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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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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.
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