Contemporary thriller readers have an appetite for stories voicing the complex trauma arising from gendered violence, and so do I. The market is booming for domestic noir, relationship thrillers, psychological suspense stories – all grounded in and around the themes of the abuse of women and girls. I love these stories – I love how they interrogate resonant, weighty issues while thrilling me with morally complex characters driving twisting plot lines. They somehow comb through the wreckage of my robust yet fragmented shards of traumatic memories, making sense of terror and rage within the safety of story.
But as a reader, writer, researcher, and abuse survivor, I reflect on whether we are taking good care of ourselves in these stories. As I complete the first draft of my feminist thriller Girl Club, I delve deep into my psyche, I read reports on systemic responses to childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, and I craft narratives that dramatise injustices and vengeance.
I worry we are in a new era of the Sylvia Plath Effect, where those most affected are not solely women poets, but all women writing through trauma:
In another study performed by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, female writers were found to be more likely to suffer not only from mood disorders, but also from panic attacks, general anxiety, drug abuse, and eating disorders. The rates of multiple mental disorders were also higher among these writers. Although it was not explored in depth, abuse during childhood (physical or sexual) also loomed as a possible contributor to psychological issues in adulthood. [Wikipedia]
Of course, women do not have a monopoly on trauma: the abuse of refugees, and powerful voices like Behrouz Boochani, are vital in this space. In any cis-hetero-normative imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, trauma abounds. The focus of my research is on crime thriller narratives addressing gendered violence, but the principles that guide me are grounded in respect of and advocacy for survivors of other systems of trauma.
Voicing survivor stories of gendered violence is crucial, yet we operate in legacy power structures not just of laws and systems and families, but of narrative. Systems that teach us to “write what we know” but that still value male-authored narratives above women’s.
So I want us to take care of ourselves: as writers, as readers, as researchers, as activists. Creating and sharing our stories must, at all times, align with our health and wellbeing.
To this end, I am developing an approach by adapting simple and effective trauma-informed care practices to the art of writing, in what I term Trauma-Informed Craft. With the support of my excellent therapist, I am experimenting with a methodology for researching, planning and writing Girl Club that puts trauma-informed care front and centre at all times, both in the narrative and within myself.
And it’s paying off. I’m writing this post while on retreat at Varuna House, and here’s a few things I have noticed so far:
- I can write like the wind. The mental and emotional preparation in therapy is paying off: yesterday, I had a 7,000-word day. 7,000 good words.
- I can see through time. Today I am leaving one viewpoint character hanging from a psychological cliff at a major midpoint twist, navigating across a brief interlude viewpoint to set up the conflict for the second half of the middle, then launching back into another viewpoint character who will see me through my next few writing days. Usually, I would plough through these manoeuvres with the delicacy of a monster truck, simply enjoying the wild ride of the first draft. But now, I can craft these exhilarating sections with deliberate care – it feels like words and scenes are flowing out in the right time and form, quicker and easier than I’ve ever experienced.
- I can dip my quill into the depths, and emerge intact. I wrote a hard scene this morning: a 15yo recounts being raped as a child. I draw on my own experiences of sexual abuse, and well as on my research of other survivors. Usually, writing a scene like this would knock me out for a day or two: physical and mental exhaustion, bouts of sobbing, bad dreams. Today, I could write from a psychological point of balance: sufficiently in touch with my memories and feelings to craft the scene authentically and, I hope, impactfully, but not so deep in the past that I lose touch with my present. My safe, secure, supported, adult present.
So far, my experiments in Trauma-Informed Craft are going well. I will be presenting my research at this year’s Australasian Association of Writing Programs national conference, with a view to sharing and discussing ways that we, as writers and artists, can tell the stories that matter while remembering that we matter, too.