Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.48: Bodies, Why? (Part III)

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, C.L. Polk, Fran Wilde, and Howard Tayler 

Let’s talk about pain. It hurts, yes, but we all experience it, so writing about it can be a great point of connection between the writer and the reader.

Also, writing about it can hurt.

Liner Notes: We referenced  “No, I’m Fine,” by Howard Tayler, and “The Visions Take Their Toll: Disability and the Cost of Magic,” by Dominic Parisien

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: This is a creative non-fiction assignment: write about the worst physical pain you’ve experienced. Use all your best prose tools, and explore as many senses as you can.

Thing of the week: D.I.Y, by John Wiswell.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Sometimes fantasy, the dragon, robot, or other element, gives us a metaphor that let’s us examine things may be too difficult to talk about directly. If people don’t have the words to describe the pain they have, nobody can help. Don’t tell people what the pain feels like, describe what happened and let the reader imagine the experience. Talk about how much does the pain interfere with things you are trying to do. Changes in dialogue and sounds of words can help signal pain to the reader. Talk about adaptations or compensations that a character makes, and what happens when those fail.

[Season 17, Episode 48]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Bodies, Why? (Part III).

[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.

[Fran] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] Ow!

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea.

[Fran] I’m Fran.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] All right. For this episode, what we’re going to be looking at is… we’re going to be talking about pain. We’re going to be talking about how journeying with pain is awful, and also, some of the metaphors that we can use to kind of approach writing about pain. Let’s dive into that. Fran, do you want to unpack that a little bit more for our listeners?

[Fran] Definitely. I find writing about or expressing pain to others really difficult. In part, because, one, when you do that online, quite often people want to talk to you about their pain. It becomes sort of an echo chamber of pain. Which, I really do care about other people and I wish that no one was in pain, but I also need to do my work. This can become sort of a never-ending cycle. I’m not here to educate people about pain. I have had that question asked of me, of, “Don’t you want other people to understand where you’re coming from?” No, I want to write stories. That’s what I want to do. So talking about disability in this whole series has been kind of tough for me in that. But it’s also important. So some of the time, the ways in which I do this are I create a structure within which I discuss elements of pain or the interactions with the medical community that I’ve been having since I was one. That was… Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand definitely did that, in a way that was for me a vehicle to, I thought, initially unpack those different rooms of experience. It turned out to be the most angry thing I have ever written in my life, which was another aspect of pain that I didn’t realize was there. Fantasy, the dragon, the robot, or the spaceship element, actually gives me a metaphor to start examining things that otherwise are very direct and very real. So that I find super helpful. I know other people have very different experiences because this is not a one-size-fits-all topic. So, huge big pointy arrows around your mileage may vary. Your pain scale may vary.

[Howard] My…

[Chelsea] You don’t want to get me started on the pain scale.


[Mary Robinette] No. Let us absolutely get you started on the pain scale.

[Howard] My… Arguably, the most important thing I’ve written is No, I’m Fine. Which I wrote for an anthology that benefits my friend, Robinson Wells. It’s about 750 words of creative nonfiction, in which I, in first person, walk the reader through my brain not working correctly. Me not wanting to take a pill, even though I know the pill is going to help me. The process of writing that… I wrote it during a family vacation. Sandra took the kids off to see some rocks. We’re in Utah, they’re nice rocks. I stayed home and wrote. She came home and her first words to me were like, “Oh, my gosh. What happened? Are you okay?” I realized I’m not okay because in order to write this correctly… Apparently I wrote it so well I walked myself through it. It was powerful. It was a learning experience for me. I say most important thing I’ve written because it’s the only thing I’ve written where people have come up to me and said, “Howard, I think you saved my life. Because I shared this with my wife, and now she understands what’s happening to me.” So… I’m not reflecting this at Fran, I don’t want to… I’m not here to educate people. I just want to write nice stories. But every so often, I just got to lay down the education because if people don’t have the words to describe the pain that they’re having, then nobody can help.

[Fran] Let me reframe. This is… This particular conversation where I was asked, “Don’t you want to help people understand?” was really directed more towards me answering specific questions on an individual basis. Which brings up the sort of I have expressed myself on social media, now everyone on social media wants me to interact on an individual level with them, which… Hi, social media, I love you, you’re awesome, but also, I want to write. My answer to this person was I do do education. I do write about things that are important to me, but I do it in fiction. I don’t necessarily want to spend the time educating individuals when Google exists. Among other things. So, yes, educating, yes, creating spaces where other people can empathize and find themselves in those stories. Yes, absolutely. Burning up my time and energy to do something that the person could easily do for themselves? Not so much.

[Howard] Yeah. I’m not going to write that essay again and again and again and again for everybody who asks me what it’s like to have my brain.

[Fran] Right.

[Howard] I want to write it once.

[Enjoyed it]

[Mary Robinette] That’s one of the reasons that sometimes writing about bodies as not… Literally not human can sometimes allow us to give people another way in that sometimes feels safer for the writers as much as anything else. So, just as a… On the pain scale end of that…


[Mary Robinette] I have… I’ve been a puppeteer for most of my adult life, and my pain scale is set so that I think would I perform with this? The answer is, well, yeah. I performed Little Shop and the thought that I often had when I was working this massive puppet was if I experienced this pain outside of this puppet, I would go to the emergency room. But when I do experience that level of pain outside the puppet, I don’t. What I do is I keep teaching until we realize that actually the pain that I thought was just fairly normal was shingles. So, when I’m trying to put that into fiction and trying to explain these levels of pain, I often turn to other forms of talking about it. Whether it’s like putting a character into a spaceship with a spaceship itself is malfunctioning and that reflects the body. What are some other things like that that either Chelsea or you, Fran, have seen done well or used as ways to create this emotional distance for yourself as a writer?

[Fran] I am happy to kick that to Chelsea first. I have some thoughts…

[Chelsea] Well, I think about… I’m trying to think about this… One of the things that really kind of limits me to somebody’s story is when I read about like their experience with like a disability that they have in common with me. Is that I have… I’m kind of like pointing my fingers up my eyes and pointing these fingers at them. It’s like I see you. I know a lot of people do this because when I was done writing Witchmark, I had several people come up to me and say, “Me, too. I have PTSD too and the way you wrote about it was so great because it wasn’t like an after school special about PTSD, it was Miles had this experience and he’s toughing it out through that.” Honestly, I didn’t really realize how much of that experience I had woven into the story because I was just like, “Okay, well, Miles’ experience is like mine, so I’m just going to do it the way I would do it.” That, again, makes me want to cycle back to the pain scale for a second, because I have years of toughing it out with pain. So if I go to a doctor, and they say, “What’s your pain level?” And I say, “Oh, well, I’m pretty uncomfortable right now.” I’m actually talking about an eight, but the doctor doesn’t know that, because they don’t know that I’ve been like living my life at five for literally years.

[Fran] I… Two things about the pain scale, because I’ve… I put things at low numbers because I’m constantly in pain, but I’m also living in kind of an orchestra of pain. I… For a long time, I knew how to draw because of where the pain in my hands was. Figuring out how to express pain on a single linear line of weird faces really doesn’t match up to my experience at all. First of all, it defines pain as a one… As one thing that is happening to you instead of a multitude of things happening all at the same time on different levels. Two, it expresses it on a single unvariable situation, whereas pain’s so hard to get conveyed to another person who hasn’t experienced it. At one point I was… Your brain is going, say seven, say seven, say seven. But what comes out is, oh, it’s a four. Then I have to say… But when I had kidney stones, that was also a four. That usually gets me an interesting reaction from people.


[Mary Robinette] I imagine so.

[Fran] [garbled] a parallel that they understand, especially if they’ve had kidney stones. Pain is a relative experience, that is the worst thing to share with other people. We can share experiences like food, that’s a universal experience. Breathing is a universal experience. Pain is an individualized experience that is so tied to all of our other ideals for ourselves and each other, and choice, and all sorts of things that we have to work through. So when I see pain or disability for that matter written about well, it is usually in terms that are relative and that are cumulative. So it’s not just a single thing that is a character definition. I think this goes back to way in the beginning of this, where I mentioned that somebody on a panel had said, “Well, I’d make a hero unlikely by giving them a disability.” This is not something that you just like drop on somebody as like here’s your disability sticker. It’s an actual layering of experiences and things and ways to maneuver around stuff and ways to get the thing you want to do done while in pain without biting somebody’s head off while you’re in pain. That’s the other thing that I’ve… That I love. Like, Elizabeth bear does this really well with her… Chelsea, what’s the space station series that they’re navigating pain and the elements of different types of disabilities while in space, while working as security and medical systems and… I’m going to come up with the name of the book in a moment…

[Chelsea] Are you talking about White Space?

[Fran] Yes! Yes, thank you. Thank you. There are so many different aspects that are really well portrayed in layers. Aliette de Bodard does an amazing job of talking about emotional and physical pain, especially in The Tea Master And The Detective, where she’s got her Holmes character is physically just… It’s really incredible. So I really appreciate when writers use layers, when there is no magical fix, when you just need to get through the day in different ways. Those are really, really brilliant things. You can often… Just kind of like you can tell whether an author is a coffee drinker or a tea drinker by what their character drinks. You can often tell if somebody has been through an experience of at least empathizing with someone else’s pain or their own pain, because you have to empathize with yourself, too, by how it comes across on the page. If it is just this one thing that is happening where nothing else is happening, that’s a little bit harder for me to believe.

[Mary Robinette] Why don’t we, since we just had two great recommendations, why don’t we actually pause for our book of the week, which is neither of those two…


[Mary Robinette] It is a short story, but we also recommend both of the ones previously mentioned. It’s a short story by John Wiswell, called D. I. Y. You want to say why you wanted to recommend that one this week?

[Fran] I love this story. This is up at These characters feel real, and they feel so innovative on the page as far as how they’re going about solving problems, but also how they’re dealing with people who are not them. John projects empathy in everything he writes. This is one of those that just really, really got to me in all the best ways.

[Mary Robinette] So that’s D. I. Y. by John Wiswell, and we are linking to it in the liner notes so you can hop to it since it is available online.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I found when I was doing some research for The Spare Man, was that… This idea of pain. My character has a deep brain pain suppressor. It’s one of those devices that is about to become not science-fiction. But the problem that they have is that people’s pain is so specific that running clinical trials on pain suppressors is incredibly difficult because no one’s pain is the same. Also because of this pain scale that were talking about. So it’s one of those things that technically there is actually a way to suppress pain in the brain, but, practically speaking, there’s… They are running into serious, serious problems figuring it out. Which then means that when you’re trying to convey that to the reader, this pain, that actually writing it in a way that the reader feels it in their own body becomes very challenging. Something that Steven King suggested in his own writing is that if you want people to feel pain, that rather than trying to tell them what the pain feels like, that you just describe what has happened to them and let them… So, like, instead of trying to describe what it feels like to have your toenails pulled out, you just say that they pulled out the toenails. Everyone’s like, “Eww!” That one works. That one makes sense, because all of us have had some damage done to fingernails or toenails. But many of the pieces of pain that someone with… Dealing with a disability or chronic pain that it is so specific to them and it’s not something that people without that particular body shaping are going to experience. So, what… Like, some of the tools that I’ve deployed are… To give my characters almost synesthesia experience of pain, where I start describing it with colors or textures. I realized that even when I was talking with someone else that even describing sharp pain versus dull pain is a metaphor for something that is happening in your body.

[Howard] As a kid… I say as a kid. Between the ages of 16 and 30, when I described pain, when I described it to myself, it was colors and shapes. Orange triangle, gray square, gray triangle, red circle, were all different kinds of pain. This is fundamentally useless when you’re trying to communicate with a physician and they’re asking, “How bad is the pain?” I said, “Well, it’s a big orange triangle.”


[Howard] “Okay, where’s the triangle?” In looking at the pain scales that physicians use, I quickly realized that it was a tool that was not only going to help me when I go to the doctor, increasingly as I age, but when I write, because one of these scales talks about how much the pain interferes with other things I’m trying to do. Zero is no pain. One, hardly notice, two, notice, but it doesn’t interfere. Okay. A lot of us who have chronic pain, have managed to take our pain and push it down to two and tell ourselves that it doesn’t interfere when in fact it probably does interfere, but that’s another discussion. Then you jump up to eight. Awful, hard to do anything. Nine, can’t bear the pain, unable to do anything. 10, on one of the scales, 10 was the patient shouldn’t be able to report a 10 because if the patient is experiencing a 10, the patient is not able to say the word 10. On that scale, for me, I realized, “Oh, I’ve had a nine and a half.” That was when I got a shot in my foot and it hit the nerve. Everything shut down except that sensation. Briefly.

[Fran] I would just like to point out that pain scales are… Contain inherent bias as far as medication goes.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Oh, yes.

[Fran] And getting pain relief medication, especially if you are female, especially if you are from a marginalized group, especially if you are a black woman and you express your pain according to the pain scales. They will automatically ratchet it down. It’s hideous to me that that assumption is made. I think that, again, medical model, but also there’s no empathy there. The lack of empathy in those things.

[Howard] Well, but, circling back to what I can write, the idea that a character is feeling the pain and it is interfering with what else they can do, that! That’s a plot point. I can write that.

[Fran] That’s great. One other thing for writers to think about is that the length of your sentences and the sounds of your words when a character is in pain can be impactful and useful. If you have a character who speaks in a long flowing syllablant sentences that have a lot of esses in them and suddenly everything there speaking with is stabbing or uses a lot of k’s or hard sounds and t’s in them, with punctuation every single word or dashes or however you… Just breaking up the lines conveys a lot more than you think it does.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Studying poetry will help.

[Fran] Well, I was going to use the Bukowski example. Which is that Charles Bukowski had emphysema and when… As he progressed in his writing, his lines got shorter.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s fascinating. And unsurprising. The other tool that I… Tool and challenge I find is that when you have a character that has chronic pain, it is part of their normal. So, keeping it alive on the page so that the reader remembers that, because otherwise the reader will default to their own, which is, as we’ve discussed, not matching, since nobody’s pain matches. So it’s a challenge to both keep it alive for the reader, not have the character be whiny, for the reader… Whiny!… And not have the character think about the pain more than they naturally would. One of the ways that I’ve found to handle that, and I’d be curious to know if either… Anyone has different techniques to highlight the adaptations that the character has to make. So… And only mention the pain when one of those adaptations fails. So, like, I have… I was talking about this previously, that I have a lower back thing that I have… That I just… I had kind of forgotten that I have it, because it’s… Puppetry injury that I’ve had for so long that I… I manage it. But, like, when I get down, I’m very often touching something as a go down to make sure that my balance stays correct. I will crouch with a straight back. So, making sure that my character was crouching with a straight back, putting her hand on something to brace as she was getting up, mentioning those things. Then, the moments where she’s… She does something that she shouldn’t do, like getting up and turning at the same time. Which is one of the failure modes. So, trying to do those things was one of the ways that I found to keep my character’s pain alive on the page without having it… While keeping it in proportion to the way… To her lived experience. Have you… Does anyone else have other tools that they can recommend?

[Howard] Describing the modes of compensation is a critical piece for me. We talk a lot about how a scene, you want to describe it using multiple senses. Sight, sound, touch, smell, whatever. Describing a scene and describing that… I reach out with my hand to steady myself. Or, I pause for a moment to take inventory about what it is that is hurting. How does my knee feel? Am I ready for these stairs? Yeah, I’m ready for these stairs. It’s just a momentary thought, and then down the stairs. Yeah. Writing those things in as… In the same way that I write multiple senses when describing a scene.

[Mary Robinette] So let’s segue from that straight into our homework assignment.

[Howard] Oh, goody. That’s me.

[Mary Robinette] Which is yours.

[Howard] Okay. Earlier, I mentioned the No, I’m Fine essay that I wrote. I have an assignment for you. Creative nonfiction. Describe… Describe’s the wrong word. Write a story about the worst, or some of the worst, or very bad… You pick… Pain that you have experienced. Use as many senses as you can. Paint the whole picture for us. Write it in such a way that you’re evoking the pain and the emotion and the setting and the context and that whole experience for the reader. Doesn’t have to be long. Between 250 and a thousand words is probably enough for one really juicy pain.

[Mary Robinette] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.