Trauma-Informed Craft

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.

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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.

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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. 

Dangerous Play

I went back to my roots yesterday, when I was interviewed by the lovely Amy McDonald for ABC Radio Gold Coast to talk about murdering people in my imagination, or as some people call it, writing crime fiction.

It was surprisingly cathartic to revisit my formative influences, like the wild beauty and dangerous play I enjoyed as a child on Kurrigee (South Stradbroke Island), which forms the setting for one of my stories, Feral. Growing up as an outsider, a bookish nerd with thick thighs and brown hair in a town that prized blondness and leanness above all, I always took great comfort in stories.

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I wore my hand-knitted Jughead beanie during the interview for good luck.

If you are interested in hearing more about the early influences that bred in me a sharp sense of justice and an appetite for understanding human motives, here is the 15-minute interview…and a huge thank you to all my friends, family, and readers who listened and sent supportive messages!

 

Sensitivity and straw hats

After donning a controversial sombrero at Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver is at it again, misrepresenting literary sensitivity consultants as the free speech police. Shriver seems to be responding to this recent, well-researched article about the issue.

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If your creative writing draws on elements from cultures or subcultures with which you do not identify, then you are writing across identity. This can produce dynamic, perceptive, and powerful stories. It can also be a sad and cynical trade in old, tired stereotypes.

But these stereotypes are not so worn-out as to be harmless. Tired tropes still pack a punch for those who don’t have ready access to the life-affirming privilege and eye-opening wonder of seeing themselves represented in books and stories. Worn-out cliches and ignorant inaccuracies still ‘kick down’ if told by a relatively empowered author to and/or about a relatively disempowered reader.

That’s why projects like Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins are so important. A unique offering in the literary space, Writing in the Margins offers visibility, accountability, and accessibility for writers wanting and needing cultural expertise to flesh out their narratives. It hosts a directory of suitably qualified sensitivity readers along with guidelines for best practice. Importantly, it also offers editorial mentorships to support writers from marginalised or historically oppressed groups to shape and own narratives.

Shriver’s argument includes reference to a well-known feature of sensitivity consultations – that one reader cannot speak for a whole community of identity. Shriver argues, on the one hand, that sensitivity readers are bogus, since they are all just individuals offering personal advice. Yet she also fears, on the other, that they form a monolithic police presence against her licence to write whatever she wants about whomever she pleases. Then she brings both those hands together to co-opt empowerment language and applaud her own artistic freedom: “As a woman, I’d be uneasy about being given the power to determine what is insulting to women in general.”

But this strawman argument cannot support its own weight.

Sensitivity readers provide an informed, expert viewpoint on matters of fact (e.g. cultural history and language), and/or insights based on individual lived experience. It is a complex area, to be sure, where simplistic and bombastic arguments function only to hijack the debate.

And there are meaningful, important issues to be debated.

For writers who have fought against systemic and structural discrimination to find their voice and tell their story, sensitivity consultation may be an anathema, and fair enough, too – why invite someone’s meddling opinion into the mix of such hard-won truths?

But for writers who occupy positions of relative privilege, and who wish to write stories that reflect their diverse and multicultural communities, sensitivity readership can be a vital tool in avoiding harmful stereotypes and embarrassing mistakes.

Despite the complexity, I am a big believer in literary sensitivity consultations. That’s why I am volunteering my time, working with a colleague, to put together a Sensitivity Reader directory and related suite of mentorships for Australia.

In today’s tumultuous social and political climate, diverse and sensitive stories have never been more important. Readers want and need stories that capture and explore the complexity of contemporary life. Through inclusive and sensitive storytelling, we can better understand and appreciate ourselves and each other.

For further reading, see the articles/posts by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong Wong in response to Shriver’s BWF keynote.

5 thrilling holiday reads

I am so amped about my holiday reading! I started early, already having inhaled half a dozen books this month, but I still have a pile to get through.

Looking for recommendations to round out your holiday reading? Here’s 5 Books by Queensland authors for your reading pleasure…

  • A Time to Run by JM Peace

A women-driven, action-packed crime thriller. Unputdownable!

  • The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty

A quiet literary tale of family violence and redemption, with unmistakeably Queensland characters exploring universal themes.

  • Skin Deep by Gary Kemble

Haunting tattoos, war heroes, murder, and politics – a thrilling genre-bender.

  • Clancy of the Undertow by Chris Currie

Another quiet literary novel, this one a funny and quirky Young Adult. Small town, big drama, and a young woman seeking a place she can truly feel at home.

  • One Hundred Years of Women Police in Australia by Tim Prenzler

An academic text filled with tales of real life sheroes.

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Support Aussie authors, and enjoy your holiday reading!

Experimental novel seeks your memories

You can be involved in this interesting ongoing project by author Levin Diatschenko, supported by if:book Australia:

From if:book’s Memory Makes Us: Family Tree

On 30 May 2014, Levin Diatschenko created a new work of narrative fiction for Memory Makes Us using your memories as his inspiration. Levin sought from the public memories on the theme of ‘family tree’.

At the conclusion of the extraordinary work produced, he decided he’d like to expand the story a little further. Maybe a lot further.

So Levin is extending the story into a novel and he would love to continue receiving your ‘family tree’ memories.

levinMemories submitted to this page will be delivered to Levin and to if:book. Selected memories may also appear in our complete repository.

You can also follow Levin’s progress here.

 

Inspiration and consolation

Thanks to everyone who has submitted a shero for the page. Today I’ve added Mary Wollstonecraft and Murasaki Shikibu. Check ’em out!

I’ve heard from a few people that when they read something anti-women, they load up the Sheroes page to inspire and console themselves. I know I do – since starting this page just last week, I’ve learned about a range of incredible women. And I’ve realised that is it not just courage and intellect these sheroes demonstrate – often, it is a deft and devastating humour as well.

Huzzah for awesome women being awesome!

Keep your Sheroes suggestions coming – just use the contact form on the Sheroes page, or catch me on Facebook or Twitter.

Long time between thinks…

The only downside to landing your dream job? It eats your life! In fact, I have been so immersed in work that I have neglected my writing shamefully. But now, my wonderful employer has supported me to reorganise my hours to a more writing-friendly schedule … Hey presto, Magic Writing Thursday is born! Awesometown! I’ve edited two and half chapters, and now I even have time to blog.

Last week, I survived a meeting with a team of editors discussing my manuscript. I won the opportunity for this maunscript appraisal through the CAL/Society of Editors mentoring scheme, and it was an honour and a privilege to be chosen. But, imagine this: leading industry professionals view your dearest project, o precious fruit of your imaginings, and then list everything that’s bad about it in a detailed report. The report arrived a couple of weeks ago, when I skimmed talk of ‘an enjoyable, fast-paced narrative’ and got straight to the comments that would keep me awake at night.

Then I plunged headfirst into a deep slump of what my writing buddies have termed ‘my-book-sucks syndrome’.

However, the opportunity to meet with the editors snapped me out of the slump, and made the whole appraisal process intensely valuable: I sat with Craig and Marlies for an incredible hour and a half of deep discussion about Pregnant Pursuit, and gained insight into the rationale behind their comments.It was especially amazing to hear Craig Munro’s stories from when he was editing Johnno. I felt a part of the incredible literary community in Brisbane, even if just for a day.

Since then, I have approached the task of editing with more clarity and determination. I am clearer about what needs doing, and how to do it. Swallowing my pride, keeping an open mind, and following things through has helped me to trust the process of addressing critical feedback to strengthen my work.

The surprising thing in studying the craft of writing is not that I must continually improve my facility with words, and develop an effective balance between creativity and competence. It is that I must become a better person – more resilient, persistent, and humble.  As a writer, I must scrutinize my character and experience for strengths, weaknesses, flaws and gifts; I must know these well and work with them wisely.

Overwhelmingly, as a result of the manuscript appraisal, I am left with  a deep sense of gratitude – not just for a more mature manuscript, but for an opportunity to work with people who treated my story with respect and care, and showed infinite patience in helping me honour my craft.