Fictionalising trauma

For me, writing about trauma is confusing. Having experienced some similar traumas to the main character (and narrator) in my book, I feel I’m able to give her voice a lot of authenticity. As a result, a lot of the experiences in the book also trigger some of my own, and I end up feeling a lot of similar anxieties. While this makes the process difficult, there are many benefits to fictionalising personal trauma. Maree Giles touches on one of them when she explains that “Shakespeare understood what the Greeks knew and demonstrated: that tragedy can be cathartic” (2016, para. 19). Likewise, Sulari Gentill shares similar sentiments as one of ten authors working with veterans at the ACT writer’s Centre as part of the Purple Ink Program. The director, Sarah Mason explains that the program is a way to heal trauma through writing (2018, para. 17). However, I find the opposite tends to be true. In order to write about trauma, I have to engage with the worst parts of it. Reliving trauma from my own life, regardless of how far I’ve come since it occured, doesn’t get easier or less burdensome. Giles acknowledges this, saying that “the dichotomy of writing about trauma is that it is disturbing and cathartic.” (2016, para. 35).

While I find writing about trauma to be mostly disturbing and difficult, I do acknowledge that being able to fictionalise and remove oneself from the situation can still be a cathartic process for others. It is this act of fictionalising the experience that interests me the most. For example, Giles, whose first book Girl 43 was informed, in part, by her own traumatic experiences, talks about how she developed the idea for Girl 43 in her peice ‘Writing Trauma” for Overland.  Giles talks about how she fictionalised aspects of her own trauma in order to better explore it:

“By chance, when I began to write the book, I spotted a small item in The Times about forced adoption in Australia. I knew immediately that I could combine the two stories.  A girl I knew at Parramatta had her baby stolen by the authorities and put up for adoption. The trauma led her to heroin addiction and later to suicide. I heard about her death when working at TV Times magazine in Sydney, in a Department of Corrective Services publication that happened to land on my desk. It used her suicide as an example of what can go wrong when addicted prisoners are not given proper medical and psychological support. I later found out that her suicide happened just feet away from officers, and that her fellow inmates – her friends – had shouted at them to intervene and save her. ” (2016, para. 25)

Giles used her own trauma as research for her book and, in doing so, she was able to fictionalise the experience and explore it with less ownership and tangibility. This idea of fictionalising trauma is also touched on by Gentill, who explains that “everybody has that capacity and that almost inherent need to tell their story, whether it be through their own experiences or the medium of other protagonists and fictional worlds” (as cited in Travers, 2018, para. 21).
What makes writing about trauma difficult is the very thing that makes it appealing – being able to explore the experience while being removed from it. As Saïd Sayrafiezade explains, trauma doesn’t inherently make a engaging story; “not every troubling or difficult thing you have experienced will be interesting to someone who doesn’t know you” (2016, para. 8). While King says that he thinks the best stories tend to be character driven and not plot driven (2010, p. 164 – 173), by giving my character some of my own trauma, I’ve had to hand over ownership of that experience. To have a story,  the character also needs to change or transform in some way. While a traumatic event can be the catalyst for this, the character still needs to make decisions that will advance the plot and lead to this transformation. A traumatised person isn’t always present, and doesn’t always participate. Balancing these two things has been of the biggest challenges (so far) in writing (and editing) my first book.

 

References

Giles, M. (2016). Writing trauma. Overland literary journal. Retrieved 26 May 2018, from https://overland.org.au/2016/12/writing-trauma/

King, S. (2010). On Writing. New York: Scribner.

Sayrafiezadeh, S. (2016). How to Write About Trauma. The New York Times. Retrieved 26 May 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/how-to-write-about-trauma.html

Travers, P. (2018). Creative writing helps veterans express themselves and cope with trauma. ABC News. Retrieved 26 May 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-07/soldier-on-creative-writing-helping-veterans-express-themselves/9517650

Author Q and A: Josh Langley on creativity

I met Josh Langley at the 2016 Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, where we were both participating authors.  Josh and I met at a dinner put on for the authors and, to be honest, I don’t even remember what we talked about. When I met Josh, and his partner Andy, I’d been invited to the festival as a poet. I talked at events about the suburban roots in my poetry, and read my work at a few different libraries. When I approached Josh for this blog post, I did so as a novelist. I’m currently editing the first draft of my first novel, and I have a lot of questions. For me, it made sense to turn to Josh.

Josh has published six books and recently won the 2018 ABIA (Australian Book Industry Award) Small Publisher’s Children’s Book of the Year. He has two children’s books that I’m particularly keen on;  Being You is Enough and It’s OK to feel the way you do. His seventh book, Find Your Creative Mojo: How to overcome fear, procrastination and self doubt to express your true self is due to come out in September/October.

How do you approach writing a new book? What do you do once you have an idea? How do get from idea to first draft?

It depends on the type of book. If it’s a children’s book, I open the template that I use for my kids books and start writing and add the coloured pages. I want the manuscript to look and feel like the finished book, so I can get into the groove. The first draft usually takes a few days, and then I go back and edit and edit and edit. After that, I leave it for a few weeks. Then I come back at it with fresh eyes and edit again.  Once I’m happy with the wording, I get my partner to cast his eyes over it. Then I start doing the illustrations. Mind you, if I’m feeling lazy, I’ll send the wording off to the publisher to see if they’re happy with the direction. Then I’ll do the illustrations.

In regard to my non-fiction, I create a new folder on the computer and, within that, I make folders for each of the sections. I then throw notes into the folders, little idea starters, photos, and anything else that might be relevant. After that, I flesh out each chapter / section and then bring them all together in the manuscript form. I rarely start at the beginning. It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t really know where it’s going, or what it’s going to be like, until I put all the parts together.

Do you have a writing routine?

No. If I’m on a deadline, I just make the time to write. Having said that, I’m a morning person, so that’s when I prefer to bang out the words. I’m not precious about where I write either, most of it is done at the kitchen table! 

You do a lot of talks about your children’s books in schools. How much should writers be concerned with promoting and marketing their book and working to make sure their message is heard? Is this something they should be considering during the writing process, or something that comes after?

Writers should be making promotion of their work a priority from the outset. You have to be what someone coined ‘an authorpreneur’, even if you have a traditional publisher. Share works in progress with your readers. Let them see what the process of writing and creating a book is really like. Build your author platform and make yourself as accessible as possible. Long gone are the days of the hermit writer sitting in a weather beaten hut on the southern tip of Tasmania without any internet. Sure, it may be good for writing a book free of distractions, but nowdays you have to work in concert with your publisher to show that you’re as keen as they are to see your book succeed.

I hear a lot of writers say that they find it hard to ‘sell themselves’ and don’t like to talk themselves up. I have two things to say in regard to that. Firstly, you don’t ‘sell yourself’, you make connections with readers. Pretend that your potential readers are your friends and treat them as such. Get on social media and use the platforms that you enjoy (I use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Get a website (I made my own using WordPress) and work them all like a boss! Get excited. You’re getting a book published, so be excited! Even if you’re a shy introvert, like me, and suffer ‘posting anxiety’, just remember the words of Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie said to focus on the other person and make them feel important. That then takes the focus off you and onto them. It’s a win win.

How do you organise your drafts and research?

Haphazardly! I try and make research as much fun as possible, because it’s part of the process of bringing the book together. If it’s the kids book and I’m researching about resilience, then I factor that into process of writing the book by doing google searches, talking to educators and parents, and contacting different organisations. For my self help / memoir style of non-fiction, most of the research is lived experience and experimentation, so that’s fun to do.

Do you think it’s valuable for writers to hire an editor before submitting their manuscript to agents or publishers?

No. Mind you, if you have the cash to do it, then maybe it’s a good idea. I get fellow writers to look at my manuscripts and then, when I feel they’re ready, I submit.

Writing, like any creative field, is a tough business. Have you ever doubted yourself and, if so, how do you cope with those doubts and pick yourself back up?

Oh, hell yes! I doubt myself all the time. It’s part of the process of expressing yourself. It comes with the territory. I think we make self doubt seem bigger than what it is by trying to avoid it. We push it away and, in doing so, allow it to consume us. I’ve learnt to realise that doubt will always be there, but I don’t have to listen to the bullshit it says. Just let me get out what I need to. Then I can let the doubt have a look, and I can piss it. off.

What moment in your career stands out for you, if you could only pick one?

Without a doubt winning the 2018 ABIA Small Publisher’s Children’s Book of the Year. It wasn’t something I was aiming for, or even expecting, so it was the biggest, and best, surprise. I was purely focused on writing children’s books with my unique voice and illustrating style. Winning the award confirmed that what I want to say, and how want to say it, was no longer fringe stuff, it was moving toward mainstream. That’s what I want, as that’s how you get your message to the most number of kids and parents.

What would you say to someone who isn’t feeling creative or doesn’t think they can be creative?

In my book, Find Your Creative Mojo: How to overcome fear, procrastination and self doubt to express your true self, I get the reader to reframe creativity as self-expression. We all have a deep down need to say something, to express ourselves in some way, whether it’s through basket weaving, pottery, writing, drama or stand up comedy. I think, if anyone is quiet enough they can feel a gentle pulling or a nudging from somewhere deep inside. It’s our birthright to honour that feeling and help it find a way tocome out and express itself. The best thing is, there are no rules on how you do it. Just start where you are, and see where it leads. Be curious about it.

 

About Josh Langley

After failing high school twice, Josh Langley went on to create a successful career as a nationally awarded radio creative writer spanning 20 years. He’s published 6 nonfiction books and gives talks at primary schools and festivals, and runs workshops. Josh’s second Children’s book, It’s Ok to Feel the Way You Do won the 2018 Australian Book Industry Awards Small Publisher’s Children’s Book of the Year. He also owns a creative agency with his partner and lives on 7 and a half acres in the South West of Western Australia with a bunch of neurotic chickens. His new book Find Your Creative Mojo: How to overcome fear, procrastination and self-doubt to express your true self is due for release in September 2018.

Website: www.joshlangley.com.au

Facebook: www.facebook.com/joshlangleyauthor

Twitter: twitter.com/joshlangleyauth

Instagram: instagram.com/joshlangleyauthor

Why it took me so long to start editing

In On Writing Stephen King suggests leaving your first draft to rest. “How long you let your book rest” (2010, p. 211) he says “–sort of like dough between kneadings–is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks” (2010, p. 211). I left mine for three months. I took two holidays, spending two weeks in the USA and then one week in Sydney and two weeks in New Zealand. Then I picked the manuscipt back up. As King explains, when you pick your book up again:

“It’s yours, you’ll recognise it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone esle, a soul-twin perhaps. this is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings that your own” (2010, p. 212 – 213).

King was right. I was very happy with my first draft, and I was happy when I finally picked it up and reread it, but it was easier to find plot holes, question character motivations and cull the parts that were my favourites.

The manuscript. I went through two red pens on my first read through.

I’ve now done the first read through, made a lot of notes and done a lot of research. Now the hard work begins. I stalled for a few days before I moved back into Scrivener, but I did eventually open it and start writing, or rewriting I should say. I love the story, I love the characters. I want to spend more time with them, so I write.

I say rewriting, because my first three chapters need a lot of work. I’ve been reading Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James and, in his chapter “disruption” he talks about the promises the opening makes to the reader. It’s my opening chapters that need the most work. The moments before the inciting incident are crucial to the plot, but the reader didn’t get to experience them in the first draft. I had written them all in past tense and provided only a summary. I’m currently rewriting them in present tense, and I keep coming back to this quote by James; “A story’s inception occurs when normal life is disrupted–typically when a calling is offered or a crisis occurs” (2016, p. 24). James says there are two kinds of openings, “The sea is calm–but a squall is gathering on the horizon. The sea is angry, and the boat is about to sink.” (2016, p. 24). I had written the second but, given how important the calm sea is (in that it’s not really as calm as it looks, there are sea monsters lurking underneath), I really needed to be writing the first. So it begins.

 

References

King, S. (2010). On Writing. New York: Scribner.

James, S. (2016).  Disruption.Troubleshooting Your Novel: Essential Techniques for Identifying and Solving Manuscript Problems. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 24-27.