Previously, on Storytelling: “The danger of the ubiquity of concepts like The Hero’s Journey is that we limit ourselves by associating archetypes too strongly with the structure. Don’t neglect to look past Campbell. Look into your own life. What does “the innocent” mean to you? Of the people who influenced you along the way, how many of them do you see in the role of “the sage”? What real-life figure did you look up to as an adventurer, even if your matured estimation of the person has since soured?
How do we apply these patterns (types) to achieve depth in our stories, and how do we define that depth? One obvious definition that we have not directly addressed is depth of meaning. How do we write something profound?
Interviewers approaching this question with authors assume the answer in their approach. They always assume one starts with the meaning, this great thing the writer needs to say, and then works outward from meaning to find a story to express it.
I’m sure that happens, but not nearly as often as interviews suggest. The reading audience really doesn’t care about the natural inspiration of stories, and I’ve found peace with the idea that a writer can address such questions as if the framing were correct. After all, at some point in the writing process, you wanted to express something and found the best way to do it. It isn’t relevant to most people that this is probably not where you began.
So, where does meaning come? I am often reminded of Chuck Jones saying that the more rules (or limitations) he placed upon the roadrunner cartoons, the better they became. This has become important to me as I approach my fiction through the limitations of my own moral concern. Appropriation. Misrepresentation. The glorification of repressive and destructive power structures. These things concern me, and they are limitations. That restrict my writing freedom, and as I impose these restrictions, that direct my writing and its meaning.
Absolute freedom to say anything may result in nothing of merit being said. If you narrow that freedom, you will seek to express why.
Whatever story I’m creating, no matter how fantastic, I want to know how this connects to me and says something to me about life.
In the end, the meaning you are creating is meaning for you, but by the universal aspects of our experience, that meaning will be shared by many of your readers. By the individual aspects of our experience, they will bring their own meanings to the text.
Sometimes those experiences we carry with us were intense. In certain cases, they may be too intense, and this is why content warnings exist. It’s not to prudish attack what we write. Sometimes, there may be a topic certain readers need to steer clear of because of past trauma.
Memory is interwoven with emotion, intense emotion even more so, creating conscious memories that we wish to forget. Unconsciously, traumatic events create a conditioned threat response, but where Pavlov’s dog heard a bell and salivated at the anticipation of food, we anticipate danger.1 We take information from the environment around us, and our unconscious fits it into a pattern of impending trauma.
Much of the subject matter of fiction deals with the matter of trauma, and we should be aware of our own responses to the subjects we write and consider the reaction of the readers, as well.
When I think of ways to handle trauma in fiction, I am reminded of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. It uses a transition between cause and effect that allows a character to deal with trauma without rehearsing trauma. (This is your spoiler warning.) There is a fundamental shift in the focus of the novel when it moves from Esther’s internship in New York to her mental breakdown back home. The climactic moment of her New York is an attempted rape. She holds herself together long enough to be picked up by her mother who says she thinks she ought to tell her right away that she didn’t make the writing course she was hoping for. Not getting into the course is a big deal in its own rate. True. This was the last good hope she was clinging to, and having it taken away robbed her of the ability to hold herself together. Even so, when Esther is focusing on the lost writing class, the reader understands that what she’s coping with and trying not to think about is the attack.
The shift of focus in a psychological protection for the character, the reader, and the author. We understand cause and effect without her having to rehearse her trauma. The writing course becomes a stand-in, everything else becomes subtext, and everyone is spared. This is one possible approach.
Racism is trauma. We who do not experience racism forget this, and when we try to write about it we are often guilty of writing extreme caricatures, far distant from anything associated with our daily lives, which can traumatize readers who do experience racism. We can avoid this by looking at how marginalized writers approach the subject and take our cues from their nuance and subtlety.
This raises the question of our responsibility to the reader as we mine our unconscious for resonance. It is easy to forget the power stories have, but the more resonant they become, the more they share in the strength of the patterns we tap into. I want this power for my writing, but I want to use it responsibly.
What does that look like?
First, our goal here is only to achieve what storytellers have always sought. Readers come to us for what they have always wanted from stories. As long as we are acting in good faith, this is a consensual exchange.
Bad faith would be to intentionally cause harm.
We tap into negative emotions; after all, this was Aristotle’s stated purpose for drama, to allow catharsis through the venting of emotion. Our readers have the opportunity to cry, learn, and grow—to fear or to be thrilled and entertained. We do not re-traumatize.
We use content warnings where necessary and consider what intensity and variety of emotions are appropriate for our genre (and thus the reader’s expectations).
Chet Sandberg, the author of the forthcoming book Before You Begin: Tips on the Craft of Writing, has called my fantasy stories achingly human. I believe depth in fiction is found in the humanity rooted in our stories. How we express that humanity is up to us and the contract we’ve signed with our readers. Every genre can be personal.
Every genre can bleed.
In “Confessions of a Story Writer” Paul Gallico wrote:
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper.2
Write who you are.
1Jacek Debiec Assistant Professor / Department of Psychiatry; Assistant Research Professor / Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute. “Memories of Trauma Are Unique Because of How Brains and Bodies Respond to Threat.” The Conversation, 27 Apr. 2021, theconversation.com/memories-of-trauma-are-unique-because-of-how-brains-and-bodies-respond-to-threat-103725.
2Gallico, Paul. Confessions of a Story Writer. Knopf, 1946.
Next time, we’ll discuss what others are saying on similar themes, with links for further reading.
See you then.
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The Dream (1910) Henri Rousseau