Wounds and Scars
A conundrum, featuring Steven Pressfield
I’m part of a writing group. We call ourselves the Cantina. We meet every Friday morning, and it’s a delight—one of the best parts of my week.
Anyway, last week the author Steven Pressfield—The Legend of Bagger Vance, The War of Art, etc.—joined our call. Rick made it happen. We each asked Steven a question, and he was incredibly thoughtful, gracious, and all-around awesome. My turn came and I asked the question I had prepared.
“You’ve talked about how the writing you did for many years was not good. Why was that?”
“Have you ever read someone’s journal of their therapy sessions? Where they’re so close to the pain they’re writing about that it’s embarrassing and excruciating to read? You sort of feel sorry for the person. It’s like, ‘Please, get some help and come back!’ That’s what was bad about my stuff.”
This was one of those subtle moments of synchronicity that the universe likes to pepper into one’s existence every now and again. It just so happened that I was working on an essay about this very topic—the essay you’re reading right now.
With his response, Steven joined a number of prominent writers, like Glennon Doyle, who find that it’s best to write about their scars, not their wounds—to process their shit before they write publicly about it. This has become a common bit of writing wisdom, one I’ve been chewing on for a while.
I get what Steven and co. are saying. Writing about open wounds often reads like a cry for help. Think back to your last breakup, the tempestuous emotion of the whole enterprise—then imagine you wrote 1,500 words about it the day after it happened. There’s a healthy chance you’d sound like a raving lunatic. Pain can be a vision-distorter.
On the other hand, I think about the writing that really lights me up: writing that captures the primal essence of some element of human experience, some fundamental part of our shared humanity at which words can only gesture. This kind of writing, I find, is often produced while wounds remain open. It is raw, real—a gestalt whose effect is as much a function of the energy with which the words were written as the words themselves. It dances and screams, rips and roars, wreaks havoc and ruins your day.
I think about all the artists who produced bodies of brilliant work from their pain. Virginia Woolf. Frida Kahlo. Willie Nelson. What if they had waited until that pain was neatly processed before they set about their work?
Admittedly, this debate is more than academic for me. I’ve spent a decent chunk of the past six months licking my own wounds. I sit down to write with the intention to tell an old story or talk about the world, but my mind refuses to cooperate. It fixates on the fires that burn.
It doesn’t help that I’ve never really been one for journaling. I do it every now and again, but as strange as it may be, it feels more natural for me to process my life externally by turning it into a piece of published writing. I like to think out loud.
So what’s an aspiring Pressfield to do? Quietly shelter in place until the pain subsides, or let it rip at the risk of sending out nothing more than a self-indulgent distress signal?
For now, I choose to believe that the risk of openly-wounded insanity is worth the reward.
Beyond the selfish benefits, writing from a place of pain can be an act of service. Writing, at its best, serves as a connecting medium that transcends space and time, a portal through which our humanity is reflected back to us. We are creatures who often find ourselves in the midst of excruciating chaos that we cannot understand or explain; it would be dishonest to only share work that is measured, polished, and objective. That creates distance between writer and reader—the opposite of what we’re after.
It’s a natural impulse to present a persona of progress, to revel in our wins and extract meaning and purpose from our losses. These are good things. But there is also a space between the strongholds of sensemaking, a messy liminality that is as accurate a picture of the human condition as there is. When we share from this space, we invite the reader to sit with us in our suffering, to resist our shared temptation to solve or escape the discomfort and simply be with it.
My wounds haven’t scarred yet. They’re still fresh. I’ve spent much of the past few months worrying in circles or staring off into space. This is what it means to be human: to occasionally be caught in a shitstorm without an umbrella or map. To struggle. The ability to endure and persist, however blindly and messily and uncomfortably, is itself a beautiful thing, a monument to a universal truth of human existence—one which is sometimes best viewed through an open wound.