I’m working on a story that’s decided to set itself in Baltimore. I’ve never been to Baltimore, so in the interest of research I started watching The Wire. While my characters aren’t nearly as hardcore as those on the show, it’s been a great showcase of an often overlooked part of American life.
If you’ve never seen The Wire, it follows two storylines: that of a unit of the Baltimore PD trying to bring down a drug empire, and that of the leaders and minions of the empire. It’s a gritty show that doesn’t shy away from violence, and without giving any spoilers, it’s best not to become attached to any characters because no one is untouchable on this show.
I watched an interview with one of the creators, who talked about the decision to kill off a popular character in the third season. This character was a favorite, although he was also beyond reprehensible. The creator basically said that killing off the character was best for the story (which I agree with), and to keep him alive would be only to do so for the sake of the character, not the story.
I thought about that with my own stories. I’ve killed a lot of characters, some of whom readers wanted left alive because they liked the character, but as a writer I need to do what the story calls for. And sometimes that means killing off a character.
Readers, how do you feel when a character you like gets killed off?
Last month, I was invited to give a short presentation at a writing conference for social workers. I’d previously done a panel on using writing as therapy, and my research interest is the effects of trauma on students, so this was my topic this time:
Writing can be a form of self-care for human service workers working with clients who have experienced trauma. Explore ways to process secondary trauma through writing, as well as how to balance accurately telling clients’ story while respecting their confidentiality and dignity.
Because participants said they found my presentation helpful, I thought I’d share it here too.
Therapeutic Sentences: Processing Through Writing
“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
– Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
This quote strongly reflects the approach I take to writing. Many of my stories are based on composites of people I’ve worked with across my various education, criminal justice, and social work jobs, and while they’re not exactly true, their themes and messages seem to resonate with readers who’ve experienced similar situations. At the same time, however, as I write about the trauma my clients have experienced, I need to be careful to protect their identities as well as minimize the secondary trauma I might experience while writing about what they’ve gone through.
What is trauma?
SAMHSA (the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) defines trauma by the three E’s:
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
This is similar to a story arc – a character experiences an event, and how that character deals with the effects of that event (either short-term or long-term) makes up the rest of the story.
That said, there are six types of trauma, and which type is used can lead to different types of stories:
Acute trauma results from exposure to a single traumatic event (eg, a hurricane, an armed robbery by a stranger)
Chronic trauma results from extended exposure to traumatic situations (eg, growing up in chronic poverty, experiencing chronic hunger, the whole plot of Room)
Complex trauma is “the experience of multiple, chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature…and early life onset” (eg, abuse by a parent)
Identity trauma (historic or collective trauma) which is the result of traumatic events that affect an entire group (eg, the Holocaust for Jewish people, pretty much the entire history of Native Americans since Columbus)
Continuous or ongoing traumatic stress (CST) occurs “in contexts in which danger and threat are largely faceless and unpredictable, yet pervasive and substantive” (eg, the abuse or trauma right now, with no possible end in sight)
Secondary traumatic stress is due to vicariously experiencing trauma through the primary victim’s descriptions of the traumatic event or experience (eg, hearing a client describe his or her traumatic experiences)
Writing as a means of processing trauma
For me (ie, someone who hasn’t experienced much trauma but works with clients who have), writing is a way for me to put into words what my clients have experienced, when they don’t have that chance themselves. It’s about making these “salt of the earth people,” as a reader once described them, real so that people can understand them as people and not caricatures. It’s about highlighting a problem so that others can identify with it.
But this is just me, as a social worker/teacher/advocate. I surveyed a writers’ group about how they use writing to process trauma, and here’s what they said:
Roleplay what could have happened
“I’ve taken real events and environments that happened to me as a child, placed a character in those events, and tried to make it so that she doesn’t come out completely screwed up. I’ve tried to give her the allies she needs, the character traits she needs, and the merciful intervention she needs so as not to end up homeless and in a mental institution by age 21. I’m finding the experience extremely satisfying. It’s like going back in time and giving my young self a second chance.”
“I turned to writing as a means of trying to process some of the actions and reactions of people, creating truly fictitious characters with created reasons that would lead to the same kind of outcomes as I experienced as sort of a roleplay on what might have caused what I experienced.”
“To sort those feelings, I wrote a very short fictional story about a character in my situation magnified. I gave her a back story worse than my own, raised the stakes, and put her though hell…. But writing about it in a fictional setting gave me the freedom to untangle those emotions from a safe distance.”
“Fictionalizing real events gave me control over how I see them, how they play out, and what the result is going to be. I don’t have control over what happened, but I can change the what-happened-next.”
“Sometimes, I get a kind of fictional revenge on people and situations that have been less than helpful to me, when I would never seek revenge in real life.”
Coping with death
“I turned back to writing after a family friend died from cancer last November. I found it was a way to process my emotions after I had to be ‘the strong one’/ referee at the hospital the night he died.”
“A close friend committed suicide a few years ago, and he keeps finding his way into my short stories/flash fiction. Often they’re not directly about him, but more about grief/coping with loss, and I keep finding myself writing his personality, looks and characteristics into my characters. I think it’s an unconscious attempt to both to process his death and to keep his memory alive.”
Coping with general emotions
“When I experience something traumatic or emotionally draining, I find it much less overwhelming if I am writing.”
“A lot of writers have personal issues – Stephen King, to name but one, was a long-term alcoholic. If you read The Shining, you’ll see the story of a man tormented by his demons and slowly falling apart. But what makes a writer good, and readable, is the ability to harness personal emotions and turn them into something bigger, more creative and more ‘universal.'”
“I came to realize the whole book was about mourning my childhood. Each of the characters who deal with emotional wounds could be me, but especially the main character whose story arcs across the book.”
“The feelings attached to my problems, some of the thoughts and very few aspects flow in my WIPs.”
Broader social issues
“I have at times used fiction to process my personal issues with things like cultural identity and patriotism. But these are broad concepts, not specific incidents or people in my life. I could explore these issues easily enough while writing fantasy.”
How to write about trauma (yours or others’) ethically
When telling a story that’s based in truth, whether it’s your story or one that you’re telling on behalf of others, there are ethical considerations to take into account. First off, how will others react if they’re portrayed as the villain, or if you change the story to make it “better” but make them come across worse? What about potential legal ramifications?
The authors I surveyed also shared their tips for writing a story based on trauma, without causing problems for others.
Change names or traits
“All you have to do is change gender, race, and/or age. writing about your female cousin? turn it into an octogenarian black man…. Funny side note: after my first steamy novel came out, several men from my past came forward to claim the MMC was based on them. no one has yet claimed to be the overbearing sister, the philandering ex, the pervy boss, etc…”
“I keep getting so much feedback about how “one note” one of my “villain” characters is, and so I’ve had to really stretch my empathy to find ways to make her more human. So…maybe my mother WON’T recognize herself by the times it’s through lol. Or she’ll be a more likable character and it won’t matter.”
“The people and the events get scrambled in my fiction. What happened to someone unrelated and younger than me happens to an older family member of my main character.”
Use bits and pieces of real people
“Use real people but swap their stories, or spread theirs out to others, a piece here a piece there, the real barista gets a part of the real bartender gets a part of construction worker.”
Focus on emotions and themes
“The core of the story is real but the specific events were fictionalized. It focuses on how I processed my own feelings at the time, that was the important part I needed to get out. Specific events didn’t matter, only that they engendered the same emotions I felt.”
“But there in that imaginary world, there are many of the issues that plague us today. Racism, sexism, religious extremism and bigotry, even some environmentalism and conservation issues are there. It isn’t ‘in your face’ but it is there. I don’t preach, nor do I really provide much in the way of ‘answers’ for all those ills. I just plant the questions and hope readers are prompted to think for themselves. I hope they recognize the issues and come to their own conclusions of what should/could be done about them.”
“The underlying themes seem to reflect what I’m feeling about real world events, but the events themselves bear no resemblance to reality.”
Change the genre
“It helps that it’s a bit of magical realism. Taking a sideways approach to reality put some distance between what happened and what I wrote.”
Use a pen name
“What would I do to maintain anonymity? . . . well this is where me not telling friends and family (who most likely would surface in my stories in some way, if i did that sort of thing) what I write or anything about my pen names.”
Everyone experiences and reacts to trauma, and writers are no exception. We write about our trauma and that of others, as a way to process what we’ve experienced and share experiences with others.
If you’re a writer, how do you use writing to process trauma? What techniques do you use to write about it ethically? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
I’m currently in that fun part of the doctoral student process where I’m writing my comprehensive exam – a big 75-page paper that demonstrates I’m an expert in my field and deserve to stay in the program. My focus is on trauma-informed care and education.
Trauma-informed care basically boils down to 2 things: realizing people have experienced crappy things in life, and then giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is NOT about making excuses for behavior, but rather finding an alternative way to get the same results you expect for everyone else.
There are quite a few types of trauma. Each one has a different cause, although they can all have similar results.
BIG CAVEAT: Not everyone who experiences trauma will react to it the same way. Some people are affected and some aren’t. It basically comes down to resiliency (although my argument is that if so many students have experienced – or are experiencing – trauma, why don’t we just change how the education system reacts to it, rather than telling kids to suck it up or get over it – which is kinda what teaching resiliency comes down to).
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration focuses on “three E’s” of trauma: event, experience of the event, and effect. Specifically, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Within that definition, there’s a lot of room for variability.
Acute trauma – one single event. A house burning down, getting mugged or raped, witnessing your parents’ murder in an alley when you’re supposed to be enjoying the theater.
Chromic trauma – exposure to multiple events. Interesting fact: chronic poverty has the same neurological effect on kids as combat does on military personnel.
Complex trauma – exposure to multiple events over time, but of an interpersonal nature. Domestic violence and child abuse falls into this category.
Identity trauma – trauma that effects an entire group, because of how they identify (also known as historical or collective trauma). The Holocaust falls into this group, as does genocide against the Native Americans. It often manifests in cultural stories, practices, and beliefs.
Continuous or ongoing traumatic stress – chronic or complex or identity trauma, but it’s still happening and there’s no way to escape it. For example, people trapped in a war zone with no way to escape it.
Secondary trauma – the response to witnessing or hearing about someone else’s trauma. A huge issue for caregivers and teachers, especially if they’re not prepared for it.
Writers love to throw trauma at their characters, and readers seem to love it too. What types of trauma do your characters face? What types do you prefer to read about?
I write a lot of character-driven stories, and so I’m always on the lookout for ways to focus on characters’ motivation and thought processes. I’ve recently come across a term, stuck points, that really fits with my works.
My research focus in my PhD program is trauma’s role in education. As such, I’m taking a lot of classes and workshops focusing on a trauma-informed perspective – realizing that there’s a good chance anyone you meet and work with has experienced some kind of trauma that affects their perceptions and behaviors, and therefore changing your own perceptions and behaviors to meet them where they are.
One of the methods used to treat trauma is cognitive processing therapy (CPT), which focuses on reframing people’s perceptions of what they experienced. And a major component of this is stuck points.
Stuck point = a thought that keeps someone from recovering from a bad/traumatic experience.
Often times, stuck points develop because someone’s old way of thinking doesn’t fit with what happened to them. It builds on the just world theory that bad things only happen to bad people – so if something bad happens to you, you must be a bad person.
Stuck points are often a black and white exaggeration, using terms like “everyone” or “no one,” “always” or “never.”
Stuck points can focus on the past – “If I’d done X, then Y would’ve happened instead of Z” – or they can focus on the present – “No one will ever love me” or “I’ll never be able to trust again.”
“My parents split up because I was a bad kid.” – focusing on his crappy childhood
“If I’d been a better partner, my relationships wouldn’t have ended badly.” – focusing on past relationships
“If I’d trained my soldiers better, they wouldn’t have been killed.” – focusing on his military experience
“I don’t deserve to have a happily ever after.” – the summation of all his other stuck points.
Sometimes there’s truth in stuck points. For example, if Andrew had been a better partner, maybe his relationships wouldn’t have ended – but maybe they still would have. What happened wasn’t entirely his fault, and he shouldn’t keep beating himself up over it.
As characters grow over the course of the story, they can move past these stuck points to become a healthy character (or go from a healthy character to having stuck points). Either way, it makes for a great, character-driven story.
What stuck points do your characters have? Are they able to resolve them?
My first novel, Yours to Keep or Throw Aside (previously released as The Lone Wolf), came out a couple years ago. After hearing about it, I’ve had several people tell me, “I’m not a big reader, but I’ve been thinking about writing a book too. I have a really great idea.” Which is great, but….
Before I go any further, watch this video.
It’s been said that for every overnight success, no one saw all their late nights and early mornings. Writing is no exception. It’s hard work, and it take a lot of time.
Here are the things I think are necessary to write a publishable book:
I’ve been an avid reader since I was five (25+ years), and I read everything – fiction and nonfiction, children and adult, Nobel laureates and NY Times bestsellers, US and international, classics and modern, literary and fluff, genre – you name a category, and I’ve read something in it. I’ve taught high school literature and analyzed it in college lit classes. So, I think it’s fair to say I have a good idea of what’s out there, what works and what doesn’t, and why. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write a book.
2. Develop your writing skills.
I’m currently a PhD student and I’ve worked as a professional researcher in several fields, meaning I’ve written a lot of analysis/explanatory papers, some of which I’ve won awards for. And I’ve taught writing at the high school level, so I think it’s fair to say I have well-developed writing skills. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write a book.
I wrote one anyways, for NaNoWriMo ’09. And, it sucked. It sucked bad. I’d like to revisit it someday, but as for now it’ll stay locked away.
3. Get feedback from people you don’t know, who know what they’re talking about.
I kept writing, though. In October 2010, after eight months of writing, I finished the first draft of Yours to Keep or Throw Aside. Yay me! It was good, but I knew it wasn’t good enough. So I joined FOUR online writing groups (and I’ve since joined a local in-person writing group and a local writing association). Two were worthless and provided absolutely no feedback. One was filled with people who said it was great, and would I please tell them how great theirs were too so they could win a popularity contest? The fourth, Scribophile, ripped the novel apart. Not only were there story and character issues, but the writing was subpar – POV mistakes, filter words, telling instead of showing, too many tags and adverbs. And you know what? They were right.
4. Learn more about the craft of writing.
So I set out to learn about what I was doing wrong. I read books on writing. I follow a couple dozen blogs about writing. I read about what to do, and what not to do, and billions of examples and explanations of each. I talked to other writers. I’ve attended writing workshops.
I also wrote (and continue to write) short stories. While the depth is minuscule compared to a whole novel, it’s a great way to try out techniques, hone your voice, and finesse your understanding of the language.
5. REVISE, then Revise, then revise again. When you’re done with that, revise.
Armed with all that knowledge, I rewrote my novel. I got more feedback. I rewrote it again. I got more feedback. I nitpicked with edits for two years until finally I was ready to send it out into the big scary world.
6. Learn about the publishing industry.
While I’d been editing, I’d also been reading up on the publishing industry. I’d tested the waters with short stories, both with publishers and self-publishing. So when it came time to send queries, I knew who to send them to, what to say in them, and what to expect in reply.
When people tell me they want to write a book, but they don’t like reading, and they’ve never written anything other than stories in elementary school and short papers in high school, and they don’t know anything about their audience or the publishing industry, and can I put in a good word with my publisher for them? – the answer is NO.
It’s not that I’m trying to be mean. I think everyone has great (and not so great) ideas for books, and these people are no exception. But they need to put in the work, because writing a book involves much more than an idea.
Writers – what’s your experience with publishing? Any points you’d add to my list?
I just started a PhD program this fall, and I love it.
When it comes to my career goals – eventually, I intend to be a research analyst at a national thinktank, looking at education policy as it pertains to low socioeconomic status and minority students – I don’t mess around. I’m strategic. I know what I want to do, and I evaluate every class I take, every relationship I form within the school, every decision, with respect to whether it’ll get me closer to my goals. If it doesn’t, I don’t do it.
Since classes started this fall, I’ve identified three possible research organizations I could work with next year AND talked to people involved about getting on with them. I’ve narrowed down faculty I could do research with, both for my research practicum next fall and for a research assistantship. I’ve made a list of classes I plan to take, as well as how they’ll fit into the generic schedule given to me by my advisor (not surprisingly, I’ll be taking extra classes because at this point, I definitely know what kind of courseload I’m capable of). I’ve looked at the job qualifications at places I’d love to work someday and compared my skills to the list. I’ve gotten the go-ahead to do my own research projects and I’m in the process of putting together a team of master’s students to help me.
In short, I’m focused.
When it comes to writing, however, not so much. I know what I want to do – I have a list of goals for the year – but I don’t do much to reach this goals.
For example, I set myself the goal of writing at least two hours a day while I’ve been on fall break from my school social work internship. I’ve probably spent two hours total over the last two weeks.
I know a lot of writers who are very focused on their writing. They treat it as a career – and I think that’s the reason I’m not putting as much time into it as others, because for me, writing isn’t a career. I love what I do, in the field I’ve chosen (not to mention the huge cost in terms of dollars and time in getting several advanced degrees). I have no intention of quitting my day job to be a full-time writer.
At the same time, I want writing to be more than just a hobby.
If you’re a writer, is it a hobby or a career for you? If you’re like me and love your career, how do you balance time for writing as well?
It’s been a couple years since I last attempted Story A Day, where you write a story a day for the month of May. This year probably wasn’t the best to attempt it; in addition to the day job and end-of-the-semester tests, papers, and projects and helping classmates on those papers and projects, I’m also taking three weekend trips this month. We’re about a week in, and here’s my progress so far:
Stories attempted: 5
Stories completed: 0
I carry around a bunch of notepads with me, each with a different story started on them. So far I’ve worked on five different stories, but I haven’t written more than a page or so for each one. I know what I want to write about, but it’s hard finding the time to actually do it. Things should maybe calm down after next week, so I may still be able to finish successfully.
Are you participating in Story A Day? If so, how are you doing with it?
What am I not working on? I’m finishing up the first draft of my novel A Handful of Wishes, which should be released by Evolved Publishing December 2014. I’m also putting the final touches on a short story collection, The Futility of Loving a Soldier, that’ll be released this summer (maybe; I’ve been trying to finish it for a year). And there are always a dozen short stories floating around, half-written, that I’m trying to work on.
Q. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don’t write a specific genre; I write what I find interesting. So while The Lone Wolf was literary/women’s fiction, A Handful of Wishes is magical realism. My short stories range from contemporary to horror and paranormal. I focus more on a common theme – love and betrayal, sacrifice and redemption – as opposed to any genre conventions.
Q. Why do I write what I do?
Again, I write what interests me. I’ve always read widely, from everyday fiction to genre stuff like mysteries, sci-fi, and horror, as well as a lot of nonfiction. I try to write stories that’ll elicit a strong emotional response from my readers and stick with them long after they’re done reading.
Q. How does your writing process work?
Poorly, at the moment. Right now my weekday schedule is up at 5:30, work 7-5, class from 5:30-8:30, then home at nine to write papers until about midnight or 1:00, then fall asleep and do it all over the next day. Unfortunately, I’ve been getting a lot of great story ideas but haven’t had a chance to write them, other than brief notes. When I do have time to write, I usually do so fast and furiously, because the stories have been marinating for awhile and are pretty ripe for telling.
Q. Who will we meet next week?
I’m going to tag author Christopher Starr, because he’s about two months overdue for a blog post.
It’s November, which means that thousands upon thousands of people are sitting down to write a 50,000 word novel as part of NaNoWriMo.
It also means that thousands upon thousands of people are sitting in front of their computers, eying their word counts, and thinking, “Crap, it’s only day seven and I’m how far behind?”
I’m in that second group.
I started off strong. I went to a local write-in on the first day. I sat at a table where a fellow writer took away another NaNo’er’s phone to minimize distractions and may have threatened to disconnect my internet connection. I hit my word count. Days 2, 3, and 4, I hit my word count.
But then on day 5, I came home from my evening class with a migraine/mild diabetic reaction to too much flan, and a bug bite that I had an allergic reaction too (funny story; it’s called Skeeter Syndrome, and it means bites swell up into itchy 3″ in diameter welts). I tried to write, but ended up just going to bed, at 9:00, and sleeping it all off. I planned to catch up today, but between an unexpected trip to the mechanic’s (headlight went out this morning) and my son’s 7th birthday party tonight, I didn’t have time for it.
I’m hoping to catch up soon, but this weekend I’m headed out of town, which means not much writing will get done Friday, Saturday, and possibly Sunday.
And then I have a 20-page policy analysis paper due in a couple weeks, followed by an 8-page paper on my family’s ethnic integration in America. And a book launch in less than a month.
It’s not going to be pretty this month.
If you’re doing NaNo, how’s your progress coming along?