Making Readers Feel Pain: Pain in Nonfiction

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In this lesson, students will examine multiple essays dealing with different types of pain, discuss how the writers incorporate emotion into their work, and explore how writing can help confront and address personal struggles.

Students will…

  • Read several non-fiction pieces from YARN, noting how various sorts of pain are represented.
  • Discuss how, if at all, a reader can be brought to feel visceral, personal, intimate pain vicariously through reading.
  • Explore, by comparing and contrasting several essays, forms of pain that can be seen in writers of various backgrounds and outlooks.
  • Compose, via one or more assignments, nonfiction pieces that explore types of pain shared by readers and writers.

You’ll need…

To prepare, you should…

  • Review the YARN site, including Meet the Editors, About YARN, and the submission guidelines.
  • Assign selected readings (we like 3, but 2 or more is fine) either as homework or reading during quiet study/library time. Encourage students to take notes on a separate piece of paper, since underlining and other sorts of reading techniques may not be possible with essays published electronically.
  • Set up a computer with an overhead screen/projector/etc. in a suitable classroom.

In class…

    • Open in different windows or tabs the essays you selected from the list above.
    • Visit YAReview.Net to introduce YARN to the class, including its About page and submission guidelines.
    • Begin with a student-driven summary of the selected readings to refresh everyone’s minds, encouraging students to keep the summaries loosely focused on character rather than plot.
    • Jump start discussion by asking students about their thoughts on the readings, while always asking them to point to specific lines in the essays for support: why did they like X? Why/how was Y different from X? Some suggestions:
        ○      Did knowing each story is non-fictional make a difference as you read?
        ○      How did the less narrative essay format of “Disability Visibility” and/or “Depressed, Not Depressing” impact your reading compared to the other (equally non-fictional) essays that are structured using more narrative, “fiction-like” techniques?
        ○  All of the pieces are written in first person; did that change your ability to empathize with the writers? [If your readings included “Eyes Like Mine,” perhaps: did knowing that the narrator was definitely not the writer change your ability to “sync” your emotions with the story?]
    • As students start opening up the discussion, shift the focus to pain more specifically.  Again, ask students to point to specific examples of what they mean in the essays.  We have suggested questions for each essay mostly separately, but you can combine them to suit your needs and get students comparing and contrasting more.
    •  Generally, try to solicit an expansion of student comments by asking “How does X relate to pain?” or “How did X make you feel or experience the writer’s pain yourself?”
    •  Importantly, many of the writers seem to be using their essays to come to terms with the pain they feel. Does that sense come through in their writing, or is that something we, as readers, accept as a matter of course?
    •  In Depressed, Not Depressing, how does Stork’s pain occur–all at once or in cycles? How is a great pain different from a cyclical one, and how does Stork give the sense of a pain that is unique and also familiar? Stork talks about the therapy of writing alongside other therapy, including medication; do they seem to be given equal weight in his ability to cope with the pain he feels? Why?
    • In Disability Visibility, Miller-Lachmann describes a pain indirectly: what is that pain and what is its cause? How does it affect her early in her life, and how does that differ from how it affects her later? Miller-Lachmann also describes damage done to the community because of the many pains inflicted upon those with a disability–how does that compare to the other writers examined, Stork, for instance?
    • In Eyes Like Mine, how does the setting prepare us for something painful? How do we know, as readers, that pain is coming, and what in the essay sets this up and how soon? How does the connotation and texture of a word like “steel,” which is repeated throughout the essay, contribute to the sense of pain we feel as readers? Does knowing some of the background Lewis describes (from the attached interview) make the pain more real or less? What about the perspective?
    • In How I Lost Catcher, Gresham opens her first paragraph with humor. How is that used throughout the essay, and how does that relate to our own lives? Do we get the sense that the pain in “Catcher” is more or less real because of that sense of humor? Does the acknowledgement in the first several paragraphs that Catcher has died add or detract from the essay? How might it have been different if the essay began with something more like the fourth paragraph? Gresham deals with a loss in “Catcher’ very differently than Lewis does in “Eyes;” which seems more effective and why?
    • In Milkshake, Brunell, like Gresham, describes both feeling and inflicting pain; how does one inform the other? Would he feel as much pain if he hadn’t sensed that he’d inflicted some, too? How does knowing the pain won’t hit his sexual partner until later affect the pain Brunell feels? Does the short period of time in which the essay occurs change how we view the pain? Why did Brunell write this essay?
    • In The Vodka Drinker, pain is quite varied: physical, emotional, psychological. Which does the writer seem to think is worst? The timeline in the essay is long; does the pain change over time? What sorts of word choices make us feel the pain the writer describes more vividly?
    • When students make reference to “pain” later in the discussion, see if they can specify what sort of pain they’ve identified in each case.  Is that pain consistent throughout the essay, or does it shift? Do you feel the variety of pain as a reader as the writer seems to have felt? Are there times when the pain the writer describes doesn’t align with your expectations for the story, or with what you might have felt in the same situation?
    • While drawing comparisons and contrasts between the essays will depend on which combinations of essays the students read, here are a few questions to elicit further discussion should the comparisons not arise organically during discussion:
    • “Milkshake” and “The Vodka Drinker” present pain coming from misbehavior in the life of one young man, in one case, and a young woman, in the other. Does the pain they express seem to depend on their gender?
    •  Is this perhaps also true for “Depressed, Not Depressing” and “Disability Visibility,” as well?
    • In what ways are “Disability Visibility” and “How I Lost Catcher” indirect in their description of pain?
    • “Eyes Like Mine” and “Depressed, Not Depressing” both use time and timing to impact how a reader shares in the pain of the writer. How does this affect your reading of either essay?
    • Do any of the writers seem to convey one type of pain more effectively than the others? Why?

Later, assign…

The above essays lend themselves to a variety of responses, either simple reader-response or more involved academic or personal essays, with drafts and revisions as appropriate. Of the two sample prompts below, the second may result in an essay suitable for submission to YARN (after diligent revision and per the submission guidelines posted at

  • Assignment 1: Compare and contrast the sort of pain described by two or more authors in a close reading essay. Pay particular attention to word choice and sentence-level writing that makes you more empathetic to the writer’s pain.
  • Assignment 2: Each of the writers seems to write about particular kinds of pain, not only to put that pain in perspective but perhaps even to move beyond the pain they feel as a result of what they describe. In a creative essay, explore how you come to terms with some pain in your own life, perhaps borrowing from the style of one of the examined authors to write your own (non-fictional) account of dealing with pain.

As always, we welcome your comments and questions below!!

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