who have been through some hardship of their own and can therefore offer you wisdom, compassion, and empathy, or simply an understanding silence without the pressure to be perfect.

When you think of your favorite, most beloved books, what truth did they share? In what way did they comfort you or open your eyes to some new facet of the world around you?

This is why it is so important that we tell the stories that arise from the core of who we are.

That we write from our own authentic heartaches and losses. That we take the dross that life has handed us and spin it into something more.

That is what makes some reading experiences resonate so strongly with us—we feel as if we have been exposed to something True and Real.

As the New Year stretches out in front of us, unsullied and full of promise, I wish for all of us the courage to write something real and true. Let that be our gift to ourselves—that we learn to accept that our wounds have value, and that we acquire the courage to share them with others.

 

What piece of fiction struck you as the truest book you have ever read? That resonated so fully with you that you still carry it with you in your soul?

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    You shine the light of perspective, Robin. The moon has a dark side. Clouds have silver linings. Darkness preceeds dawn. You’re saying embrace the darkness but lead to the light as an opportunity to encourage and instruct. A worthy thought, well advanced. Thanks.

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  2. says

    What a lovely post. Thank you!

    This is why I write for and about teens–It’s my hope that I can help them understand their own hard experiences and can help others who work with them to understand what stories they need. One book that has definitely stayed with me and become a part of me was Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson.

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  3. says

    Thank you for this, Robin. So much that’s so true in this post, but I’ll answer your question instead of raving about you. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood has stuck with me for its true depiction of being a girl and the complications of girl social life, although the sticking with me is due, in part, to the book taking place where I grew up, so I *was* a girl in Toronto, much like the main character in the novel.

    I’ll also be thinking about your insights about wounds, and not hiding, and aiming for the real and true for a long time, too.

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    • Julie Lawson Timmer says

      Natalie – Cat’s Eye has stuck with me, too! I’ve never seen anyone else mention it, so was excited to see your post. I loved it for its own content when I first read it, but decades later when I started to write, I loved it for its illustration that stories about the ordinary struggles of an ordinary life are worth writing. (BTW, I was a kid growing up in Stratford at the time I read it — not too far away from you.)

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  4. says

    Well put, Robin!
    I think the key to channeling this pain into our work (speaking from a novelist’s perspective) is to not become melodramatic or preachy, but to let it inform and color the story in a meaningful way. A way that is true to the characters and/or the story. Not an easy or painless task to be sure, but one that can reap amazing results and be therapeutic for the writer as well.
    All the best…

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  5. says

    It’s why there’s no story if there’s no conflict, no interest if there’s no struggle. There have been so many books that have stuck with me, it’s hard to name one, but a couple I can think of are Crime and Punishment and Plainsong.

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  6. says

    The Lord of the Rings. Really. Deep in my heart I like to imagine myself as having the power to conquer evil in spite of being otherwise fairly ordinary. Nearly every major character in that trilogy struggles to heal following a terrible wound – but they go on. Indeed, the wounds are what give them the courage to complete their journey and fulfill their mission. That resonates with me.

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  7. says

    Wonderful, Robin!
    Will you give me permission to use this and you as a guest blogger on my own blog, htttp://www.carolinaromancewithelvamartin.blogspot.com
    I am president of the new SC Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers and live in Anderson, SC

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  8. says

    Your words: “That we write from our own authentic heartaches and losses. That we take the dross that life has handed us and spin it into something more.
    That is what makes some reading experiences resonate so strongly with us—we feel as if we have been exposed to something True and Real.”
    That is how I write and what I like to read – books that come from the writer’s personal experiences that s/he has spun into something more for the reader.

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  9. says

    Beautifully expressed, Robin, and totally agree. But it can take time for those wounds to heal enough so that the writing isn’t rubbing salt in them or inflicting the misery on others.
    Lots of writers do this well (I also liked Cats Eyes) but one I’ve read recently was Ann Leary’s The Good House, I believe partly stemming from her own experience with alcoholism but (and I mean this in a good way in the sense of separation between author and narrator) you wouldn’t know it.

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  10. says

    The Red Pony by Steinbeck comes to mind. There was one line in that book that always stuck with me. It was a quote from the boy’s (now dead) grandfather. He’d said that the pioneers travelled west until they hit the Pacific. Instead of rejoicing, they hated the ocean, for it meant that the journey had ended.

    I think it sticks because I apply that to much of my own life, especially my writing life. I don’t long to reach my destination because I love the journey so much. If we picture our lives as a conintuous journey, we will never be satisfied to sit idle. We’ll always want to see what lies beyond the next ridge (as a hunter, I can relate). Whether it is writing, career, marriage, parenthood, what have you, it is all a journey. It only grows stale when we allow the journey to end.

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  11. says

    Great post. The book I’m reading now illustrates beautifully what you’ve emphasized here. When You Were Older by Catherine Ryan Hyde tells the story of a man who’s had more than his share of tragedy. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to writ a compelling story involving so many multi-faceted characters. By embracing both the dark and the light, she shows the humanity in all of us.

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  12. says

    THE NIGHT ANGEL TRILOGY by Brent Weeks

    I believe it’s a true story of love and relationships. Not a dreamy romantic love story, but a kick ass romantic love story. People betray people to the point of murder but are forgiven. There are horrific sacrifices made by characters who don’t even know if their love will be returned to them. Now that’s love. There are no faultless main characters (two come pretty close though), but every main character is three dimensional, some more than others. The story touches on religion, politics, and philosophies, respect of power, belief in traditions, belief in self, and belief in doing what’s right. Characters move from tragedy to triumph, and some character even move back to tragedy. It’s a real roller coaster ride that travels from darkness to light. Each time I listen or read the series another layer is peeled away. I just discovered two minor characters that survived all three series. They are significant, but not. It’s frickin amazing.

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  13. says

    This is great, and basically one of themes of the novel I’m working on. One of the characters is 29 years old, and has noble goals but he doesn’t truly understand compassion until he loses someone close to him. Thanks for sharing!

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  14. says

    As always, you get to the heart of the matter, Robin. The earliest book I remember that was real and true, that touched my heart in a way no other did was a memoir: Adventures in Two Worlds by AJ Cronin, a country doctor-turned-physician. I was 12, and he is one of the reasons I am a writer today.

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  15. says

    Great post, Robin. Not just stories that address loss but also characters that have suffered from it are often most memorable. Although it doesn’t deal primarily with wounds or heartache, I was struck at how Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall continued to mourn the death of his wife. Other times, the gaping wound isn’t explicit at all, and those characters can resonate even further.

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  16. says

    I’m pretty sure you didn’t find Richard Rohr writing about “theology for assassin nuns.”
    Maybe ‘nuns who were assassinated for their beliefs and their outspokenness in protecting the poor in Central America, including Guatemala.’

    Other than that, yes: wounds happen to all of us – some of them horrific, many fatal – but writers use theirs for the benefit of mankind by writing stories that may help others deal better with their own wounds.

    It’s also nice that some people write before becoming too wounded – all the other stuff might make for a dreary canon if it were the only stuff out there for readers. Some need escape, fluff, comedy – instead, or also.

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    • says

      Alicia, Robin was writing a book about teenage assassin nuns (2 incredibly good books so far, Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph). But she was reading Rohr as theological research. And I must say, for all the awesomeness of the phrase “teenage assassin nuns,” each main character goes through quite a deep spiritual journey regarding the God she serves and how that God is understood and who “owns” the interpretation of what that God wants. Good stuff.

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  17. P.S. Joshi says

    A book I first read as an adolescent, and have reread since, “The Trees” by Conrad Richter, has resurfaced in my mind many times. One of the reasons I think I connected with that book was that I was born and grew up in Ohio, the locality for the story, and my mother recommended the book to me after having read it herself. I went on to read the other two in that “Awakening Land Trilogy”, “The Fields” and “The Town” which carried the story forward.

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  18. says

    It is well past midnight here as I read this and respond. I cannot adequately express how much I needed these particular words at this particular late hour of this particular day. So I’ll just say thank you.

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  19. says

    This moved me. There is something incredibly powerful in transforming pain into art. It affects both the artist and the viewer/reader. I know that when I have experienced the deepest pain in my life, I have only been able to make sense of it in poetry. Both the writing of it and the reading of it. I hope, as I approach my writing in 2014, I will be able to infuse it with honesty and integrity. THank you for this post.

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