trauma narratives: writing nonfiction

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction for my reader position at Polyphony lately, and most of them fall into two categories:

  1. Friendship, love… all the good stuff
  2. Trauma narratives

I read some heavy stuff. A lot of depression, anxiety. A few on drunken and even abusive parents. And because of these raw and honest writings and feelings make critiquing them really difficult. It’s hard to tell someone that their writing isn’t good when the topic they’ve written about is so sensitive and so personal. Instead of critiquing the mechanics of the piece, the writer might feel personally attacked, and worse, feel like their writing isn’t valid.

So here are two pieces of exquisitely beautiful nonfiction pieces, while both dealing with extremely difficult subjects, does not fall into these “trauma narratives”:

The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Ann Beard

Woven by Lidia Yuknavitch

A trauma, or victim narrative, is when the writer is too engrossed in his or her point of view of creating a “myself against the world” story. This type of personal essay sways on the border of truthfulness, because it doesn’t take into account other people’s perspectives on the matter, and becomes a sort of personal rant.

Here’s our first key word for writing personal essays: Double Perspective.

Double Perspective, as Phillip Lopate coins it, “allow[s] the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” This double perspective is extremely important and is quite often lost within victim narratives, because when we are writing about our sorrows and pains, we engross ourselves within the moment of this pain and magnify it. We explain what our pain is and how this pain is the most important pain in our lives, because, quite frankly, it does feel like that. But in this sentimentality, we forget to wield this “double perspective”, showing instead of telling.

In writing personal essays, we have an obligation to the truth, whatever that might be. Maybe you are writing about a fight with a parent, and your essay is about how they restrict you and scold you for no reason. Phillip Lopate tells us that this type of writing is bad writing. Instead, we should explain our own feelings of restriction, and try to empathize with our parents, put ourselves into their shoes, think what they are thinking.

A lot of the times, it feels like you are the only voice of reason on this world, and everyone else is rather dimwitted. This is seldom the case. Through tracing and understanding other peoples’ thought processes, we become more tolerant, less egotistical, and kinder. Bad things happen to everyone, and pain is quite frankly universal, but to have the empathy for others to jump out of our own bubbles and look at the world in a wider perspective is immensely helpful.

These things are hard to do. Trying to understand why your dad threw away your pet turtle and gave away your pet chicken (both happened) is hard, and it doesn’t come naturally. Writing rants can feel satisfying in the moment, but in the long run, isn’t quite beneficial.

Take a few minutes to think about a time when you felt wronged. Think about who you think wronged you. Write about it, but don’t write a rant. Instead, try to understand why they did the things they did or said the things they said. Writing is an act of courage, and sometimes that courage is simply trying your best to understand someone else.

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