Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 9, 2022

3 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing About Past Trauma

by Colleen M. Story

When I was a young child, my adoptive father committed suicide.

Wow. I’ve never written that before.

But I have written a new novel (The Beached Ones) that explores, among other things, suicide, from the point of view of both the victims and their families.

I never expected to write such a novel. I fell into it “from the side,” you might say, when a movie that ended with a suicide plagued my thoughts for weeks.

I didn’t ask myself “why” this story stuck with me. I just accepted that it did, and gradually, it sowed the germ for a new story in my mind.

I pursued that story over a period of many years, and only when I’d completed a couple of drafts did I realize that:

  • Yes, the story had been inspired in part by the movie
  • But it had also come from my past real-life experience

Almost every writer has some sort of trauma (or more than one) lingering in their past. Maybe you've already written about it. But if you haven't and you're thinking of doing so, ask yourself these three questions first.

1. Are You Ready to Write About It?

Writing is incredibly therapeutic. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “For years, practitioners have used logs, questionnaires, journals and other writing forms to help people heal from stresses and traumas.”

Research supports this practice. In a 2019 study, scientists asked participants who had reported experiencing trauma in the past year to engage in a six-week writing program. The results showed that the program helped them:

  • increase resilience
  • decrease depressive symptoms
  • reduce perceived stress
  • limit rumination

If you’re compelled to write about past trauma, by all means, do so, as it may help you. But if you’re thinking of making a story out of it, think twice.

My adopted father’s suicide occurred when I was a young child. I didn’t start writing The Beached Ones until I was in my 40s. Plenty of time had passed. The wound was no longer fresh. I was able to approach the story from a novelist’s point of view. That helped me to be successful in writing it.

If you’re too close to the trauma, you may have difficulty writing about it objectively. We writers have to have empathy for all of our characters, including the “bad guys.” We also must create a solid story structure and plot to entertain and intrigue our readers—something that requires a clear head.

Writing about the event “as it happened” typically doesn’t translate well into a story. So ask yourself if you’re ready. Have you processed your difficult emotions? Have you healed from the event? Can you look at it objectively?

Only then should you start writing for the purpose of publishing. Before that, use your writing to heal.

2. Can You Handle the Emotional Consequences?

While writing The Beached Ones, I experienced some powerful emotions. Of course, we writers usually do become involved with our characters and feel what they feel. But as I wrote, I found myself haunted by what had happened in my real life.

I started wondering anew about the details. I went to bed ruminating over it, recalling the moment my mom came in to tell my brother and me the news. Memories of that time floated in and out of my consciousness like snippets of dreams.

I had to have more answers. I talked to my mom about it. She was kind enough to get me copies of old newspaper clippings from my hometown paper. It was helpful to see the event recorded in black and white. It chased away the shadows and helped me face reality once more.

You too may experience some difficult emotions when writing about past trauma. You can’t really “prepare” for it, but knowing that it may happen can help. Think about who you might call when you need to. Who could support you through this type of experience?

Then consider anything else you may need, such as more information. Perhaps you too will want to do some research to paste some plain facts over the wound.

Then make sure you’re ready to handle whatever may bubble up as you’re writing before you start. You’ll need to be strong.

3. Can You Bring Your Reader Hope?

Most traumas are dark and difficult. Certainly, suicide isn't uplifting—but according to my editor, my novel is.

When she told me that, I was honored. On a subconscious level, it’s what I wanted to do: offer readers hope. 

On one hand, you’ve suffered a trauma. At least a small part of you is probably writing about it as a way to heal. That means you may have to go to some dark places in your story. But you need more than darkness to make a novel succeed. The question is: how will you find your way back to the light?

Readers often come to books for more than entertainment (though that’s usually the first thing they look for). They long for a sense of belonging, a sign that they’re not alone in how they feel or what they’ve endured in life. They may pick up your book hoping that what they find there will help soothe their fears or bring them a certain level of peace.

If you’re too close to your trauma—or you haven’t yet found a way to understand what happened—you may not be able to find your way out of that dark place. The trail usually begins with empathy for all parties involved: the victims and the perpetrators. Then it travels through pain and suffering to forgiveness, justice, atonement, or in a tragedy, despair, and death.

I’m not saying you have to have a happy ending. But your main character will have to go through a significant change to create a successful arc. One option is to have your character find the light in some way. Readers will celebrate with him. The other is to allow him to descend into darkness, which may leave your reader there, too.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is not to forget about the reader. In the end, your novel is saying something about human nature and experience. Make sure that what it says is what you intend to say, and what you want to offer your reader.

Make sure that it’s something you’ll be proud to leave behind.

Do you write books that include trauma? Why or why not? If you do, what do you find to be the most difficult thing about tackling these topics?

Note: The Beached Ones is forthcoming from CamCat books in June 2022. Get your FREE excerpt here, or preorder now! (Buy links and book trailer here.)

* * * * * *

About Colleen

Colleen M. Story is a novelist, freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker with over 20 years in the creative writing industry. Her latest release, The Beached Ones, is forthcoming from CamCat Books in June 2022. Her novel, Loreena's Gift, was a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others.

Colleen has written three books to help writers succeed. Your Writing Matters is the most recent, and helps writers overcome self-doubt and determine once and for all where writing fits in their lives. Other titles include Writer Get Noticed and Overwhelmed Writer Rescue. You can find free chapters of these books here.

Find more at her author website (colleenmstory.com) or connect with her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story) and LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply

21 comments on “3 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing About Past Trauma”

  1. Love this, Colleen. I think everything I write is based in my trauma, but it's so tangential that I don't recognize that until I'm done writing. I think I write to try to solve the unsolvable in my own life. Hugs.

    1. One upside to this experience and exposure of trauma is that your readers see it and feel it, and find words to express their own. That is an incredible gift to your reader. *Hugs back to you.*

        1. I don't know!!! Because we rock. 🙂

          But seriously, this is all from childhood messaging, as were those dumb early-life choices that cause the guilt. As we say in the database world, "bad input = bad output." The great advantage about being human is we can turn the bad input around.

      1. True, Jenny! It's all material, right? :O) But yes, it's always fascinating to see how readers respond from their unique points of view.

    2. Thanks, Laura. I loved "Days Made of Glass." Yes, I was the same--didn't see it until later. And love tackling those difficult questions we can't answer in my stories. So cool we writers have these things in common.

  2. Wonderful post, Colleen.

    Much of what I write contains elements of my trauma. I hope the readers find something in the writing that is relatable and therapeutic. We all suffer trauma.

    The most difficult thing for me is in the reliving of it all, so I send myself back but do this as an observer. This is easier to do with a lot of time between the occurance and writing the story.

    1. Thanks, Ellen! And exactly--we need that time to recover before revisiting it. Though for me it's more exploring the theme of the trauma in a completely different story with different characters, so that distance helps as well.

  3. I realized a long time ago that the theme of my books is always related to shame - experiencing shame, facing shame, overcoming shame, recognizing shame, dealing with shame. It was a pretty disconcerting moment for me at the time but I've finally accepted it.

    When we write a book, we are showing ourselves to the world whether we mean to or not. I had a multiple-decade-long journey through shame. It's only logical that even though I THINK I'm dealing with sisters or romance or adventure, lurking in the muddy water beneath them will be shame.

    1. I've heard this, Jenny--that there is often a singular theme underneath all of our stories. For me, it seems to be loss, as I see that showing up again and again. But these are universal human experiences so it seems to make sense?

  4. Colleen, this was a powerful, moving post. Thank you for sharing. There was also a lot of truth here, including your cautions. Everything I write is, to some degree, linked to the trauma of my childhood and the difficult medical experiences I endured after. Maybe that's why it took me decades to devote myself to writing. Even then, and even with writing otherworld historical fantasy as a buffer, it was difficult.

    I've long said, it was easy for me to go "there." The difficult part was getting back. It took me as long to learn how to manage the return journey as to learn the craft. That isn't to say it's easy. More like, easier. It's also given back. My writing therapy has provided the insight I require to write what I do.

    I began writing for me. At this point, though, it isn't as much for me as it is for anyone who's life was in any way similar. Those are the people I most want to read the books I'm presently editing. I want them to see where their hope is only the beginning, that it's imperative they hold onto the core of who they are so they can later thrive. I had no one to tell me that, so that's now my role. It's a role I gladly accept and one that makes it easy to spend time in front of the computer. Thank you for this reminder.

    1. Thanks so much, Christina, and thanks for sharing some of your writing journey. I love what you said about your writing "giving back." I have found that as well. Writing is so unique that way. And so true about holding onto the core of who you are. I think writing helps us to stay connected to that too. :O)

  5. Excellent post, Colleen. I started writing -- and still write, in my mind -- for entertainment. Nevertheless, when I wrote a protagonist whose wife had been killed, I got an email from a reader who said it helped him through the loss of his wife. Wow, totally unexpected.
    My own trauma, one that I never discuss, came out when I wrote a character who was short. I realized his anger was mine. It worked out ok. He hooks up with a stone cold fox.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks, James! Oh wow. What a rewarding letter to get from a reader. Ha ha ha. Love that when you can make your story turn out like things should be! :O)

  6. Thank you for this, Colleen. I had a story that randomly shifted into a trauma that I hadn't planned on dealing with that way. I had to set it aside until I was prepared to deal with it. I'm still polishing the draft, but it was very healing to work on - once I was ready to.

    1. Yes, that's what happened to me too. In an excellent article in "Poets & Writers" magazine (Sept/Oct 2021) by Mira Ptacin she talked about coming at trauma "from the side" which describes so well what you're talking about. And yes, healing regardless. Best of luck with the story!

  7. It's hard to not write it, but sometimes after I write it, I delete it because it doesn't fit the feel of the book, but it's still cathartic.

    denise

    1. One of the many awesome things about writing, right? The process nearly always yields positive results in some way.

  8. With my first release Tapestry, I intentionally wrote about emotions and journeys people have in their lives—finding new jobs, moving, dating, dealing with anger. I pulled from my experiences. When I read it again, I noticed there was an undercurrent of anxiety in a lot of the stories. That was a happy coincidence, but it made sense since a lot of those experiences can cause anxiety.

  9. Thank you, Colleen. I always admire writers who can write about trauma they have experienced. Maybe one day, I will, too, but for now, the answer is a hard no to all of those questions.

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