In which Scott Calhoun of The Inner Typewriter asks me my thoughts about developing a writing style. I talk about approaches to writing both fiction and nonfiction and finding your personal style in both. Enjoy!
(This interview with Sarah was done by Lene Andersen of The Seated View)
Please tell us your story.
In the fall of 2007, I contracted Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a collapse of the area between the collarbone and first rib. This collapse squeezes the scalene muscle, nerve ganglia, artery and veins that have to fit through this narrow space, creating severe nerve pain in the neck, arms, and hands, which affects my ability to use my hands and arms. For quite a few years, I could barely function. My life basically stopped. I lost the ability to participate in just about everything I enjoyed. I was a single mom and struggled even to be able to cook a meal for my son. After about 5 years of being very stoic and putting up with the situation, I decided that I couldn’t live my life that way any more. That’s when I started developing the approaches I write about in The Pain Companion.
How is your book different from other books on pain?
The Pain Companion focuses primarily on the non-medical aspects of living with pain and pain relief. It offers companionship and solace, as well as many practical methods to reduce emotional, mental, and physical stress. Very unintentionally, books that promise a pain free result can make readers feel worse about themselves when the method doesn’t deliver on its promise. This leads to feelings of failure and shame. The Pain Companion does not require readers to end their pain, but walks along the path with them, offering simple ways to make life easier, to live with more grace, and to practice compassion toward the self while moving through and beyond the experience of pain.
The opioid crisis has led to restrictions on pain treatment, usually without offering meaningful alternatives to people living with chronic pain. How can The Pain Companion help?
With the current scare about the opioid addiction crisis, many are being taken off their pain meds and left to fend for themselves in terribly difficult circumstances. While I don’t offer readers solutions from a medical standpoint and I don’t promise to make anyone pain free, what I do offer is a positive, constructive approach to living with chronic pain and relieving the incredible stress, fear, and emotional distress that comes with that. I think it’s crucial that we understand how deeply long-term pain affects every aspect of a person’s life and begin to address it not just from a physical standpoint, but from emotional, mental, and spiritual levels as well.
In your book, you recommend writing letters to your pain. Why?
Interview with Lene Andersen on The Seated View
I recommend writing letters to pain in order to express and release our feelings about pain – the frustrations, anger, sadness, loss, guilt, and shame that we often feel when we’re living with pain. By recognizing, acknowledging, and expressing our emotional responses to pain, we can begin to let them go and find some emotional relief. Once we’ve expressed our negative feelings about pain, we’re free to consider other responses and can begin to create a more constructive relationship with it. Instead of fighting against it and resisting it as our primary response, we can begin to work with it as a messenger and an ally in healing.
Has your pain taught you anything?
Pain is a difficult mentor to have, but living with it has taught me a great deal. In learning how to shift my relationship with pain, I’ve learned how to shift my relationship with my body, and, ultimately, with myself. This includes learning to be kinder, more compassionate, softer, slower, and less stressed. I understand now that pain can be a guide and is the voice of the part of us that is trying to heal. Rather than attempting to completely silence it, I have learned to listen. I have learned that the way we often go about our lives – establishing and meeting goals, trying to excel, trying to be perfect, trying to be in control – is not necessarily the best way to approach healing.
What’s next for you?
I intend to continue writing and speaking with the hope of helping to shift our culture’s predominantly negative perception of pain and people in pain to one that is more constructive and healing. Pain is part of the human journey. We’re all going to meet it at some point, whether it’s physical or emotional. Living in pain is certainly a difficult and challenging experience, but one that we can learn from and move through with much more grace and well-being if we respond to it, and to ourselves, with more compassion, softness, and acceptance.
Sarah Anne Shockley is the author of The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain. It’s a wonderful book with lots of great tips that can help you deal with pain in a compassionate and gentle way. Thank you very much to Sarah for taking the time to do this interview and for writing this great book. I highly recommend it.
I was something of a health nut in my youth, when the word “organic” was not yet even in the common vocabulary. Alternative healing fascinated me and I read every book I could find on the subject.
Sometimes I asked myself, why am I reading all these books about healing when I don’t need them?
Eventually, I came across Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles. It was about the power of love and the mind’s influence to heal the body and even produce unexpected cures, or miracles. In the 1980’s, the book was considered pretty out-there, but I thought it made perfect sense and I found it very inspiring.
Fast forward a few decades to when I find myself struggling with severe Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a very debilitating condition with intense nerve pain, migraines, and other difficult symptoms. Nothing the medical community had to offer helped - not the medications and not the treatments.
But something of Bernie Siegel’s ideas must have stayed with me, because I began looking for my own path to healing through changing my perceptions of pain, changing my beliefs about what was possible, and, instead of hating my pain, sending it love.
The book that resulted from all this is coming out in a few weeks, and guess who my editor found to write the foreword?
Yes, that’s right, Dr. Bernie Siegel.
For me, that’s it’s own little miracle.
Some of us are afraid to write about what deeply moves us because we don’t have a degree or an official certification in that area. We think we don’t have the requisite credibility. After all, people who want to author a book should have the appropriate academic credentials, correct?
Certainly, as a culture, we are sold on the idea that we learn what’s most important by attending school. Along with adding to our storehouse of knowledge, degrees confer status, validation, and the right to write. And it's true, attaining a degree is a true accomplishment and has meaning and worth.
When we’re writing for an academic audience or are expounding on something technical or trying to teach complex methodology, a degree can be a boon. Some readers will only look at our books if we have letters after our names.
On the other hand, do all readers value the same things? Are they all looking for input from school-taught experts?
In my experience, the answer is a big “no.” People want to read about how others like them are meeting life’s challenges. They want to hear personal stories about loss, renewal, redemption, victory, and just slogging along until you get to the other side. And they want to hear from writers who have been through it, writers with whom they can identify.
How do you do that? How do you write a book with authority that appeals to readers? You do that by writing to someone like you. And to do that, you only have to be an expert in one thing. Your own experience.
And you’re the only one who can do that. No one else can write a book based on what you have gleaned from your travails and your triumphs, big or small in scope. You are the top expert in your field because you are the only one who can write from your life experience and with your unique perspective.
So, don’t be afraid to write about what interests you and what you feel strongly about because in all the millions of people on the planet, there are many who want to hear from you. They want your brand of clarity, your humor, your quirkiness, your angle, and your unique insights.
After all, for many subjects, Life is our best teacher, and direct experience our highest certification.
Do you ever get that? You know, the thing when you've got something brilliant exploding in your mind and you're sure you'll know exactly what to write only the words aren't there and then you realize that you have no idea how to say anything about it that will ever come close?
I have this thing I'm trying to write. It's about living and pain and breath and the astonishing vitality and beauty of the small things that make up our lives.
So, I ask myself. Why do I do this thing? This thing of writing? This weird, lonely task that I have set myself? I mean nobody ever tells anyone they have to be a writer. Honestly. We choose ourselves. There's really no one else to blame for this.
So I fume for awhile and go back to the thing I'm writing and hate it. I hate everything I've said. It's all wrong and it will never be right. I will never say the thing I'm trying to say.
I get up and walk around town, looking in windows and taking a movie out of the library I will not watch.
I come back to the computer and mess around with the words again. They are saying the same things over and over and not getting to the heart of what it is I want to say and do I actually really know what that is? and I think I should just give up.
Only I've decided I'm a writer, so I don't. I dive into the middle of the words and I pull out the ones that aren't cooperating and then I've pulled them all out and I'm staring at a blank page again.
Only it's not the same blank page.
I stare for a long time and then something starts to coagulate into a new thought. Now I see that I was starting in the wrong place and I have something different to write, something that comes from a richer place inside me, and it's good. Well, I hope it is.
And I work it out onto the page, writing and rewriting and refining over and over and in most ways it's not as good as the vision in my head was, but in other ways, it's better. It's better because it forced me to look for it. I had to dive deeper and discover more than I had planned to say, and in some places less than I had planned to say, and somehow, it falls together in the end and I can breathe again.
Ok, then, I say to myself, I'll keep writing another day.