Writing Trauma, part 1

Imposter syndrome. Doomscrolling. Adult attention deficit disorder. These are just a few of the mental and emotional experiences that make our stories feel like failures and rob us of the joy of our craft. So how do we deal with them?

During our 2021 Write-a-thon, we spoke with three writers who are also a chaplain, an ICU nurse, and a doctor of psychiatry, to hear their insights on the topic of mental health for writers–as well as writing about mental health. That panel is recorded on YouTube here: Mental Health for Writers.

The time went so quickly that the panelists didn’t have the opportunity to delve into the subject of writing about trauma, which was something many viewers looked forward to. In order to more fully explore this topic, we’ve asked panelists Susan Palwick and Justin C. Key, MD, to each write a brief essay delving into their experience and best advice on writing about trauma, particularly the trauma of others. What are the pitfalls? What crosses the line between accuracy and appropriation? Enjoy this short series and read what these authors and hospital professionals have to say.

Disclaimer: While the writers talk about best practices for writing and mental health, these will be generally applicable and not specific to you, our valued reader. If you have concerns about your mental health or that of someone you care about, please seek a dedicated help center in your area/territory/nation. Many can be reached in the US and Canada by dialing 211 from any phone. For more:

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, we encourage you to contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, which also has options for Spanish speakers and for the hearing impaired.


Writing Trauma We’ve Experienced

When I was nineteen, my father’s second wife assaulted me during a bout of alcoholic hallucinations. She spent some time throwing furniture at me, but she was very drunk and I was very sober, and I managed to dodge the flying chairs and lamps without much difficulty.  We were both, somewhat miraculously, more or less physically okay afterwards.

Unsurprisingly, this event messed bigtime with my head.  It happened during winter break my sophomore year of college. I had trouble readjusting when I went back to school, despite lots of support from other family members and a good therapist.

Classmates who asked breezily “How was your break?” didn’t want to hear “My stepmother threw a lamp at my head.”  There was no way to talk about it in any offhand or everyday fashion, but it colored everything I did. I was seriously afraid of flying objects for a while — still am, in fact — and as the spring semester wore on, the campus courtyards filled with people playing Ultimate Frisbee.  To avoid courtyards, I plotted elaborate routes to classes. It didn’t entirely work. Whenever one of those terrifying plastic disks came anywhere near me, I cowered, and sometimes yelped, as the perplexed frisbee players stared at me.

I got through the rest of college by writing. I wrote about the attack in a workshop story which became the kernel of my senior thesis, a thinly fictionalized novel. I wrote about it in a magazine article; I never managed to place the piece, but writing it helped me clarify my thoughts.  

Now I know that there’s all kinds of empirical evidence about the benefits of writing for trauma survivors.  I won’t cite all of that here.  You can Google it yourself.  All I knew back then was that writing — recreating my experience in a form I controlled, and that other people could share — helped me.  It made my memories less frightening and made me feel less isolated.

In my twenty-year career as an English professor, I thought and read a lot about trauma and writing, eventually expanding this to combine trauma with any of the expressive arts.  I came to the conclusion that art and trauma are precise opposites.  As far as I know, this chart is my own formulation, although I drew the ideas from many sources.

TraumaCreative Expression
Victim had no control over the traumatic event, didn’t choose itSurvivor chooses and controls artistic expression
Threatens lifeReaffirms life
Defies and undoes meaningCreates meaning
Is always present, internalizedExternalizes event and places it in the past
Feels difficult/impossible to communicateCommunicates experience
IsolatingReaches out to, and creates, community

SF/F has the additional advantage of transforming trauma into metaphor. Blood-borne contagion becomes vampirism; PTSD becomes haunting. Terri Windling movingly addresses such metaphorical retelling in “Surviving Childhood,” her Afterword to THE ARMLESS MAIDEN.  I assigned the essay all the time when I was a professor, and I urge all of you to read it.  

None of us has any obligation to share our trauma, in any form, with anyone. If you want to write about sweet fluffy bunnies, go for it. Everybody needs sweet fluffy bunny stories.  And sometimes, especially if writing about your trauma triggers you, it’s best to keep it private or put it aside, either temporarily or for good.  Respect your own boundaries, and know when to seek help from other people.  While writing and therapy can complement each other, they’re not the same animal.  But many of us have found that writing about the dark stuff, even if we never show it to anyone else, really does help.

Writing Trauma We Haven’t Experienced

My first published novel, FLYING IN PLACE (Tor, 1992) is a feminist ghost story about childhood sexual abuse, specifically father-daughter incest.  This never happened to me.  I was compelled to write about it by hearing stories from friends, and by a dream I had about a pajama-clad girl doing cartwheels on a ceiling.  It was also a function of a cultural moment when that kind of abuse was getting a lot of attention, not always accurately (it was the era of “any memory you’ve recovered must be true,” which we now know is emphatically not true).  

I started writing what I thought was a short story about the girl in pajamas. It quickly grew.  As soon as I realized what I was writing about, my confidence plunged. I hadn’t been sexually abused, except to the extent that any woman growing up in this culture is trained to be hypervigilant and excruciatingly self-conscious about her physical safety.  My father had never molested me, and — defying the rage-inducing statistics we all know by now — I’d never been raped by anyone else, either.  I didn’t have the authority to write about the experience.
I did a ton of research.  I virtually memorized Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’ THE COURAGE TO HEAL, the bible of the abuse recovery moment back then. I talked to survivors.  I did my very best to imagine myself into my protagonist’s heart-wrenching situation.  I revised and revised and revised and showed the book to beta readers and revised again.  

When it was published, I was afraid that survivors would tell me I’d gotten everything wrong and was exploiting their suffering. Instead, people came up to me at conventions and told me that I’d perfectly captured their experience of childhood abuse and dissociation.

A lot of people assumed the book was autobiographical. This was part “you couldn’t have written it so well if it hadn’t happened to you,” part “any first-person narrator, especially a young woman written by a female author, must be the author herself,” and part “it’s a Serious Subject, so it must be memoir.”  Because I’d written about a serious subject, some readers went to extreme lengths to maintain that the book wasn’t fantasy, even though it was a ghost story in which the ghost told the living narrator things that character couldn’t possibly have known.  The entire experience was a fascinating, if sometimes dismaying, foray into the politics of representation.  

Some reviews stated point-blank that the book was autobiographical. I wrote letters explaining that, no, it was fiction. I’d done research. I’d also used imagination and empathy. If the only way to even begin to understand someone’s trauma was to experience it firsthand, then trauma survivors were doomed either to isolation — because no two experiences of trauma are the same — or to clinging together in self-identified clubs.  Received wisdom still holds that no one can understand trauma without having gone through it.  But everyone’s experienced some sort of trauma, and at least some of the territory is shared.  Even if we can’t completely understand another’s life, don’t we need to try? And isn’t writing one way to do that?

At the same time — and as I hope we all know by now — writers always need to guard against appropriation. Are you writing about this subject because it resonates with you somehow, because you feel emotionally drawn to it, or out of voyeurism?  Always be honest, with yourself and other people, about your relationship to the material.  FLYING IN PLACE wasn’t just about incest, which sickened me but which I hadn’t endured.  It was also about grief and survivor’s guilt, topics with huge personal resonance. In the three years before I wrote the book, my grandfather died, two friends committed suicide, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and seven co-workers died of AIDS.  Writing the book was an indirect way of working through those losses, as well as exploring issues of female vulnerability, physicality, and power.

I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to write FLYING IN PLACE now.  When I wrote it, I thought no one would ever publish it, which was freeing.  But to the question of how to write about trauma we haven’t experienced, my answer is:  research research research, revise revise revise. Talk to people who’ve survived that kind of trauma.  Use imagination and empathy.  Have good beta readers. Give careful attention to story structure and voice. Tone everything down as much as possible to avoid sensationalism; this is an area where less is definitely more.  And think about how you’ll handle assumptions that the narrative’s autobiographical.

My father, who wasn’t always a fan of my writing, adored FLYING IN PLACE and gave copies of it to everyone he knew.  He genuinely loved the book and was proud of me for writing it, but I always suspected that the gifts were also his way of saying, “I’m not the father in this book!”  How to handle the effects of our writing on our family and friends is another essay, but writing about trauma — either experienced or imagined — does bring it into sharp relief, and warrants careful thought.

Susan Palwick was a student at Clarion West in 1985 and taught at the workshop in 2015. She has published four novels with Tor Books:  FLYING IN PLACE (1992), THE NECESSARY BEGGAR (2005), SHELTER (2007), and MENDING THE MOON (2013).  Her story collection THE FATE OF MICE appeared In 2007 from Tachyon Publications.  Her second collection, ALL WORLDS ARE REAL, was published in 2019 by Fairwood Press. Susan’s fiction has been honored with a Crawford Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, and has also been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the Phlip K. Dick Award. 

After spending twenty years as an English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno – where she specialized in creative writing, medical narrative, and trauma narrative – Susan retired in 2017 to obtain her Master of Social Work degree, also from UNR. She lives in Reno with her husband, their three cats, and a large collection of books, looms, and spinning wheels. 

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