Trauma that Becomes Writing Pearls

The last couple of nights have been pretty great! The blog posts have really boosted my mood as I’ve talked about the people closest to me and how much they inspire me to be the best writer I can be.

So tonight, let’s keep the positive vibe train going with–

Wait, THAT’S my topic tonight?


Okay.  Fine.  Let’s dive write in.

As I said yesterday, the most important skill a writer needs is perseverance.  I talked about how my family helps me persevere.  On the other side of that, some writers need to persevere difficult events in order to be able to write from a place of truth.

I think I’m coming at this backwards.  Let’s try again.  I’ll start with examples from my own life and go from there.

I started writing after my friend Douglas showed me something he wrote for a class assignment.  He wrote about a detective that was following a murder case.  The most distinctive thing I can remember about that particular story was that his fictional reporter called the case “The Peanut Butter Murderer” or something along those lines, because a jar of peanut butter had been left out near the body.

When I got home, I thought, “I bet I could write something like that.” And I did. I wrote something like that, only I went way bigger.  My guy was a private investigator, and he was super rich! And smart! And a master of disguise! And he lived on The Moon! And he knew martial arts! And…

I was 10 or 11, and I was having fun.  I did all this writing in Appleworks on my Apple IIc.  I mostly wrote when I was bored with the limited number of games I had for the computer.  The word processor itself became my game.  And it was fun!  I might even still have some of those old stories on floppies in my garage.

My stories started as pure wish fulfillment.  They changed after my Dad died.

I stopped writing for a little while.  It was about 6 or 7 months before I even thought about it.  I still wasn’t doing great, but I was okay.  I sat down at the computer and even though I had games I could play, I went straight to the word processor.

Looking back at that early draft of The Arthur Kane stories, I can see that I was writing as a way of processing my grief.  I didn’t think of it in those terms.  I had this inspiration that I should make the main character flawed.  He was still a private investigator living on The Moon, but he was no longer super rich.  He still had a lot of wish fulfillment about him, but he became more real.  I projected too much of myself into him for him not to be real.

In that story, Arthur needed to save The Moon from a bad guy.  He deeply missed the man that loved him and raised him, and that loss and grief shaped his decisions.

There were some good ideas in that story.  More importantly, there were real emotions shining through the poor prose and the gimmicky writing.  It wasn’t a great piece of fiction, but in the process of dealing with a powerful grief, I created something real in the text.

A writer doesn’t need to experience trauma in order to write about it.  That’s not what I’m saying.  But if you’ve gone through some difficult experiences, you can use them.  There is emotion you can tap into and channel into the words.

Not all trauma has to be death.  I mentioned the break-up with Christine yesterday, and I guarantee you that had an impact on my writing.  The trauma from that experience came in the shape of a crisis of faith.  The next several stories I wrote involved characters desperately trying to deal with their hopes and dreams shattered.

To this day, the importance of love, faith, and hope are themes that I prefer to explore in my writing.  I’m not laying it all on that one event in my life, but that break-up traumatized me significantly.  Getting to the other side of it taught me quite a bit about myself and how to write about characters struggling with deep emotional loss.

Boot camp.  Marriage.  The birth of my children.  My Dad’s alcoholism.   Getting fired for bullshit reasons.  Not all of these things sound like “trauma” but they’re all significant events that have tested me.  They’re experiences I can draw from to make my characters more real.  The experiences are wells of emotion I can tap and transmit to my readers.

Not all traumatic events need to be personal in order to become writer fuel.  Anyone paying attention to the news in the US for the last couple of years has been experiencing trauma.  It doesn’t matter if you’re red leaning or blue leaning, the news has been stressful for everyone.  And frightening.  I think there’s going to be a lot of dystopian fiction coming out soon, and it’s going to be too realistic.


How do you take trauma and use it in your fiction?

First, you have to process it enough that you can put separation between yourself and the characters going through the reflection of your trauma.  Without the separation, you’ll get lost and lose track of the story you’re trying to tell.  Also, if you’re too close to the trauma in your story, you’re going to find the pain too much of a distraction to form good words.

Second, don’t try too hard. Ease into it.  Let it sit in the back of your mind while you focus on the characters and the nuts and bolts of writing.  In this way, the real emotion will flow naturally into the story and the reader will experience it in a way that is more satisfying than if you try to force it.

Third, make sure the traumatic event you’re drawing from is right for your story.  Make sure it’s something you want to tap into at all.  If you set out to write a light Urban Fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, you might want to wall yourself off from the experiences that will drag the story down.  If you can’t do that, consider writing a different story until you’re ready to move on.

Don’t use writing as your only therapy for trauma.  If you’re having difficulty eating or sleeping or functioning at school or work, if your emotional palette has been reduced to different shades of gray, if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, get help.  Writing can be a great way to deal with depression and trauma, but it shouldn’t be your only treatment.  It also shouldn’t be the first way you cope.

If for some strange reason you think that you need to hold on to your trauma in order to write, please reconsider.  I broke my pinky a long time ago.  I had to wear a cast.  I remember how much it hurt when I fractured the finger, and how much the skin itched as it healed.  It smelled funky after a week or two, and when the cast finally came off, the skin was pale and pink.  I don’t have to have a broken finger to write about the experience.  That memory is locked in my head and I can draw from it whenever I want.  So it is with depression and other trauma of that nature.  Heal yourself, then let the memory guide you when you include that kind of experience in your story.

You don’t have to have the exact identical trauma to write about it.  If your parents are still alive but you want your character to go through that kind of loss, just think of a family pet you probably lost when you were little.  I’m not saying that losing a pet is the same as losing a parent.  I’m saying that the pain of loss can be used to extrapolate and imagine another kind of pain.

I think that’s all I have to say on the subject.  Tomorrow, I promise the topic won’t be nearly as depressing.

One thought on “Trauma that Becomes Writing Pearls

  1. Great post, Brian! I am not as eloquent with words as you, but I do know that this one touched me. I’m not a writer, but it’s really interesting for me to learn from you where some of your ideas come from and how they are used in stories. Thanks for sharing a bit of yourself and your knowledge with me!

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