Writing Trauma, part 2

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 the second part of this series, below.

Disclaimer: While the writers talk about best practices for writing and mental health, these will be generally applicable and not specific to every 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:

Writing Trauma Separate From One’s Own

by Justin C. Key

Writing about trauma, but it isn’t your lived experience? I say, get rid of any voyeurism. This can
be hard, right? Writing can allow us to go to places we’ve never been before, walk in shoes we
will never wear. Depending on the genre/topic and the audience, extensive research may be
required to establish authenticity. Other aspects may come completely from our imaginations.
When it comes to trauma, though, it can be hard to initially identify where to draw that line. Our
writer minds can certainly imagine horrific situations in which to put our characters. We may
even be able to imagine what lasting effects such situations have on the psyche. But, similar to
writing the ‘other’, setting out to make all of it up based on a limited understanding could end up
horribly wrong. And that could hurt people.

To be safe both to yourself and your readers: trauma always requires research, introspection,
feedback, and self scrutinizing. I define research loosely as a way to fill in knowledge gaps. As a
psychiatrist, for example, I may feel comfortable writing about the topic of child abuse based on
what I already know about the subject, how I’ve seen it manifested clinically, etc. This serves as
my ‘research’. If a victim of childhood abuse writes on the subject, their lived experience is the
‘research.’ It applies to everyone, in a way. At the same time, it is important to know what you
don’t know. How is your experience different from your character’s? A person who survived
emotional abuse as a child isn’t necessarily automatically equipped to write a character who has
survived physical abuse. While the writer’s experience would richly inform many parts of the character and narrative, they should be aware of how that specific fictional experience may differ from their own.

As a mental health professional, I’ve spent the last several years studying a variety of human
experiences, including trauma. The more I learn, the more I see how differently people can
respond to similar life events. I remember watching the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing and
making the mistake of venturing onto Twitter. Everyone had their own opinions about how Dr.
Christine Ford’s memory should have evolved throughout the years, what she would have done
after the events if she were truly traumatized, and her current motivations. Truth is, there are no
set rules! Traumatized brains don’t read the rule book. One may have very vivid memories,
others may have no memory at all. Having rigid beliefs about what a traumatized person should
or should not do can be very dangerous for your writing. Even after your research, readings,
and introspection, one of the most important aspects is knowing that what you decide to put on
the page will not be everyone’s experience. Awareness of this alone will enrich your work. In
the least, you’ll be better equipped to respond to beta reader feedback as you see the different
ways your words are interpreted.

Finally, ask yourself what you’re trying to contribute to the world. This goes back to the issue of
voyeurism. I’d argue that the core of your creative inspiration shouldn’t be, ‘what’s the most
twisted, fucked up thing I can have someone do to another person?’ It should start with ‘how
does this affect someone one day, one month, one year, one decade after the act?’

Whose story do you want to tell? What do you want the reader to come away with? Who do you want to feel heard? Who do you want readers to develop a faulty narrative about? (Trick question: it should be no one).

Writing fiction is a wonderful passion. We create worlds, magic, whole characters, relationships,
love. Pen and paper is an unmatched vessel for exploring the universe. It just may not be the
best place to first discover trauma. That journey should start well before the writing.

Justin C. Key is a speculative fiction writer, psychiatrist, and a graduate of Clarion West 2015. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Escape Pod, and Interstellar Flight Magazine. He is currently working on a near-future novel inspired by his medical training. His horror novella, SPIDER KING, is available now from Realm. When Justin isn’t writing, working in the hospital, or exploring Los Angeles with his wife, he’s chasing after three young (and energetic!) children. http://justinckey.com

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