The week before last, I posted the Fiction Fridays finale. For those new to this blog, Fiction Fridays was a series in which I posted original short stories that I had written. I closed the series, but that doesn’t mean fiction is not still an integral part of my trauma recovery. Fiction has been a bright point in my life as long as I can remember. When I was a child it was the light by which I viewed the world; since acquiring PTSD it has become the guiding beacon which I use to stumble out from this dark purgatory. Without fiction, this blog would not exist.
People have asked me how I am able to dive back into some of my most painful memories in order to write them out in these posts. Readers have commented on my courage, my bravery; the self-discipline it must take to engage with my trauma in such an honest and public manner. The answer to anything related to trauma is never something that can be summed up in a simple one word response…but ‘fiction’ has definitely been a major catalyst in my recovery. If I had not first explored my trauma through creative fiction, I would not be able to write about it in non-fiction narratives. Had I not first placed the lens of fiction between these events and myself, I would not be able to view them so thoroughly through the direct lens of truth. Fiction has allotted me a safe setting to explore feelings, events, and characters which would have been too triggering to visit in other contexts. It has reduced my symptoms. It has saved my life. Today, I want to share this tool with you.
During the MFA level online teaching seminar that I took with Jack Collom during grad school (which took place, ironically, in a physical classroom), I had to design a sample writing class to be taught online. The subject I chose was “Writing Through Trauma.” I haven’t had the chance to make this class a reality yet, but I’ve been considering offering a mini version through Betty’s Battleground. Here’s a list of five sample exercises that can help you use the art of fiction to heal from the reality of trauma. Once you’ve read through them, if you are interested in the possibility of an e-class on the subject, vote by tweet and let me know! Even if you don’t think you’d participate in an online class on trauma writing, these five techniques can help you work through your trauma without costing you a dime! Writing can’t replace professional therapy, but it is a cost-effective coping tool that you can easily add into your healing regimen.
1. Create an “alter” character
Your alter character can be as similar or dissimilar from you as you choose: she’s your creation. During the process of exploring your trauma through fiction, you will probably invent numerous characters who symbolize yourself, or various aspects of yourself; they may even exist within the same story or fictional universe. While I do this myself, I have found it useful to engage specially with one character who recurs as “me” throughout various stories. This tool was used by a number of famous writers, and was especially enjoyed by the Beats. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, and science fiction demigod Kurt Vonnegut all used re-named and re-imagined versions of themselves in their stories.
Do you remember those personal questionnaires that we used to fill out as teenagers on our Livejournals (if you’re old like me) or maybe your Myspace or Facebook account or whatnot? The ones that started with “Name,” then “Age,” and got increasingly more specific and personal? It’s been a few years since I’ve filled one of those out for myself, but I like to re-purpose them as character building exercises. You can do that to create your fictional trauma-alter. It’s super easy! Just find one you like, and fill in the info for your character instead of yourself. You should choose a questionnaire that your character would choose herself. So if your character is a really serious businessman, for example, you may want to use questions with a more professional slant (though you want to make sure to cover personal stuff as well). My character is a teenage girl, so it’s pretty easy for me to find questions that would suit her. Here are a few short examples from my character:
Are you craving something?
-buttered toast w/ hawt chocolate…mmmm hawt
If you could have one thing right now what would it be?
-my Love here with me, his arms wrapped around my waist..kissing my neck..
Would you rather have ten kids, or none?
-oh god. None. Unless I could make the ten into like a cult or something
What do you do when you get nervous?
-I get really quiet and curl into myself like a fetus. Sometimes I also write. Sometimes I also run
It’s pretty easy and can be pretty fun too!
2. Re-purpose triggers into a short story
“In the side of her vision she saw someone. She tensed, ready to get up and run again, but it was just some guy. Behind him: empty street. The drops started thudding in time with her heartbeat. The sky bruised dark grey. The rain blackened the cement. It beat on her head. Bam! Bam! The sound was huge. Melinda wrapped her elbows over her temples; grabbed her neck; tried to duck from the blows of rain. The rainfall sped up with her breathing. It was so fast and dense she could hardly breathe. It thrust into her eyes. Blink-blink-blink: the world strobed. If anything came, she wouldn’t see it coming. She had to get a ride out.”
You can scale this to meet your treatment needs by starting with a softer trigger; something which makes you feel uncomfortable or perhaps a little anxious or melancholic, but doesn’t transport you to a full-on flashback, and work up through your triggers on whatever timeline you feel comfortable.
In order to do this exercise, you need to make one of you triggers a main plot point. I mentioned in one of my recent posts that one of my triggers is a location; the garage when The Ex beat me very badly. So my version of this exercise means writing a story about two siblings having a race where the garage is the finish line. The race is intensely important to the younger sibling, and he is able to win by sheer purpose of will.
You can also explore the dynamics of the trigger as it exists for you in reality, but from a fictional perspective. I used to get very panicked when caught in a big rainstorm, which is a problem for someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest. The pummel of raindrops would remind me, somehow, of the pummel of fists and trigger a flashback or panic attack. I wrote about this experience happening to a young girl who had fled a hospital and was trying to make a phone call in the rain, and it actually helped. Sure, I do sometimes feel a flash of panic during a rainstorm once in a while, but I’ve actually found myself laughing and enjoying big storms in the recent past.
3. Write the feelings of your trauma
“The sounds which came from their bodies were like nothing Thamen had ever heard. Reminiscent of the play, but more visceral, more biting, more livid, more living. Each sounded different: An elderly woman croaked and snapped her teeth, an emaciated mother holding what looked like a dead infant yipped wildly, a pallid androgynous teenager howled, a jowl-faced man repeated a deep rhythmic “ho ho,” a skeletal woman who looked too thin to live elicited a searing sibilance, and a crowd of other sounds from equally horrible figures. They approached Thamen, slowly at first, but pressing closer and louder as Thamen looked around, seeking a means of escape. They surrounded him. Their grey, disfigured faces leered into him, filling his vision. They clawed at him with bleeding fingers, tearing away his mask so that their hot rotten breath snaked into his nostrils. “
If I were scoring these exercises, this one would be “Intermediate.” It’s not the most difficult, but you should definitely have practiced exploring your trauma through fiction in other ways beforehand.
First, identify some of the feelings you experienced during or directly following your trauma. These can be emotional feelings or physical feelings, though remembering physical sensations will probably require more in-depth examination of the event and therefore should only be done when you feel truly ready.
Once you have selected a few feelings, write a story in which a character or characters experiences those feelings. You can use your alter, or not-it’s totally up to you!
This story can be wildly different from your trauma; I have explored my traumatic feelings through a variety of speculative fiction stories. One was a series of futuristic commericals and a man who knew his wife was cheating on him. Another was a slipstream romance in which the narrative character experienced the same heartbreak, shame, and anger that I felt during my relationship, but for totally different reasons. Another was a dystopia about emotional language, in which the narrative character, a man, rapes a young girl.
Or, you can write a more realistic story which borrows from true events. If you go this route, try to make a good portion of it fictionalized, because otherwise you are crossing into straight trauma writing, which you may not be ready to do. I have done this with several events. Usually I’ll keep the skeleton of the event intact but change key details. Both forms of this exercise have been extremely cathartic for me.
4. Write a narrative in which your trauma never occurred
“That night I dreamt that everywhere I walked, a hive of bees circled my head. I was not afraid. I woke the next morning rested for the first time in a very long time. The song of bees replaced my thoughts. A small duffel bag sat, fully packed, next to the door. I dressed, lifted the bag and looked around the room. So many things left behind.
When I walked out of our house for the last time, I left the door open, so all that space would not go to waste.”
Use your alter-character for this and write out an alternate life in which she never experiences the trauma you did. This isn’t just to pretend a reality in which you aren’t traumatized; it’s to help you see how your experienced has shaped who you are today, for better or for worse.
I hate having PTSD. I hate living in a traumatized body. It is one of the saddest existences available to humankind; to be trapped, for my entire life, in a body that has been beaten, raped, and deeply heartbroken. But when I wrote this story, what I was forced to face was that my sweet son would never have been born. Possibly, none of my children would have been born. That version of me also lacked some humbling lessons on compassion that are key to the parts of me that I love best today.
I got creative with this exercise and wrote a time travel narrative in which my alter-character was sent back in time, into the body of her younger self, with the full knowledge of what was to come if she stayed in the relationship. It was a painful but interesting thought-exercise, because of course the character had to decide between her son never being born, or enduring her abuse all over again except this time without even the padding of love for her abuser.
It’s not an easy exercise, but it’s definitely eye-opening, and makes for some interesting fiction!
5. Write a narrative from the perspective of the person who traumatized you
“Without a way to tell the time, the wait seemed interminable. Already the cold was creeping into his bones, not the cold of night, which he was used to, but the other cold, which he would never get used to no matter how many times it came for him. This was the cold that burned in his chest, the cold that pushed his skin into goosebumps from the inside, the cold that made him sweat. He could see the cold in the darkness of the rising night, crouching and crowding around him. This cold, like a mean fiddler, twanging the chords of his muscles, making them jolt and twitch, making his need obvious. He looked around. The street was empty except for all the strangers, who avoided him in wide half-circles. Soon, he told himself, soon.”
This one is the hardest, in my opinion, of all of the exercises, but also arguably one of the most valuable. Writing from the perspective of your abuser or attacker can help you gain insight into the nagging “whys” of the event; it can help you realize it truly was not your fault, and it may even help you come to a place of forgiveness.
Even if your trauma did not occur at the hands of a person, you can do this exercise. Writing from the perspective of a non-human object is called anthropomorphization. It takes a good dose of creativity, but can result in a really interesting text, alongside a great deal of mind-expansion. Write from the perspective of an earthquake, or tsunami, or a flame within a blaze of fire if one of those things caused your trauma.
As I mentioned, this exercise is really, really difficult. Personally, I have never written a fictional piece from the perspective of “The Ex.” But I have written a number of stories from the perspectives of hebephiles, ebephiles, rapists, and abusers. Some have been literary realism, some have been slipstream, and some have been hard sci-fi. All have been based, at least somewhat, on The Ex. This is a toned down variation of the exercise, and totally OK, and helpful, to do.
Remember: Everyone’s reaction to trauma is different. What may be easy for some may be incredibly difficult for others. If you struggle to complete this exercise too, or any other ones, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, and I don’t suggest you push yourself way outside of your comfort zone. You will probably have to expand beyond comfort somewhat to do even the first of these trauma writing exercises, but if you find yourself getting triggered by the prompt, set it aside and wait til later. If you never come back to it, that’s okay too.
So there you have it: My five sample exercises for working through trauma through writing fiction. What do you think? Interested in more? Even just maybe? Send out this tweet to cast your vote in the affirmative!
If you want to cast a vote but don’t have Twitter, just leave a comment, I see those too 😉
Would you add anything? Tell me in the comments!
If you do any of these exercises and want to see them (or an excerpt, if it’s long) published in the Betty’s Battleground exclusive subscriber newsletter, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to subscribe!
Finally, I am working super hard on growing this blog, but the truth is, I could really use your help. Will you make my day by taking thirty seconds out of yours to share this on a platform or two?
Til next time!