Writing through Trauma

Writing through Trauma

I have experienced my fair share of “the traumatic” in my life, some of which I didn’t even recognize as trauma for a good amount of time after it happened. Probably the most defining and pivotal trauma – the unexpected and violent death of my father when I was thirteen years old – has both shaped my life since then and provided the inspiration for my novel. With Father’s Day this weekend, and the imminent workshop I will be attending to critique this novel inspired by his passing, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about how I finally came to write this book that is both about him and not about him, and how writing it has changed me.

Every fall that I can remember, I would start to feel antsy and unsettled as the warm October days became chillier. As soon as November hit, I would inevitably snap at my loved ones more often than normal and cry more often than normal as well. I didn’t really realize the cause of this until, in November of 2012, I was finishing my Master’s thesis at the University of Oregon and had some bad news from a potential job prospect. The stress of writing the thesis plus the disappointment of losing a job threw me into a bit of a tizzy. Luckily, I had lunch with my mentor and, in the process of debriefing with him, I realized that one of the contributing factors to my spiraling out of control – or at least out of a sense of wellness – was that the anniversary of my father’s death was coming up. In fact, I unwittingly scheduled my thesis defense on the very day he was found, his official date of death.

It’s crazy to think that I didn’t realize it, but it makes sense. I had, for fifteen years, tried so hard to prevent his death from defining my life. I came to this conclusion fully when I recounted the realization to my therapist and she was shocked, not that I had this experience but that she had been treating me for months and I’d never disclosed that my father was dead, much less the traumatic way that we lost him.

Three years later, as my husband and I were dealing with his mother’s sickness and ultimate passing-away, I started writing poetry about her. I wrote about how I imagined she was feeling, how she must be existing in that liminal space between our world and another, how close we are all to being in her position. I made an error here – I submitted these poems to my workshop that semester. After reading the rightfully-scathing feedback from my classmates, I decided that part of the reason the poems weren’t quite working was because I wasn’t writing about the thing I wanted to be writing about. I should have been writing about my dad.

But, I don’t want his death to define my life! I was kicking and screaming that…what did I have to say? What is MY story? Not his, but mine!?!?

I pushed those questions and second-guesses from my mind and decided to just go with it, to free-write whatever came to me. I wrote seven-thousand words, the opening chapters of a novel about a girl, not unlike me, on a quest to find her missing father. In writing that opening, I had to admit that, although he had been physically gone from my life for years, I had been seeking him, looking for him, from the very moment we put him in the ground. His death, it wasn’t my life, but it was a HUGE part of my story, a huge part of the story of my life.

So, I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I edited. I revised. I rewrote. I shared the book-in-progress with people. I rewrote more. I cut huge chunks of what I wrote. On and on and on.

Although the novel is completely made-up – truly, it is not just memoir parading as fiction but is fiction in the realest sense – the protagonist suffers through much of what I did and, undoubtedly, every time I wrote about the father in the book, I thought about my own. The last 15 months, over which time I composed the text, off and on, have not been easy. During the weeks that I intensively wrote – sometimes, up to ten thousand words per day – I found myself feeling depressed, edgy, easy to snap. Other times, I felt as though I was in a totally different world, separated by some gauzy wall from my husband, my family and my friends.

But, I forced myself to write, revise, and rewrite.

Now, on the other side of the experience, with a moderately polished manuscript and the major tenets of the plot in place, I no longer feel the tense, antsy-ness that I did, consistently, while I was writing. As Father’s Day approaches, my husband said, Whatever you need this weekend, just let me know. And when I thought about what I might “need” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need anything. Writing about this trauma, as difficult as it had been, actually exorcised so many of the negative and painful feelings I’ve had over the years, and has truly brought this odd sense of peace to me.

I never thought it would have been possible.

In the days, weeks, months and years following this personal tragedy, I could not write about it. I could barely talk about it. But, not addressing this thing that had become such a major part of my story really stifled my ability to write about anything. In suppressing this one event, I had to suppress everything. I don’t know exactly what flipped the switch in me, to make me feel like I had permission to write about the sadness I’d experienced. I’ve mentioned David Vann before and I will again here to say that his novel, Legend of a Suicide, freed me so greatly. The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith also made it permissible for me to write about the grief I had inherited. I am so, so grateful that these authors, and others, had the guts and courage to write about their hardest things, so that I may have found that same courage. Once they opened my eyes, I was able to really look around and see how much of the art in the world is a reflection of the artist’s experience. It seems like a super-obvious thing to realize, but it took me a while to get there.

And if I ever get the book published, if I ever get into a position where I can teach a class about writing, I would want trauma writing to be a part of it. We all have traumas, large and small. We should write them. I’m so glad I did.

Happy Father’s Day!

 

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

I didn’t even know I was pitching my novel. I was a teenager on the cusp of pubescence ejaculating all over my pants without even knowing what was happening.

The first time, I had volunteered for a local literary conference. One of the perks of volunteering was a free meeting with an agent and an editor. I guess I didn’t know how to use google back then – two years ago – or I was just mightily suffering from impostor syndrome so I didn’t prepare AT ALL for the meeting with the agent. Instead, I binge-watched The Mindy Project and avoided the conference except for my two ten-minute meetings. Needless to say, they didn’t go well. I had a very disjointed, multiple-perspective manuscript about a Bangladeshi girl and a British college admissions counselor, ten pages of which the agent received before our meeting.

When I met her, she was cozily sipping a glass of wine, all turtlenecked up in the hotel bar. I blabbered through an introduction, did not pitch at all – was that what I was supposed to be doing? I literally had NO IDEA – and finally, this very kind woman asked out loud what she had written on the first page of my manuscript. What is this novel about? What is its structure?

I had no idea.

Before I ended our meeting, a good five minutes early because I had nothing to say, I put myself out there and asked the one question that had really been plaguing me for the last fifteen years: Is the writing any good?

Yeah, she responded. The writing’s great.

I asked her – I seriously asked her – like, on a scale of one to ten?

What cheek! For shame! But this is where I was at! Insecure. Sad. Unmotivated. No confidence. As bumpkin as they come.

She told me it was probably a seven, which inflated me, but then she said, A seven isn’t good enough. It’s got to be a ten. 

This exchange was exactly what I needed. I had talent. I could write. This attempt at it, a dart thrown blindly against a wall, with no thought for craft or story, it was ok. It was a seven. A ten felt within reach.

Hopefully, this agent does not remember me.

The following year, I attended the same conference, with a lot more confidence – my novel-in-progress had won a prize, which shocked me – and a meeting with an agent from my dream agency. Dream. Agency. Again, I wasn’t quite sure that I was pitching anyone, because the manuscript wasn’t finished. I had written 7,000 words or so, had no idea where it was going and was deep into my second year of my MFA program, the semester that has been the most challenging thus far.

I already made a favorable impression on this agent when I introduced myself at breakfast, hours before our meeting, and suggested we meet in the hotel bar (thanks Agent #1 for that idea!) instead of the dark, windowless ballroom, for our consultation. She shifted all of her meetings to the bar because of that suggestion. By the time I went to meet with her, I had already had one fair-to-middling meeting with a different agent. I didn’t know what to expect. I sat down. She praised the eight pages she read. She said she loved it. She actually said the words, Let me be your agent.

I don’t think I’m making that up…

I didn’t do a great job of pitching her, because I hadn’t thought about the manuscript’s destiny enough. She suggested I find a container for the timeline – a school year – and that I write it as young adult. I hadn’t ever considered that before, but the more I worked on the revision, the more sense it made. She advised me to take some more time to work on the manuscript, get some more pages completed, then query her when I felt ready, in a few months.

But, this was Dream. Agent. This was A. Big. Deal. This was The. Big. Time. And I fumbled.

I took some of her advice, but made the mistake of writing to her the following Monday – too soon – and directing it to the email address we’d been using to communicate about our meeting. I didn’t follow the submissions guidelines on her agency’s website. I didn’t let her advice germinate. I didn’t do enough revision and rewriting. I was that little boy, again, with some weird, sticky substance all over my pants.

I did, though, follow her advice about the content of the book. I spent about six months thinking it over, mercilessly cutting passages that were in the excerpt that won the prize, reading YA authors and authors whose work straddles the line between YA and literary fiction – which is where I’d like to see this book. She gave me great advice. The best advice. I’m so glad I met with her, even if I fumbled completely. Her advice propelled me to finish the full draft I have now.

And now, going into another year of conferences and potential meetings with agents, I will have my pitch practiced, I will have questions to ask – about my work, my query, etc., but also about agenting, publishing, writing – and will trust that, if I learned this much from these two dismal failures, I can keep failing, at least to a degree.

Even though I hope I won’t.