Sunday, January 6, 2013

Writing from Trauma

I've been reading a lot of advice about using one's own personal experiences and trauma to make for a better story. I can see the wisdom in it, but I always thought I was incapable of it.

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Characters do need motivation. They need painful consequences for the wrong decisions. The stakes need to be high. What better way to show that than with something you, yourself, have lived? I've read a lot of excellent books that came out of an author's personal pain. My favorite romance novel I read last year was one of the ways of the author dealing with a death in the family.

I thought I've never been able to do it, though. I was just diagnosed with PTSD, so maybe that's part of it. The distancing nature of the disease keeps me from embracing any memories that make me feel vulnerable. Even things that happened 30 years ago, I shy away from remembering in detail.

In the immediate aftermath, I do find some comfort in writing about something, but that's always nonfiction, and often private. I push things outside myself until they're less raw.

Does that make me a less effective writer? I should hope not, though it's part of why my new project fizzled out. I couldn't keep myself in the mind set of being in the house that frightened me so badly. I couldn't keep putting myself through that.

But an interesting thing happened when I was reading up on my diagnosis. The psychologist diagnosing me had noted that I'd had it for a long time, and so I wanted to see how it had been affecting my life. And, as the symptoms unfolded before me, I realized that I had been writing about it.

In the trilogy I've been working on, in fact, I've been writing characters I relate to, and each of them show signs of being marked by trauma. They all handle it differently, of course, but the supernatural element is tied strongly to symptoms of PTSD.

So it would seem that, even if you don't mean to write about your scars, you will, anyway. I'm not going to explicitly use the things that left marks on me in my writing, if I can help it. But my response to it will always be there.

I'm okay with that.

The best advice I have for you, then, is to know yourself. Elements of yourself are going to keep showing up in your writing, whether you want them to or not. Turning it into a deliberate act will allow you to do so purposely and in a way that positively affects the narrative. Keeping it all subconscious could get messy.


  1. I would think that the more experience we've had in life - the stronger our writing would be. Even if a lot of that experience is not positive. I've toyed with writing either fiction or fact about my experiences growing up and then in my 20s dealing with the aftermath. I'm actually pretty terrified to try.

    Though I agree that this stuff slips out regardless. A character, or an experience, or something relating to what I've experienced in life.

    Excellent post.

    1. Thank you!

      It is difficult to write about terrible things that have happened to you, either relating them or in a fictional context. It means reliving them. But, it also means processing them in a way you couldn't, at the time, and coming out the other side a more whole and healthy person.

      Though, some writers just write as therapy, and never really let go of what's wrong. You can pick up almost anything by that writer, and know what the issues are. It gets boring fast.

      I do agree that life experience tends to make for a stronger narrative.