Pain as Teacher: Writing Through and About a Difficult Experience [Adele’s Advice]

This is a column by Adele Annesi.

How do I write about a painful personal experience in a beneficial way?

Whether we write fact or fiction or both, pain can inform and enhance our work even as we put pen to paper, fingers or stylus to keypad.

Many artists create their best work from the pyre of suffering. Composer, conductor and musician Ludwig van Beethoven went deaf at 45. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe struggled with depression. Acclaimed author David Foster Wallace struggled with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. Some artists work through their pain, some around it, some from it. Most do all three. So how can a writer write about a painful personal experience in a beneficial way?

In reality, the relationship of pain to writing may have less to do with writing about the pain or the experience that caused it and more to do with what the writer has learned or is learning from the experience, and how those lessons can benefit the writer and others.

If you Google #MeToo and writing, you’ll find a plethora of responses to, discussions about and personal explorations of sexual harassment. Per the official website, the movement was founded in 2006 to “help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing.” Since then, writers have explored the topic of sexual harassment through their experiences and others’. The New Yorker magazine has a special section dedicated to reporting the issues, and The New York Times has a section on how to better understand the movement through fiction.

What about us? Should we write of our painful experiences? If so, how? Moreover, why? If we do decide to explore a difficult experience, it seems like there should be parameters or guidelines to enable our writing to benefit us and others without bringing harm.

I have a friend with a chronic health condition that she eventually decided to record via personal essay on a national website. What made her write of her condition and share it that way? First, in researching the topic, she learned of alternative medicine options whose treatments she tried and found helpful. This made her think, if these helped me, they could help others. Since the information wasn’t yet mainstream, her efforts to surface what she learned did help others. Just as important, maybe more so, by that time she was talking about the topic with friends and family. In other words, the time was right, not just for the topic but for her.

I also have a friend who wrote about sexual assault and found that writing about the incident helped her and others. So what made her take this big step? First, she was inspired by the bravery of one of her students to write of a similar instance. Second, she tested the story on close friends before sharing it widely. Surprised at how many people echoed her experience and encouraged her, she gained confidence that sharing it widely could help still more people: those who have endured sexual assault and close to them. In this example, the steps she took were both incremental and affirming.

These two examples, both about writing nonfiction, share several commonalities:

  1. The writer didn’t write just for herself but also for others.
  2. The writer selected a trustworthy medium related to the topic.
  3. The writer wrote when she was ready then put the writing aside to consider what to do with it before sharing it.
  4. The writer had a trusted friend, someone with firsthand experience, read the work before she sent and shared it.
  5. The writer tested her experience on a smaller local audience before going global. Once on the web, it’s forever, or at least it feels that way.

If you don’t want to write about a painful experience directly as nonfiction, you might consider fictionalizing it. One way to do this is to consider the emotional truth of what happened. In other words, what was the takeaway, and how might that become the theme of a poem, flash fiction, a short story or a novel? The five points listed above regarding nonfiction writing also apply to fiction.

One other thing: There’s no rule that says you have to write about a painful experience and share what you write with others. You can write about what happened and decide not to share it. Either way, what you write, how you write it and who you are because of what you’ve been through can be enhanced by what you’ve experienced.

Here are three resources on the #MeToo movement and writing:

#MeToo The New Yorker’s reporting on the #MeToo movement.

The New York Times’ #MeToo Is All Too Real. But to Better Understand It, Turn to Fiction.

#MeToo movement

Writing and Communication Center

Hamline’s Writing and Communication Center empowers all writers to achieve their goals. Services include free tutoring to help writers more effectively express their ideas. For more, click Writing and Communication Center. Reach us via email at writingcenter@hamline.edu, or call 651.523.2026.



Adele for Website

Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. A co-founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference, Adele has published work in various journals, including 34th Parallel, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Fringe Blog, Midway Journal, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly,and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her work has also been anthologized for Chatter House Press and Fairfield University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. Her essay on Italian citizenship is part of the Clarion Award-winning Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers,and her flash fiction has been adapted for the stage. A professor of English and writing, Adele regularly posts for Word for Words, her editing blog for writers.


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