Note to My Readers: These are thoughts I’ve been mulling over for years, and I do not mean for these words to apply to anyone else’s writing, only to my own. I started to write this post last Friday. In it, I explore, mildly, difficult issues concerning trauma and emotion, and my responsibility as a fiction writer who wishes to publish life affirming work.
A Fiction Writer's Responsibility: My Personal Vow
Does the experience of reading about violent acts constitute assault, if the reader is not given a choice; knowing what to expect in a general sense, based on a title, an abstract, a dust jacket blurb, or a description?
The first short story I ever wrote involved a teen threatened with sexual assault; and another teen beaten so badly he is hospitalized with a broken jaw. When I write fiction, bad things happen to my characters, but they ultimately transcend. I am not in the camp of writers who believe the emotional response to our writing is the reader’s responsibility alone. Write what you will, they say, and let the reader decipher their response based on what they bring to the piece.
I’d been writing fiction for close to fifteen years, when a few years ago, I took a couple of university level creative writing classes. Before that, no one had ever read anything I’d written, outside of a handful of poems, so I did not know if the emotions I tried to translate to the page in my fiction writing had any effect.
I learned, through feedback, I had the power to make people feel. Through my writing, a reader could experience vicarious pain. A reader could smile or laugh. I could make a reader feel “horny,” and why would I do that, unless it was coupled with love, or the potential for love? (I’m happy to say, I have not failed to do that; any scene of sensuality conveys a necessary aspect of a relationship, or at least that is my primary goal.)
When that first short story I ever wrote was critiqued, I was surprised when a fellow student, a twenty-two year old man, said my work reminded him of a certain horror writer he presumably admired, because he meant it as a compliment. I read a horror novel and several short stories by the published writer, accessible through book stores and on library shelves, and I was sickened by what she’d written; not because the content was so graphic, and it was; but because she gave the characters no hope, bad was bad, and good was the sacrificial lamb. She put the reader in the mind of the villain; so as you read, you were the one committing atrocious acts.
In my short story, the violence served a purpose; and the teenage girl and boy, rather than remaining victims, transcend their circumstance through the redeeming power of their relationship. By the end of it, the reader knows there is a good chance, they will both be okay; not just for the short run, but for a lifetime, whether they begin a romantic relationship or not, because they have validated, each for the other, their worth as human beings.
Yet, the student’s reaction to the story, made me take pause, and wonder, what did this reader, the 22 year old man, feel when the teenage girl was accosted; was it arousal or revulsion? And, if it was not revulsion, there is something wrong with the way I’d written it (or the problem was, because I’d been required to cut the piece to meet “word limits,” necessary elements were missing- so I asked him to read the full story to see what he thought, and his subsequent comments made me feel better about what I’d achieved.)
I believe in the power of words, and I believe a writer does have responsibility for a reader’s emotions, and well being. (Maybe it’s my Catholic guilt, feeling responsible for everyone else’s emotions as much as my own; but I happen to think it’s a good way to live in this world.) I have a difficult time reconciling that belief, sometimes, with what I write, though these pieces are not yet published, and there is time to modify the intensity of the trauma my characters experience; so that the reader will empathize, and gain a hint of the physical or emotional pain, without feeling equally assaulted.
I do believe, a fiction writer should not self censor in initial drafts; but in the final draft, a balance between story and traumas necessary to the character’s development can be achieved. I believe some of what my character’s experience is the effect of my own catharsis pouring onto the page. I have learned from writing creatively, until I’ve written myself weary, what not to do in real life, to resolve childhood traumas.
One example: You don’t have to talk about it with everyone you meet. I have a character who did this, until I realized, it was me, working through my issues; but it’s something to keep in the text of this particular novel, because it is part of this character’s development, to come to that realization, and to start fresh, leaving the emotional scars, not buried, but addressed; not forgotten, but resolved.
I think it’s possible to do this for our readers. If we stun the reader, we must relieve them, giving them hope, as we give hope to our characters; so that the total experience does not leave the reader in a void, where pain and darkness are paramount.
As writers, we can horrify and we can titillate. As a fiction writer, I have vowed to ask myself- what is the feeling I’d like my reader to be left with? If I have sickened them, have I given them the means to feel well again? If I have affected them emotionally, have I given them satisfaction and release?
This is not to say that every story question must be resolved with a rosy ending- not at all; but for the main characters, the ones the reader has grown to care about, there will be at least hope, if not a certainty, of a less conflicted and happier life. Otherwise, why am I writing, if not to connect with the greater good of humanity?
In my work, emotions run the gamut. Characters love, and hate, both themselves and others. In my stories and novels, in some aspect or the other, at least one character is emotionally crippled, and another character becomes their salvation; but only because they are both in need of each other- they draw upon each other’s strengths. Nobody is perfect. Everyone is flawed. There are villains, less well rounded in their character development, and the reasons for their heinous acts are not necessarily explored. My concern in these stories is how the main characters will access the altruistic side of their own humanity, in order to transcend, helping both themselves and each other. (This does not occur in a manipulative sense- it occurs out of the circumstances of the story- In the initial draft, I don't know where a story will lead me, but I have learned, in all their various ways, that my completed works resolve in this direction.)
The main thing I believe is that it is the responsibility of the writer, to give a reader a choice. Prepare them, either through a general description; or through your skills as a writer, through the sentences that lead up to a disturbing thought or image. Yes, we can all surprise our readers, and it may have great dramatic and literary effect- but don’t give them tabasco sauce, when they are expecting vanilla ice cream. (Sorry- that is an awful twist on an old cliché!)
I try to remember, that reading about trauma triggers a reader’s memories of their own trauma. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I want my readers to have the choice, of when and where they will address their own issues. If I am skilled enough to make a reader feel vicarious pain, don’t I also want my readers to choose whether pain, and its resolution, is what they want to experience, in that moment? Doesn’t a reader have the right to say, “No, not now- maybe never,” before it is too late?
I think there is a difference between fiction writing, both novels and short stories; and creativity that results in published poetry, personal essays, and autobiography. In a work of fiction, though we want the characters and their story situation to extend beyond the text; still, there is a sense of resolution by the end of the story or the book, a resolution that cannot apply to real life, because real life is a “work in progress.” In poetry directly expressing the self, personal essay, or autobiography, I think it is enough for the reader to know that the author is asking questions, in the very fact of asking questions moving toward discovery and ultimately peace; not that the questions have been resolved, or peace has been achieved.
During the time that I was taking the first creative writing class, and my short story was critiqued, I wrote a poem that is not the best, but when I wrote it, I considered it to be a personal revelation, and a guiding light:
All writers risk
Foisting violent image
Toying with emotion
Just Because they Can.
Why not counter
authenticity with peace.
Don’t leave a frightened child
gnawing a fist in the void.
Be a Guide.
© 2007 Annie King
And then there was this initial version of the poem, when my reservations about the short story I’d written were most acute:
It’s finally struck me
all writing is coercion
Be careful what you write
Gauge the response
Shut up when you should
Scream when you must
In the end, all things
are private, misunderstood
The reader brings
what they know, takes
what they choose
Make sure it’s a
healthy taste you’ve
left in their mouths
so you can sleep
© 2007 Annie King
In the end, protecting a reader is protecting yourself; so you can feel good about what you’ve achieved, taking pride in the substance, as you keep working on improving your skills as a writer.
Will I change anything about that first short story? I wrote it honestly; there is nothing to change. It may be the best short story I’ll ever write, exhibiting depth and an intuitive literary technique that succeeded. And I definitely learned- never cut a story for word limits. There are other reasons to cut a story or a novel, but cutting for word limits alone, may cut something essential out of the “fictive dream.” I’m proud of that first short story. It fulfilled all of my personal requirements.