“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
I’ve challenged myself to write a short story a week for the next few weeks, as part of my MA in Creative Writing, and so far so good; it’ll be two this week. That’s new material, not rewrites. The rewrites can come later. I’m loving this challenge and it’s pushing me way out of my comfort zone. I’m not worrying about producing anything polished at this stage, just exploring ideas, gathering characters, testing the form of ‘short story’.
Actually it’s not ‘pushing me’ at all. Doing this MA is taking me in a headlock and then booting my arse so far out of my comfort zone that I don’t even recognise it anymore. That’s where the gold is found, out there, when you’re scrambling around in insecurity and vulnerability with just a pen and a notebook in hand. There, it’s easy to bleed.
And good writers bleed.
One of the things we have to do at the International Institute of Modern Letters, is produce a ‘Reading Pack’ for discussion and learning. It can be on any subject to do with the business of writing. Topics this year have included ‘Representations of Expertise’, ‘Young Adult writing’ and my own exploration of culturally-hybrid voices – the ‘Empire Writes Back’ and all that post-colonial jazz. But, the best pack for me by a million miles was one produced by my friend Anahera Gildea. It was about ‘Trauma Narratives.’
This was completely new for me and once I’d read through her examples of the form and literary discourse around it, I realised that I’ve been writing ‘Trauma Narrative’ for at least two years. Not necessarily my own trauma, but trauma nevertheless. This sort of writing has a shape all of its own. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter. Anahera even provided the classic Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut as an example. And so it goes.
So what is Trauma Narrative? The simple answer, I think, is any narrative that is born of trauma, specifically ones that share certain features. In a game of literary Chinese whispers, I’ll list here the examples of trauma that my friend Anahera gave in her reading pack, and these she got from the writer Cathy Caruth, one of the lead thinkers in this area and author of Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History.
These are sources of Psychological Trauma:
Assault, bodily harm
Material disasters or sudden catastrophies (these can change every point of reference in someone’s life)
Serious accident, illnesses.
Almost anything sudden – although there are extended traumas
Geographic, cultural dislocation
Bearing witness to trauma
Transference/inheritance to trauma – inter-generational trauma
We’ve all had plenty of the above. (If you think you haven’t, then my cynical response is: not yet – sorry.)
Therapy and Art
Much of the information I’ve found on the internet in reference to Trauma Narrative is how it is used in therapy. Through it, people make sense of and explore their trauma.
But what about Trauma Narrative as Art? As Fiction?
Adam Johnson recently presented a workshop in Trauma Narrative as part of the Auckland Literary Festival earlier this year. Anahera was fortunate enough to attend. The blurb for the workshop actually serves as a neat and concise overview about Trauma Narrative as fiction:
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson for an examination of the ways trauma narratives can produce forms that confound convention and reader expectations. In traditional narratives literary characters are expected to want to overcome obstacles and make meaningful choices. But what of characters whose stories are of loss and marginalisation? What shapes and structures are organic to painful stories? Participants will discuss how troubling experiences result in fragmentation, deflection and withholding, and will come to recognise why some characters lack insight and refuse change.
Trauma theory goes deep and there’s lots that I could write about, but that would be too lengthy for a blog like this. So, in the spirit of keeping it brief, these are the general attributes of Trauma Narrative, as reported back to the class by Anahera after attending Adam Johnson’s workshop:
1. There’s tension between the need to tell the story and the pain of telling the story
2. Lack of change/growth/discovery/understanding in characters
3. Cyclical shape; characters are emotionally where they began
4. Difficulty maintaining dramatic mode; lapses into exposition, especially the habitual (usually, often, etc., this is a narration that escapes the pain of the story by eliminating the MOMENT)
5. Rather than meaningfully begin and end, stories can just start and stop
The 18,000 worder I recently redrafted has all of these features, as do many of my other stories. I love writing flawed characters who don’t learn anything, who are too broken to learn anything. That fascinates me as a writer and as a human being.
Looking at writing fiction in this way has liberated me to experiment further in my work – follow my instincts. Through looking at this theory I am learning a new vocabulary that I can use in building fiction.
This is an excerpt from The Narrative Shape of Traumatic Experience by Jane Robinett (in Literature and Medicine, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2007). It particularly resonates with me. Robinett is quoting a Holocaust survivor, who was suffering a repeated nightmare about the gas chamber:
One night when the nightmare was particularly intimidating I arose, switched on the light, found an old notebook and pen, and started to write. Night and day I wrote, like a man possessed … like a viper, the nightmare tried to sneak by, but, with pen in hand, I stabbed it repeatedly, pushing it back. Gradually, the nightmare receded until it disappeared completely. I had begun my journey back to sanity.
I was going to provide some links for further reading, but there’s just too many to plough through and choose on your behalf, so for more reading Google or Bing ‘Trauma Literature’ and feast!
Thanks for reading my blog, and I’d love to receive your comments on this subject; I find Trauma Narrative endlessly fascinating.