Weekly Prompt: The Pain Scale


During spring, we ran a daily social media writing prompt aimed at sparking creativity for those of us who were going on day thirty, forty, fifty of sitting inside our homes. Now that it's summer and the world is beginning to, slowly, unfurl its wings again, we wanted to think bigger. So much of writing happens in response to our experience and to other writing we encounter. The latter is what this new weekly series will focus on.

Every post in this series will include a weekly reading and a list of prompts in response to that reading. Some of them will be focused on craft; some will ask you to evaluate content. This idea was born from an MFA course I took that focused almost entirely on emulating the style of other writers and then reimagining that first draft into something that was our own but still had echoes of the original. It's also inspired by the heightened sociopolitical reality so many of us come face to face with each day. Writing can be for pleasure; it can be cathartic; it can be used as a tool; it can preserve memory; it can foster connection. Whatever it may be, I hope this series helps you find what you're looking for out of your practice.


Week of August 17

Reading: "The Pain Scale" by Eula Biss

Craft element to note: Braided essay. In this piece, we're bobbing among numbers (zero through ten), Christianity, Biss's history with pain, math, various scales (pain, temperature, hurricane), Dante's Inferno, Biss's family information and anecdotes, medical history and definitions of pain, and cartography, to keep the categories somewhat broad. Biss really doesn't provide any transitionary information—we're expected to take the leaps as they come. A braided form can do work on multiple levels, the most common being drawing parallels between otherwise unconnected topics and ideas, which is part of what Biss is doing here. But she's using the braided form for two additional reasons as well.

The first is inextricably tied to her use of research. Biss is writing about chronic pain—something that, unless you've experienced it, you can't really understand. Because the topic is so nebulous, she needs to give readers multiple ways to enter the essay. You may not know (or particularly care) about chronic pain, but you may be familiar with and interested in the history of numbers or Renaissance art and literature or complex conversations with your father. Your interest in one leads to a better understanding of the other. The second way this form adds to the essay is by mirroring something experiential: Biss is trying to understand (or distract from) her pain, which feels incredibly messy to her. Her mind is racing from possibility to possibility, and so she's created a reading experience where our mind races from topic to topic. There's no reasoning for where we go next, because her pain is also without reason. We have a web of disorganized connections, and we're finding meaning within them as best we can. It's a metaphor for chronic pain.  

Writing prompts:

  1. Think about an experience that's difficult for another person to imagine, similar to Biss's pain. Now create a list of other topics you're interested in that are fairly accessible to the average reader (these are often research based). What connections can you draw between your experience and these other topics?
  2. One of the reasons this essay works so well is that it's so interesting in so many ways. Biss isn't afraid to let threads of research stretch and linger, which we see most apparently in her writing about scales. She starts with the pain scale for it's obvious connection to her life but also tells us all about temperature scales and wind scales. What topic is of particular interest to you? Research and write about at least two derivatives of that topic, being as detailed as you can.
  3. Biss uses the pain scale not only as a point of research and interest in her essay but also as a way to structure it. Think of a scale that has a tie to your life and structure an essay around it.
  4. We see Biss in her essay in the moments she's contemplating her own pain but, perhaps more fully, in the moments she shares with her parents. We only see them in conversation and scene with Biss, but they both feel incredibly real. Write a character sketch of someone in your life that consists completely of moments you've shared with them—no summarized background information.
  5. Braided essays are tough to get right on the first try. One method that I've found to be particularly helpful is to write two (or more) different essays (perhaps inspired by the previous prompts), using frequent paragraph breaks. When you feel you've gotten everything down in a relatively organized order, print them out and cut them up. Experiment with braiding them together, physically moving sections around.