Turning Pain into Art

It’s often said that “experience teaches wisdom,” as painful as that can be sometimes. Our experiences often lead to the wisdom that, when combined with creativity, can produce great writing. When we make a conscious decision to turn our painful experiences into fuel for our art, great things can happen.

Robert Vivian has published four novels, two collections of meditative essays, plus multiple plays, poems, and dervish essays. He has been with Alma College in the English department since 2001, and he joined the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program in 2022. Sophfronia Scott recently discussed with him the process of turning pain into art, using a concept called “immortal wounds.”

Robert Vivian Robert VivianSophfronia Scott: Today, we’re going to talk about a concept that I learned from you many years ago when I was an MFA student, about the concept of “immortal wounds.” I still talk about it today. I share it with my students, I think about it in my own writing, and it’s from a lecture that you gave 10 years ago. I think it’s an important concept. Before we get into it, can you explain first what the concept of the “immortal wound” is?

Robert Vivian: Absolutely. This is from Robert Frost. He wrote or said once, “It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him or her that he has taken an immortal wound, that he will never get over it.”

There’s a passage in Shakespeare, I think it’s “Hamlet,” talking about the “wonder wounded hearers” and that just has always stayed with me. I do believe and have read from others that there are certain moments in our lives of great pain, great beauty, that when they strike us, they are with us for good.

There’s a passage from a novel that I absolutely love, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Mick Kelly is one of the characters and she’s a poor girl living in the south in a big family. One night, she’s out having a cigarette after babysitting, and she’s sitting under a neighbor’s window:

“One program came on after another, and all of them were punk. She didn’t especially care. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades.”

“How did it come? For a minute, the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or a march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night.”

So, Mick has this deep aesthetic awakening and later in the passage she starts scraping her thighs with little stones until she starts bleeding. And this moment changes her life. I won’t tell you how the book ends, but she wants to be a composer.

When I teach this book, I often ask students, “Well, how many female composers do you know?” and usually Clara Schumann is probably the only one that people mention. But this is a long way of responding to this idea that this is what formed Mick as an artist — this deep pain, sorrow, joy, recognition. And after this happens to her, she wants to be a composer even though the deck is completely stacked against her for a variety of reasons.

I know when I was a young writer, I had these moments where I heard or read something so beautiful, it was like, “Oh my God, I want to give my life to this.” It’s dangerous, because of course, we don’t know the outcomes of these things. We’ve talked before about writers like Tennessee Williams, whose sister Rose was lobotomized, and Rose shows up in so many of his plays. That was an immortal wound for him, I think.

SS: Our immortal wound can be something that forms the foundation of our writing. Because yes, we’ve talked about that, how Tennessee Williams wrote about her, whether he realized it or not. It’s not always overt, but she is in so much of his work.

RV: When you joined my undergraduate creative nonfiction class and we read your essay, “The Legs on Which I Move,” I felt, and please correct me if I’m way off with it, that essay was catalyzed out of a wound. That you wrote about how the boots that you wanted to fit into, they weren’t made for you and you wrote so beautifully of that and the way I interpreted was this was kind of a wound that you wrote out of. Am I way off?

SS: I would not have used that word, but why is it that I still remember that moment? I was 7 years old, but I still remember that moment. So, why do I remember it if not for the fact that I was wounded somehow?

RV: I’m an academic, but I flunked kindergarten, and so I grew up believing I was kind of stupid, which I now view as a weird kind of gift that has helped me as a teacher a lot. Because I don’t approach academic subjects necessarily in terms of intellectual power, but something a little more complex maybe.

I don’t mean that it’s better, it’s just that that wound … if I’m any good as a teacher at all, it’s because I flunked kindergarten. The things that we stumble over often become … well it’s in the Bible, right? “The stone that was rejected becomes the cornerstone.”

I think of the immortal wounds in that way: that those profound hurts or failures or whatever they may be, we as artists take them and we write “The Glass Menagerie” for Tennessee Williams. We try to take the wound and make it beautiful somehow. Which isn’t dismissing the wound. It is not saying, “That didn’t hurt,” or that it wasn’t bad. It’s just maybe a form of transcendence.

SS: Yes. Sometimes, I think we are too quick to want to push past pain or think that it has to be that we have closure, that we’ve gotten over it, but do we ever really?

It may not be a bad thing. It may be something that informs us — like you said, it informs your teaching.

I like the word “transcendence.” I think you’re right; it allows us to grow. If we can’t get over it, at least we kind of grow over it, if that’s makes sense, and we become something more because of that wound.

RV: It’s like the last page of “A River Runs Through It,” when the elder father says, “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” “Yeah, I like to tell stories that are true.” And the father says, “Next time, why don’t you make up a story? Because it’s those we love and should know who elude us.”

Then he goes, “Now all the people I know and love are dead, but I still reach out to them.”

That book is the response, you could say, to the murder of his brother. He turns that tragic murder into this gorgeous novella or memoir or whatever people want to call it. So, that’s the immortal wound that Norman claimed, and the gift he gave us with that beautiful book.

The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at