Merry Wanderer of the Night + TIME

Awesome Essays: The Pain Scale

I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about Eula Biss, although I really haven't done so on my blog. The only place it makes sense to start for me, with her, this writer who has meant so much to me in the past few years. is with the first essay I have read by her, The Pain Scale. This essay originally appeared in the Seneca Review and is part of her collection The Balloonists (which I have yet to read somehow) and it also appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 1 edited by Lee Gutkind, which in the nonfiction world is pretty similar to being chosen by God. This is where I first found her.

The Pain Scale is structured by the 10 (11, including 0) stops on the pain scale. Beginning at zero, Biss considers pain. Is it possible to have no pain (0)? Why do most people rate their pain at 5? What really is the worst pain imaginable (10)? And as she considers these questions she considers her own pain and wonders if she is alone in her pain, individualized by it and therefor separated from everyone else. She also considers emotional pain, and how it is related to physical pain. Or if it's related at all. A lot of essayists like to try out forms but so often they become hindered by them. This structure is not a hindrance to Biss, she works it from every angle and even though each query is a short few sentences, they build on each other and somehow connect. Reading this essay is like watching Biss construct her view of pain as she moves higher up the scale.

I couldn't find this essay anywhere online so I'm going to do a long quotation from the book. I mentioned some places you can find the essay earlier but I would obviously suggest trying either The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 1 edited by Lee Gutkind or The Balloonists by Eula Biss. The Best Creative Nonfiction is a great collection and I'm sure anyone who is interested in essays, even mildly so, would really enjoy it. You can't go wrong with Gutkind in my opinion.

"Left alone in the exam room I stare at the pain scale, a simple number line complicated by only two phrases. Under zero: "no pain." Under ten: "the worst pain imaginable."

The worst pain imaginable... Skinned alive? Impaled with hundreds of nails? Dragged over gravel behind a fast truck?

Determining the intensity of my own pain is a blind calculation. On my first attempt, I assigned the value of ten to a theoretical experience--burning alive. Then I tried to determine what percentage of the pain of burning alive I was feeling.

I chose thirty percent-three. Which seemed, at the time, quite substantial.

Three. Mail remains unopened. Thoughts are rarely followed to their conclusions. Sitting still becomes unbearable after one hour. Nausea sets in. Quiet desperation descends.

"Three is nothing," my father tells me now. "Three is go home and take two aspirin."

"It would be helpful, I tell him, if that could be noted on the scale."

If you like what you've read so far or are just interested in reading more by Eula Biss you can go to her website to find some selections of essays by her that are published online.

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Awesome Essays: The Pain Scale + TIME