Tattoos, pain, and writing

I have a few tattoos already. I have plans for a few others: when I qualify for the Boston Marathon, I’ll get a tattoo that captures that moment on my calf; when Ghost Music is published, I’ll get a tattoo celebrating that dream. Those of you with tattoos are probably familiar with this question—people often ask me if getting a tattoo hurts. My answer isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. For me, there’s a powerful connection between my writing, my tattoos, and that question about pain.

I’m not talking about physical pain from getting a tattoo (though I will say that getting a tattoo on the side of your torso isn’t the most fun). Rather, my tattoos have me simultaneously celebrating and second-guessing how I’d like to live my life. Both tattoos are related to my writing. I mentioned before that I am an emotional writer. When I’m at my best, I’m ready to burn with emotion, explode with the passion and pain of feeling, and willing to grab hold of the live wire of emotional existence with bare hands. The tattoo on my torso is meant to capture this: Icarus is flying into the sun, wings melting and feathers falling. Though the original story isn’t intended this way, I take Icarus not as a cautionary tale but as a promise to myself: I’m willing to scorch myself and push to the point of no return in pursuit of emotional intensity.

My other tattoo has a literary bent as well: on my upper left arm, a stone gargoyle sits hunched over, sadness in his eyes, eating his own heart. A response to Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” this tattoo reminds me of how I feast on emotion and have a love-hate relationship with feelings of sadness. “Love:” the intensity of the pain often shakes lose new creative directions for me. Hate: feeling the pain is overwhelming at times.

A few caveats to this creative process. First, let’s not romanticize the method. I don’t like feeling lousy. It’s not a mystical muse that I want to court or think is special. Yes, “pain is real,” but when you’re in pain feeling “real” isn’t so cool. Second, you have to take that emotional energy and compress it, hammer it out into a cohesive plan. I’m a planner when I write. I know the general framework of where I want to go and how I want to get there. I use the emotional upheaval as a planning block: how does emotion X fit into plot Y and advance character Z?

For me, this becomes the best of all possible worlds: it makes the writing less mechanical, it balances pure emotion within a broader perspective/plan, and it makes room for an important tweaking of that platitude to “write what you know.” More on the last point in a later post…

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