I got horrible news today from a family friend. Apparently, her teenage son was cycling and was somehow hit by a passing car. He didn’t survive. I’m praying and ready to help the family, but also in shock today.
Writing Tip for Today: For writers, trauma is life-altering. But processing trauma can also give our writing more authority and heart.
Write What You Know
The “write what you know” mantra is a trope that circulates in writing circles. Yes, it’s possible to research an event or topic that you’ve never had contact with. But overall, there’s nothing like experience to give readers deep and satisfying reads.
If you’ve lived something traumatic, you understand on a deep level the conflicting emotions that come with a life-altering event. You’re sad, you’re angry, you’re numb and back again. The stages of grief are usually not linear, and there’s no timeline for when that grief has real closure. Some people get over trauma better than others.
When you write, imbue your character with as much lived experience as you can. Even if your trauma isn’t exactly like what your character experiences, often writers can translate the emotions to fit the trauma. Beware, though: No two persons process trauma or grief the same way. Yet all of us relate to loss and how it affects our moods and feelings of well-being. Trauma-informed writing which resonates will hit readers in a way they can’t refuse.
Give It Time
Especially for memoirists, true stories almost always benefit from a period of grieving and processing before you try to write them. I coach writers who have heartfelt, heart wrenching tales they’re eager to share. Yet too many times, these writers want to write out their stories way too soon.
When an event is still raw, writers often really don’t understand their own feelings. Even more important, the trauma is still so fresh that the writer doesn’t yet have any takeaways for readers. Remember, a memoir isn’t really about you as much as it is about your readers identifying with your story.
Waiting for that crucial distance from your trauma is hard—I get that. But writing to process your own grief and writing for publication are two different things. While the trauma is fresh, do a lot of journaling to record specific details. After a period of weeks to months to years (depending upon the severity), start out writing a shorter piece to see what kinds of takeaway you can offer readers. This exercise will prepare you for a book-length project.
Give trauma a rest period so you’ll have takeaways for readers.
Watch the Details
When you write about yours or a character’s traumatic experiences, be careful about details. If you’re writing about your spouse’s cancer journey, remember that readers are less interested in medical terminology and numbers than what’s going on in the relationship.
The details you choose to share can show readers that you have first-hand experience about the subject, but don’t bog them down with scenes that feel repetitive (although many illnesses do feel that way!). Instead, give readers the illusion of the repetitive nature by using the Rule of Three and summarizing shorter with each iteration. Readers are more interested in how you felt than in the physical setting or the technical jargon.
As you write through trauma, remember that even though your work may not be mainstream publishable, you’re helping yourself heal. That’s a valuable lesson. that After a time of processing and grieving, you can harness to make your writing strong and effective. Few readers can resist this kind of trauma-informed writing. I’m going to be processing grief for a while.