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Advice for Writing About Trauma

Advice for Writing About Trauma

May 28, 2014

Kelly Nightingale
Senior Editor

“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
―John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Shock. Anger. Paralysis. Anguish. Everyone experiences the aftereffects of trauma and loss differently, which is important to remember when writing, whether drawing on personal experience for a fictional story or writing your memoirs. While the emotion and details of the scene may be burned forever in your memory, conveying those feelings to a reader in a way that engages them in the narrative is challenging.

At a recent workshop, award-winning author Jessica Handler (Invisible Sistersand Braving the Fire) offered pointers for other authors writing about trauma through sharing her own powerful story of grief and loss. Jessica writes creative nonfiction, but her advice is relevant to all writers. Two fundamental concepts that have remained with me since Jessica’s presentation are the ladder of abstraction and the idea of renewal in both nonfiction and fiction writing.

Ladder of Abstraction: The ladder of abstraction refers to the hierarchy of specificity of language: more concrete, tangible words are at the foundation, and the “ladder” reaches up to more vague words that are increasingly abstract. While writing, remember that both kinds of words are needed for an engrossing story. Some authors rely too heavily on intangible words and neglect more physical words that clearly describe a scene, character, or setting for their readers. Alternately, focusing on only physical descriptions can create an emotional void, making it hard for readers to feel connected to your story or characters.

Renewal: You may have suffered from (or may even still be dealing with) loss or trauma, but remember that you are more than your loss and more than what has happened to you. The experience may have revealed new strengths you didn’t know you had, or it may have uncovered old weaknesses that you are now more equipped to handle. Depending on the genre of writing and how comfortable you are sharing details of your personal experience, this sense of renewal may appear in your own memoir or in the life of a fictional character. Don’t be afraid to let that catharsis shine through your writing and don’t hesitate to take your readers along on that journey, as a fully engaged and emotionally connected audience of readers will return to your writing again and again.


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