How Can Writing Matter in the Face of Suffering?

How Can Writing Matter in the Face of Suffering?

How Can Writing Matter in the Face of Suffering?

I had another post queued up for today, and then Uvalde happened.

It’s hard to write about anything other than the grief, rage, and helplessness many of us are feeling at yet another shooting in our country, yet another mass murder of children in schools—a place where they should feel safe, a place where they should be protected and their parents and guardians have every right to expect them to be—while a handful of politicians and special-interest groups ignore and override the overwhelming majority of Americans’ desire for sensible regulation of weapons in this country.

I’m not going to talk directly about what happened here in Texas on Tuesday. I can’t, and I’m sure all of you are processing this in your own way. I also wouldn’t try to speak on the crushing grief so many families and loved ones felt this morning and will feel each morning, every day, every moment, for who knows how long.

But I can talk about what role our writing, our creativity, might play in moments of pain like this, when it may feel futile or trivial or escapist.

Write to process pain

Whether your own pain or the empathic pain we feel for others who suffer, finding an outlet for it, a way to let ourselves feel what we’re feeling, to try to relieve some of the pressure of that pain that may be bottled up inside, unarticulated, can help leach out the poison. It’s the basis of talk therapy and journaling.

Before we can process anything, before we can heal, before we can turn our pain into something potentially positive, we have to know what we’re feeling…to let ourselves feel it…to find a way to understand our own reactions. As writers we often do that through our writing.

And in navigating and sharing our own deepest and most vulnerable, raw emotions, perhaps we help others find a way to the same for their own.

Write to make sense of the senseless

There is no reality in my imagining where something like the slaughter of children could ever make sense. But if we remain lost in our fury, our pain, our bewilderment, our frustrated helplessness, or whatever emotions are overriding everything else at any moment in our lives, then we cannot find the distance to fully understand what happened…and what we might do to keep it from happening again.

Story illuminates the world, a lens through which others may find some measure of understanding of their own tragedies, their own pain. Working through difficult and painful things in our writing may offer insight and aid to others amid their own struggles.

Write to find a way into action

Writing is useless if it simply feeds on itself, like an ouroboros so caught up in consuming its own tail it eventually ceases to exist.

Story’s power lies in its ability to affect people: to make them feel, to make them think, and ideally to make them act.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often cited as a major societal influence in the fight for the abolition of slavery; Will and Grace helped set the stage for laws guaranteeing equal rights for marriage; the movie JFK led to the release to the National Archives of long-sealed records about the Kennedy assassination a mere year later.

Story has the power to change the world, because it has the power to change people, who drive change in the world.

Write to connect us

It’s easy to feel alone in our suffering if we hold it corked up inside us—and that feeling of isolation almost always makes our pain keener.

But sharing that is a form of connecting with others in similar situations. We may not recognize our exact experiences in someone else’s, but there’s every chance we might connect with the resultant emotions, those near-universal connective fibers among us.

Author Michael Lewis tells a deeply poignant story near the end of this interview of the loss of his 19-year-old daughter and her boyfriend in a car crash last May. In the immediate aftermath, author Dave Eggers, a neighbor and friend, appeared on his doorstep with food and said, “I’m not leaving. I’ll be right outside, in my car.” He simply gave the gift of his presence, and that created a connection Lewis didn’t realize he desperately needed—and one that he says he will never forget.

Sharing another person’s experience, in whatever way, unites us and makes us feel less alone.

Write to give voice

Not everyone will tell their story, and not everyone may have the reach you might have, as an author. Many people have been—and are—so marginalized that their stories may not have had opportunity to be heard.

Perhaps your writing can serve as an amplifier, a way to give a voice to those who may not have a voice: to draw attention, to share your reach and your readers and help spread their stories.

Write for hope

The world can feel damned bleak at times—especially, it seems, in our times lately. Writing can help you find your way out of anguish and hopelessness as you create worlds that might be possible, progress that could happen, triumphs of people’s better nature over our worser ones.

As my friend, author, and deep thinker Jason Stanford recently wrote in his excellent Substack blog, every dystopian story starts in bleakness and despair…but the story isn’t about that. It’s about the human transcendence of such hardships. Give us a model for it, and a reason to believe it’s possible.


So why does writing matter in the face of so much suffering and pain in the world?

Editor Susan De Freitas recently published a Twitter thread and an excellent article on Jane Friedman’s blog about this topic that seems prescient now, and urgently relevant. “Wherever you are, if you’ve been struggling with this question, Why write when the world is on fire?, remember: Your words are water.”

Let them flow, authors.

I can’t seem to think of a meaningful question to ask here, friends. If you want to just share the space and your feelings, I’m here for it.

18 Comments. Leave new

  • A lovely post in light of the horrors that continue to be perpetrated in the USA. The horrors of the war in Ukraine are horrendous, but the gut-wrenching tragedy in the Uvalde school – a place where kids should be safe – is inconceivable.

    My heart goes out to you all.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  • Thank you for these lovely and encouraging words.

  • Writing about horrors like this can, I hope, accomplish something more. Such shootings happen so often that I’m becoming numb to them, not unfeeling, but less sensitive.

    I have very strong feelings about gun control. I fear it’s unworkable. I don’t think it can be effectively policed and enforced. But even if it could, I don’t think it’s a solution. There is some truth in the NRA slogan, “guns don’t kill people, people do.” I’m neither an NRA member nor a big supporter of gun control. My most heart-felt objection to it is that it distracts from a more realistic if more difficult solution.

    In every instance I’ve read about, the shooter(s) have demonstrated a need for help. They’ve written, posted, spoken, and very visibly and audibly demonstrated their isolation and anger. There’s still a lot to be learned about school shootings and what leads up to them, but there is enough information in print to convince me that the shooting in Uvalde, TX could have been prevented, and young Mr. Ramos helped rather than left to take the lives of the innocent and ruin his own. You won’t have to Google very far to find articles and bulletins that explain what’s going on in the school shooter’s mind, and some effective steps that can be taken to prevent school shootings.

    I hope that among the other important reasons for writing, this one will find some daylight and a sympathetic ear.

    • I know, there’s something especially horrible about how horrifically “ordinary” incidents like these are starting to feel. That’s one of the worst indictments of our current situation, to me. It risks stripping us of our humanity, or empathy, and our urgency to fix this problem. I agree that this and many shootings can be prevented, and that there is often a mental health component. And you’re right, we certainly aren’t doing enough in that area. But other countries have issues with mental illness as well…yet do not have the staggering quantity of mass shootings we have here because it’s not so easy there to buy a gun and use it. I don’t want to sidetrack into a discussion of gun regulation when in this post and this blog I try to focus on writing and writers. I appreciate your being here, as always, Bob.

  • Thank you for writing this blog. The world is bleak. It is good to know what we as individuals can/should do.

    • It always helps me to take some kind of action, whatever that might be that I can do (donate, volunteer, call my lawmakers, etc.). But it damn skippy helps to share the feelings with others, so thanks for being here, Carol.

  • Susan Puska
    May 26, 2022 5:09 pm

    Tiffany, I love this! Thank you for gifting it today. I will adds these to my list of why I write: Write to understand; Write to heal; Write to inform; Write to persuade, and Write to transform. Thank you, Susan

    • Oh, Susan, I love your motivations. I can relate to every one of them too. Thank you so much for sharing this. We can act in whatever ways we can–and I hope we all will–but there’s something especially resonant to me (and most writers, I expect) about using our words as part of how we process, share, and take action. Glad you’re here.

    • Martha Knox
      May 30, 2022 6:27 pm

      I agree 100%. So very sensible in this time of tragedy. As a teacher, I too was locked in a room with 25+ kids while a parent roamed outside the building with a 22 rifle. A domestic dispute. Thank God they, the feds, stopped him. We were in the classroom for over an hour. I was terrified that he might shoot through the glass windows of the door to the classroom. I could only keep my students away from the doors. In addition, there were no windows in the computer room, just two doors from the main hall, one to the right and a matching one to the left. We were safe that day, but the kids were terrified for months later.

  • Barbara Nickless
    May 29, 2022 8:46 pm

    Tiffany, thank you for this beautiful post. Time and again, I wonder what I can do as a writer to make even a small difference in the world. I do know how healing it can be to pour ourselves into our work–to give voice to our grief. After my son died from epilepsy in 2020, I buried myself in research and writing as the only possible (if fleeting) escape from that sorrow. I also see how helpful this release can be in my veteran students. The words you offer here are wise.

    • Barbara, I’m so very sorry about your son. I can’t imagine your heartbreak. It’s remarkable that you find ways to write through that grief and pain and find some measure of comfort–and more than that, to help others through theirs. What a beautiful way to make something good out of what must be unimaginably hard. Thanks for sharing.

  • Martha Knox
    May 30, 2022 6:17 pm

    I started writing a Cozy Mystery series to make sense of my brother’s murder, two suicides among my students, and the unsolved murder of one of my students when I was a teacher. My brother would have been 72 on May 28th. A serial murderer killed my 23-year-old younger brother by a lake in Waco, Texas. They did not solve it. Somehow, writing a mystery novel that focuses on the aftereffects of murder on a family helped me with a probable solution. I’m thankful two boys found his body in the woods, so at least we could bury him by our mother, father, and other family members. His death has haunted me even all these years that passed. I think of all his little nieces and nephews, and his daughter that he never saw grow up.

    • Oh, Martha, I’m so sorry about your brother, and the deaths of your students. Those must have been terribly difficult experiences–for you and all your family, his family. How painful, especially the not knowing. I hope you were able to find some comfort in writing about it. Thanks for sharing your experience.


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