This is an excerpt from a talk I gave 3/8/17 at the Punta Gorda Literary Fair:
…trauma is an unpleasant emotional or physical experience that causes someone to have recurring difficulties for a long time. Let’s imagine you want to write a compelling novel, a thriller, even non-fiction about trauma; what are some ingredients you must make a decision on, or that you might consider including in your book...
…so what’s the purpose of this little exercise? The first advice I want to share regarding writing about trauma is that no matter how dramatic the plight you overcame; your story needs to be part of an interesting narrative if you expect readers to buy it. No, you are not writing a novel, but if your story about trauma is not enveloped by an engaging, captivating story line it will be hard to break through the thousands of other stories that readers are willing to expend their limited time on. Without a compelling story line, you risk your story about trauma being reduced to just a tale of “woe is me”, and readers don’t want to read just that. And that would be too bad because your story is precious, and you have chosen to share it with the world…
…with respect to this workshop—Writing About Trauma—I’m no expert, but I can tell you what worked for me in helping to make White Man’s Disease accessible, informative, relevant, and interesting to readers.
1. Compelling Narrative: as was illustrated with our little exercise. At the beginning of this talk, I passed out some quotes from readers that I have on my website. I’m always flattered, moved and motivated by them and comments like them that I receive. You may pick up a theme. Any idea what I am referring to? Answer: “couldn't put it down” That's what I mean by compelling narrative.
2. Humor: may seem incongruous to use humor and trauma in the same sentence, but it worked for me. Some may wonder about finding humor in a story about brain surgery but there were some laugh out loud anecdotes in the book. And, the book discusses how a conscious effort to maintain a sense of humor once hospitalized went a long way in preventing me from falling into feeling sorry for myself, and helped me maintain a positive outlook up to and after surgery (at least while in the hospital; unfortunately, post-discharge was a very different story!) Humor and trauma can certainly co-exist; I recently joined a writer’s group and one of the members has an award winning book called “Thank God I Got Cancer…I’m Not a Hypochondriac Anymore.”
3. Purpose: have a reason for sharing your plight. Readers don’t just want to read a memoir about someone else’s trauma—after all, if you live long enough eventually everyone will experience their own trauma at some point in their life. Readers want to be inspired, influenced, or informed.
4. Empathy: even though you are writing about your own journey, ironically, it is not just about you. I felt it was important to acknowledge others going through their own challenges—often much more daunting than my own. There is an anecdote in the book about the point at which I began the transition from rock bottom to the climb out of the abyss of despair. It was the influence of another person—I did not know him. In fact, I saw a feature on CNN about him during my convalescence (where I felt like a prisoner in my own home; all I did was watch the only cable news channel, which in the 80’s repeated stories every 40 minutes or so). Cancer had resulted in the loss of essentially the bottom third of his face. The 29 y.o. me before surgery would not have been able to look at him. The 29 y.o. me after surgery—in the frame of mind I was in when I saw the feature—could not take my eyes off him. His positive demeanor had a life changing affect on me.
5. Lasting message: finally, leave readers with some lasting message. No need to hit them over the head with it—it doesn’t have to be direct or express. What would you like readers to walk away with after reading your book? For me, the message was that the key to overcoming a trauma event, was to stop seeing yourself as a victim, start seeing yourself as a survivor, and, that ultimately leads to seeing yourself as a victor.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.