29 April 2021

Writing Pain

He felt the rib go, knew it would be a problem. Then the guy in front of him snap-kicked him directly above his bent right knee. He bit back a cry of pain as he rebalanced on his left foot. 

                     —Recently published thriller—title and author name withheld to protect the egregious 

How it Started
The quote above is inexact and from memory, but I do recall it pretty clearly. This was the point at which I stopped reading,

I had occasion to revisit this scene just yesterday morning—as I sat waiting be seen by a doctor at the emergency room. I'll relate in a minute why this particular passage sprang to mind at the time, but it ought to come as no surprise that, while sitting there in considerable pain, I began thinking about how we—as crime writers—deal with pain.

Before we start, I'll concede that I understand full well that what many of us in the industry strive for is realism, rather than reality in our fiction. "Realism" being a false-front building of a story, giving the appearance of reality rather than the actuality of it.

Not everyone in crime fiction strives for realism. Many crime writers work an absurdist or escapist vein. And that's okay. I'm not actually talking about these writers or their work here. For the purposes of this blog post, I am dealing solely with writers striving for realism in their crime fiction.

Back to how I got here. Yesterday morning I walked out to my new truck, unlocked it, and started to climb in. I slipped. I fell over backwards. As I was falling I managed to come down first on the ball of my left foot, with my backward momentum unchecked. Turned out this was a problem for both my left quadriceps muscle and a tendon that runs from my hip, through my knee, down to my ankle.

The Culprit

I am not sure whether I only felt the *POP* that followed, or whether I actually heard it as well. I know that I definitely felt it.

What came next? Agony. Sheer, crushing, all-consuming agony. I've felt pain like that before, but it's been rare. I did my best to straighten my leg, and I dimly remember the "Agggggghhhhh" sound I made as I did so. It HURT. Once I succeeded in straightening my leg, the pain lessened enough for me to be able to actually draw a breath. I realized at that moment that I had been holding it since the *POP* several heartbeats before.

I'd like to say that I struggled manfully to get to my feet, got into my truck, and toughed my way through the pain, worked my full shift, and came home with the barest of limps. But of course none of it happened that way. My wife and son came out in response to my frantic phone call (not cursing the advent of cellphones this week!), and helped me get up. Once I was standing, with my leg straight, the pain began to recede, and I actually said, "I think I'm okay. Scared me, but it already hurts less. I think I can go into work—"

That was as far as I got, because at that point I took a step, slightly bent my knee, and nearly collapsed again as a fresh wave of searing pain coursed through my lower left thigh. At this point my wife (the smart one in the marriage) shut down any notion that I would be able to shake this injury off and go to work.

And that was how I found myself waiting to see an orthopedist in a curtained-off room in the ER. I've heard it said that humans are conditioned by evolution to both be instructed by, and to forget the intensity of, pain. (This gets batted around a lot in relation to women and the remembered pain of childbirth. Turns out, neuroscience has pretty handily demolished that wives' tale.). 

If it's the case that we as a species are hard-wired to remember pain as part of a "burned child fears the fire" evolutionary prompt, then that begs the question: why are some otherwise decent writers so lousy at communicating pain and its effects on the nervous system in particular and the human body in general?

I pondered this question in the ER while I waited for the orthopedist and tried hard not to move my injured leg. The slightest shift the wrong way practically knocked the wind out of me. The first doctor to see me initially thought I might have completely torn the tendon. There were certain ways I simply could not move my leg when he prompted me to do so.

Reflecting on the passage quoted at the top of this post, and not even addressing the notion of being able "feel the rib go" and noting it with all the flair of marking down what time the mail carrier dropped a package on your neighbor's doorstep, I confess to being floored at the notion that someone could take a hard kick to the knee as described above and remain standing (all while nursing a freshly broken/separated/cracked rib?). This line of thought took me back to one of the other times I had taken a hard blow to the knee.

The summer after I turned eighteen I took a glancing shot on my right knee from a 600 lb. cement block. A coworker on the construction site where I was working had talked naive teen-aged me into steadying it on the blade of a forklift. The aforementioned coworker then proceeded to pop the clutch on the lift, and I lost hold of the cement block we were attempting to move. 

In retrospect I was lucky that my knee only swelled to the size of a watermelon. It hurt, but there was no structural damage to the joint, and the swelling went down after a while. My coworker got fired on the spot. My boss had to wait to fire me until I came back from a workman's comp-funded recovery period.

I still recall everything about that moment except for my coworker's name. I remember that he smelled bad- a combination of body odor and the unmistakable sickly sweet smell a body processing alcohol out of its system gives off. I remember I didn't like him very much even before he pushed me to "steady that block" while he lifted it. Heck, I even recall the the make and model of the forklift in question.

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the Pettibone Mulliken Super 6 All Terrain Forklift

I remember the pain when that block glanced off my knee and knocked me on my back. It was bad, but what I felt yesterday morning in the flowerbed beside my truck was worse. And  I shudder to think what might have happened had that block landed squarely on my knee, instead of bouncing down the side.

"Go on without me!" vs. "I've been shoooot!"
Maybe what I'm trying to get at is the point that comedian Eddie Murphy so effectively made in one of his stand-up specials years and years ago. Click here to hear him talk about the reality of getting shot versus how it's portrayed in the movies. Yeah, it's funny (and profane), but there's a grain of truth in that clip. The notion that someone would say, "Go on without me!" as opposed to the real world notion of someone responding to getting shot with a drawn-out "I've been shooooooooooooooot!!!!!" makes for great comedy because we can all relate (Not to getting shot—I make no assumptions about our readership here at Sleuthsayers—but to having that "Awww that would never happen!" reaction to something so patently ridiculous.). Who was it that said that all great comedy arises from pain? There might just be something to that. Admit it, you laughed when you listened to the portion of Murphy's stand-up linked above.

And yet this sort of twaddle gets unfunnily, unironically purchased and published over and over again in fiction that purports to be "realistic." And again, yes, a lot of fiction is "escapist" (some might even say "wish-fullfillment"): a double conceit played to full effect in the Tom Selleck movie Her Alibi (1988), where Selleck, playing a a popular author of unrealistic wish-fulfillment thrillers, actually gets shot in the buttcheek with an arrow. The scene is played realistically (and hilariously) , and the laughs pile up when Selleck, like so many writers, mines the experience for a scene in his current work-in-progress. It's all the funnier when Selleck's literary hero avatar nonchalantly pulls the arrow out his *bicep* all by himself, before going about the business of methodically taking out bad guys.

Check it out. It's hilarious. Maybe all great comedy does arise from pain? Or maybe I enjoy it more than some people because I'm also a writer of the sort of fiction Selleck's character so successfully peddles bad pastiches of? Maybe it is just one big inside joke. You be the judge. I still find that bit really funny, over thirty years later.

All I can say is that if someone managed to put the sort of hurt on me that the combination of my truck and a wet patch of ground after a rainy night did yesterday, I wouldn't be saying, "Go on without me!" Once I could talk again, I'd be focused solely on trying to get the pain to stop.

And speaking of the fall I took yesterday, as it turns out, I got lucky. The muscle and ligament damage turned out to be partial as opposed to total. The difference between these two states of damage is the difference between recuperation/a hip-to-ankle brace/eventual physical therapy, and a surgical reattachment/reconstruction of the injured area.

So it looks like I have a lot of THIS in my near future:

How It's Going (That's my son watching Jackson Browne with me—the day ending on a much better note!)

See you in two weeks—and in the meantime, be careful out there!


  1. Best of luck with your knee. Rest up and do your PT!

  2. I appreciated the post here, but yikes! So sorry about your injury! Sending good thoughts, best wishes for recovery!

  3. First of all, get well ASAP. Pain SUCKS.
    Speaking for myself, I can assure everyone that no one feels the rib pop and "knows it would be a problem." I had 2 ribs cracked once (backstory to be supplied only upon request by people I know). You can't breathe without pain. Day and night, for a long, long time. And the doctors can't do anything for you except tape it up tight and tell you, "It'll heal." Great. Meanwhile...
    In fiction we get all these people get the s*** kicked out of them, stabbed, shot, etc., and keep on going. And unless you shot them with a 22 in the arm, it's complete and utter bullhockey.

  4. Sorry that happened to you. Keep doing your physical therapy. I went to physical therapy both before & after I broke my hip (long story) & it helped with *almost* all the pain & lack of mobility. I still have a frozen shoulder.

    And the "theory" that women forget the pain of childbirth, is not true in cases of back labor continuing for 34-1/2 hours!

  5. Bad truck! Bad! It’s a shame, but once a bad truck gets a taste for blood, ain’t nothing you can do but put them down.

    I’ve known a couple of people shot who experienced very different reactions. One was my brother who, as a teen, was shot in the back. He told his friends, “You better drive me home, I’ve been shot,” to which his friend said, “Shot? Hospital! We’re taking you to the ƒ-ing hospital.”

    He described it has a hot sting. It’s important to note the wound was a through-and-through and the shot just missed his lung. The bullet wasn’t a hollow-point or other flavor designed to destroy as much human flesh as possible.

    And the shooter? He was a big fish in a little pond. The judge let him off because he didn’t mean it. The good ol’ boy was too drunk to know what he was doing.

    I hope you’re feeling much better, Brian. Jackson Browne might have had another song in mind for you agony… ‘Tender’.

    1. P.S. A couple of summers I drove a forklift. You NEVER pop the clutch of one.

  6. I remember exercising once on my knees. I lifted a weight over my head and I could literally hear a muscle in my leg popping. Not a sound you forget or wish to repeat. Please take care of yourself, Brian.


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