When Should You Use Your Personal Pain In Your Writing?

Some of my personal journals

Christmas is a time of happiness for many, but can also be a time of misery and loneliness for others. New Year can also be such a dichotomy. It is also a time of reflection when it is important to face last year’s pain and next year’s hope.

I’m sure many readers have had some rough patches this year. Many suffered in the global financial crisis. Others would have relationship issues, or problems with family, perhaps death and disease. We all face pain and difficulty in our lives, but how can we use this in our writing? Or should these feelings never see the light of day?

Write for therapy.

Yes, you should write your pain.

I firmly believe that writing is a form of therapy and that investing in a pile of blank notebooks can be a better way than expensive sessions with a professional. It is certainly better than drugs or alcohol, so at least try it first. I got divorced a few years ago and filled 6 notebooks with my pain. Everything I wrote at the time centered around those feelings. After 6 months of writing in bursts of emotional agony, I was better. Seriously, writing healed me. I read those notebooks now and I don’t even recognise that person. I wrote it out of my system. (I am now happily married for the second time!)

So I urge you to write whatever it is that is hurting you right now. Just blurt it out. Share it with the blank page.

To publish or not to publish.

You definitely should write your pain, but then the question is whether any one else should read about it. Here are some questions you should probably think about before sharing your painful writing:

  • Will this writing help anyone else, or is it really your private suffering?
  • Is the writing actually any good, or is it written for your eyes only?
  • Will you hurt anyone by publishing it?
  • How will you feel if you share it and then you are rejected?

I recently read ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion about her year of mourning after the sudden death of her husband. I wanted to read the book as a way of appreciating where I am now. This book touched a lot of people and was incredibly well written. It was not raw screaming emotion, but told as a story. I compare that to my own ranting, raving notebooks in the throes of divorce. They are not written as a story, not as a series of therapeutic outbursts. They are not to be published!

From another perspective, you might be interested in this audio interview with Lauren Roche who wrote a book about her journey from prostitute to physician. She is very honest about her journey and discusses the use of people’s names and how her family was impacted by her tell-all book.

So write your pain but then be honest with yourself. Is your writing to be shared?

What do you think? Please share your comments.

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  1. says

    Hi Joanna,

    This is really powerful stuff – writing about your own personal pain and then deciding whether to share. I often write about pain, and like you keep many journals. It is very therapeutic. Admittedly I’ve turned it arouund and have put some – very selective – pieces into my writing.


  2. Sandy Dempsey says

    Great post Joanna. I have stumbled around how to explain this delicate subject to many people. Writing for pain and joy are vitally important to our well being, but sharing it all publicly is not appropriate or wise. I have to remind myself of this, too sometimes. Thank you for such clarity around a sticky subject.

  3. mynde says

    i think some things ache to be written about. sometime they are our painful stories, sometimes the joy-filled ones.

    i love your questions though. in fact, the last one i used not too long ago when i shared a very painful truth about the collapse of a business partnership.

    the post really wrote it self. and although I felt 10x better for writing it, I held off publishing for 24 hours. i wanted to give myself the space to really check in with my intentions for publishing it.

    the interesting thing is, that by taking the risk to share my pain, I connected fiercely with others. i did not expect this. and this became more evidence for me personally that it was the right thing for me to publish it.

    by being willing to talk about it and share it, i received as well.

  4. says

    Fascinating post; like you say, all my creative writing is in place of therapy and keeping an even keel for the diurnal. Working on it as material, shaping it, travelling through it, rather than just say keeping a journal.

    However, pain is notoriously hard to communicate to another person, ie the reader. Pain is really only experienced individually. Especially physical pain and failings of your own body. People can empathise, but unless they tune in to an equivalent in their own experience, they can’t really share it with and for you. Not at the level of rawness which it is for you.

    The reader has to be in the mood to read about pain. To put themselves through the grinder. It’s a tough call.

    Thanks for your post.

  5. says

    Thanks everyone. I think this is important to write about, especially with the rise of publishing so fast through blogs and social networks. We have to be able to protect our pain but also share it when appropriate – and as you say Mynde, sometimes it can help others and enable us to connect.

    Thanks, Joanna

  6. says

    This was a timely post for me, Joanna. I’ve been working on a memoir that I never intended to write about the battle my dad (and our family) fought against cancer – based on the journals that I wrote during that time. The first thing I noticed with my initial drafts was that I had managed to get down a series of events but there wasn’t a story. And for me, that’s the key. As writers we need to tell stories, not just write down events and then something of how we felt.

    So go ahead and write. Fill those notebooks with all the stuff inside of you, but don’t think you’re done there. Thankfully, there’s a great gift that comes with time: perspective. You’ll know what’s right to put out into the world and what should stay private within those journal pages.

    Thank you for a wonderful post.

  7. says


    As always this is an excellent post. For me, sharing my pain with the world is how I was able to heal from a lot of hurt in my life. By sharing it with others it is my prayer that others are free from bondage to walk in their purpose.

  8. says

    The best creative people are those that draw on extensive life experience and observations of the world and people around them. The really great creatives are those that can apply that critical observation to their own deepest fears, pains, joys and so on. Always write your pain – but sometimes you might want to publish under the psuedonym of a character. 😉

  9. Judith Swartz says

    JoAnna, as always you are right on target. My life turned upside down – again, when my daughter died unexpectedly on 12/2. Linda lived with us to care for her stroke victim father, allowing me to continue my day job (picture on dedication page, A Stroke of Health). She was a friend, helper and leaves a huge hole in our family. I am struggling on many levels and A Stroke of Blessings has been put on hold – for now. It’s raining here and though I’m not yet dancing, I am expecting “joy in the morning.”
    A personal thank you for continuing to share yourself with so many!

  10. says

    Thanks for this, Joanna. Those of us in the memoir genre write from our personal experiences (pain included) every day. And I know several memoir teachers who specialize in memoir as therapy, so that’s a very valid reason to put your pain/issues down on paper…where you can confront them, deal with them and then begin the healing process.

    I also know people writing memoirs who had so much tough stuff (much of which involved others) that they decided to write their story in fiction so they could get it all out there, have the benefits of getting past everything, with no fear of reprisals. So, yes I think writing about pain is an important aspect of all creative writing.

    “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Writers (most artists and creative types) have the advantage of being able to get it out there in one form or another.


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