Writing About What Hurts: 5 strategies that help you put the pain on paper

By Julie Tyler

As you may have already read, I’ve launched a new series on FromNothingToNovel called Writing About What Hurts. In the pilot entry, I narrated the jist of my experiences with thyroid cancer, from the diagnosis and operations four years ago to the ongoing endeavor to get the treatment that works best with my body. Although the pilot entry leaves out much of this experience, I’ll share more details incrementally as I lay out strategies for writing about what hurts.

Today’s entry fulfills part of my promise to help you get the pain on paper, by focusing on craft. Do you have a hurt you want to write about? Here’s how you can develop a project that has purpose and value for your readers:

Decide which aspect of the experience your project will examine.

For example, I’ve been laying plans to develop a work of fiction, based on my own experience, that explores the treatment side of thyroid disease. I’ve got a lot of ideas for writing doctor’s office scenes, laying out some of the science and business behind pharmaceuticals, and more.

For you, maybe it’s a story covering only a one-month period of a year-long ordeal, or perhaps a series of vignettes that span what you experienced, start to finish.

Get the timing right.

We know that with time, distance, and perspective that you can look back on your experiences from a productive frame of mind. That way you can see things as they really were. For example, “Wow, so-and-so was more abusive than I’d realized” or “Wow, I should’ve appreciated such-and-such more than I did.” In using time, distance, and perspective to your advantage, the story you write will allow you to grow and heal more easily.

In my case, it took me four years to decide, “Alright. It’s time. Time to speak out.” After waiting, reflecting, and healing, I’m now in a great position to do a kick-A$$ project.

Decide your project’s genre. 

If you’re here on FromNothingToNovel, you probably want to write a book-length work of fiction or a memoir. When deciding to write about your personal experiences, you have a variety of choices in front of you. One obvious choice is to write a memoir, a factual account of your experience. A less obvious choice, but equally as valid as writing a factual account, is to fictionalize your narrative. In other words, provide an account based on fact, but add new plot details, modify characters, and develop new scenes.

Once you decide between fiction or memoir, you can then determine the specific narrative category you want to write in. Ask yourself, “What will provide the best possible reading experience for my intended audience?” Maybe a memoir that reads like a thriller? Or what about linking up with an illustrator to develop a graphic novel?

When I write based on a personal experience, I usually tend toward fictionalizing the narrative because I like to have more storytelling possibilities at my disposal than (I feel) writing a memoir allows. At the same time that I fictionalize actual experiences, though, I work hard to stay true to the thematic and emotional essence of the events I’m depicting.

Conduct research on your topic.  

Whitney and I are both experienced researchers, so going on quests to find information comes second nature to us. And besides that, I wouldn’t want to release a project, even one based on my personal experience, without informing myself thoroughly on the topic it concerns. For writers who want to explore personal experiences, good research will only provide more inspiration. Even if some of the information you come across doesn’t make the final cut into your project, you’ll write more authoritatively and experience more thorough healing as a result of your research.

Here are some research examples: For the thyroid project I’m devising, I plan to gather medical journal publications, book-length scholarship, anecdotal and quantitative data, as well as conduct interviews with physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and fellow patients. I’ll also be on the lookout for published fiction and memoirs that are similar to the project I have in mind. All of these sources, combined with my personal experiences, will give me, and eventually my readers, a broader understanding of thyroid disease.

Treat this like the serious project it is.

Before you start writing actual scenes and chapters, go through steps like brainstorming, working up an outline, and hammering out a purpose statement. These are beginning-phase steps I never skip for any project.

A purpose statement, in particular, helps me understand my motivations for writing and keeps me going through each phase of a project. And y’all, I work really hard on purpose statements to make them specific, clear, nuanced, and oriented towards goals beyond simply finishing. I find it useful to begin every purpose statement with, “In completing [TITLE OF PROJECT], I will fulfill three main goals: 1) … 2) … 3) …”

This kind of stuff harkens back to my days as an academic and so it probably seems sort of dry and mechanical compared to the emotionally-engaging stories we all aspire to tell.

But y’all, if ya wanna see your project through, you’ll need a purpose statement, an outline, and even a few character profiles to guide you. Don’t assume that writing about your own experience means it’ll be easy to structure your narrative or present your memories in a way that readers enjoy. In fact, the opposite is true, because, as more posts in this series will explore, emotions can cloud judgment and cutting scenes you’ve written about yourself can feel like … well, losing a vital organ.


Stay tuned, writers. There’s more where that came from, lots more. In the coming weeks, you’ll learn How to Manage Your Emotions Throughout a Project and How to Cut Scenes, Characters, and General Bulk From Experience-Based Writing.

And if you’d like to contribute content to FromNothingToNovel, as part of the Writing About What Hurts series or on any topic, check out instructions for how to become a contributor and then reach out to us with your idea! As always, include your thoughts below in the comments!


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