6 Tips for Writing a Trauma-based Book

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Full article with thanks to: friesenpress.com/blog/2021/6/24/how-to-write-a-trauma-based-book

1. It’s Not About You (Who)

Your book will tell your story. That’s a given. But it’s not about you. You are writing the memoir to be read by someone else. So the writing of the book is about the reader. While only one author reveals their personal history in the intimate confines of a single book, hundreds, thousands, and possibly millions of readers will pore over those pages. Readers vicariously experience what you went through and learn what you learned. Make sure you make your book about them and what they need to take away from reading it.

I’ve often extolled the benefits of writing a book – any book – with a particular kind of reader in mind. It makes the work much easier and your writing more conversational. It can clarify and personalize your “voice.” But in the case of a trauma memoir, there’s an added bonus: when you write your book for your reader, it gives you some much-needed distance from the material. Those memories and experiences can be quite fresh and even painful. But when you make the book about your reader, it shifts your role in the narrative from survivor to writer. That’s a very powerful transformation that might even have lasting benefits.

Take some time to think deeply about who your book is going to be about. Even though you might never explicitly mention the target audience in your writing, that demographic should be crystal clear in your head. It could be the victims of a similar type of trauma. Or their family and friends. Maybe therapists who counsel survivors like yourself would benefit from your book. Parents, teens, lawyers, law enforcement, or anyone in recovery might also be the target audience. The book tells your story but it’s actually “about” the reader. Keep that person foremost in your thoughts as the words begin to flow. 

2. Make the Personal Universal (What)

Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers caught in the fate of feuding families during the Italian Renaissance. It’s an intimate account of a young couple destined for tragedy. But the play succeeds because it touches on universal themes that are still relevant today. In fact, you could find those very same themes in a modern-day trauma memoir.

Many of us have witnessed jealousies and grudges between two families. We can all relate to the challenge of having our lives controlled by others, or loving someone who is not approved of by those who matter most to us. These themes were not new to Shakespeare and the world he lived in. They’re as old as humanity itself — which is precisely why he wrote about them.

The Bard is recognized as the world’s greatest writer of tragedies, but he used personal stories to illustrate universal themes that still resonate with us today. While your trauma story may not be a tragedy in the classical sense, it is likely to contain tragic elements. The goal is to write just like William did by addressing universal themes of the human condition.

Much like the first principle, this one also helps you grapple with the personal pain you are writing about. The goal is to make the message bigger than you. Once again, you don’t have to say this explicitly: your writing simply has to link to the bigger and more eternal challenges that people have grappled with for thousands of years. As you write down each episode in your memoir, keep asking yourself to find the deeper themes anyone can relate to. You don’t have to write like Shakespeare, but you should attempt to emulate his exploration of universal themes. That’s the “what” your book should explore and expose.

3. Timing is Everything (When)

In my late twenties, I tried performing stand-up comedy. I had some success but not enough to quit my day job. I learned how to write and deliver a joke and perfected my timing well enough to eek a few laughs out of rowdy audiences in clubs around Toronto.

Much like comedy, turning tragedy into art also relies on paying homage to Kronos, the Greek god of time. It has to be the right time in your life in your journey of healing to write a trauma memoir. You have to be ready to write a book that reveals much about who you are and what you’ve gone through. You need some distance from the experience of the trauma so that you can be more objective about it. If you’re sharing some hard-won wisdom, then you have to have come out the other side before you can look back and recognize what you learned from it. 

Writing a trauma memoir can be healing. But you must have already healed enough to withstand revisiting those difficult times as you put your stories down on paper. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a magic formula for knowing when the time is right. But there is a question I often ask prospective coaching clients who are considering writing a trauma memoir: are you still living the story or are you looking back on it in hindsight? If you’ve gotten to the point where your story seems to be more in the past than the future, you may have arrived at the right moment to start sharing your narrative with the world.

4. Know Your Reasons for Writing (Why)

In my experience with authors who want to tell their trauma stories, their reasons for writing a book are surprisingly similar. Most often they hope their effort will serve as a warning or a wake-up call for people who might be in a similar situation of danger, addiction, or abuse. Another common motivation is that the author’s journey of healing has taught them valuable lessons they’d like to share with others. Finally, there is frequently a hope to change societal views around the particular kind of trauma the author has survived.

Identifying the “why” of your book-writing odyssey is usually a turning point in producing a finished manuscript. Many authors start writing with no more motivation than to simply “get their story out there.” That’s worthy enough to begin the journey, but it won’t be enough to take you to the promised land of creating a book you can be proud of in print. When you settle solidly on the deeper reasons for turning trauma into a publicly available resource, the road ahead becomes easier to navigate.

As mentioned, writing a trauma memoir can be very therapeutic. But that shouldn’t be the only reason you share your history with the world. If that’s the only purpose of the book, then the time might not be right to embark on such a journey. Or you might simply need a bit of support from a counsellor or writing coach to help you zero in on a bigger “why” that will guide your work and improve the quality of the experience and the result. 

5. Let Your Story Lead You (Where)

The most common question trauma memoirists ask me is, “Where do I begin?” I’m always glad to hear that inquiry because it means they don’t have their heart set on a chronologically ordered narrative. It’s almost never a great idea to start at the beginning and march stridently forward in the order of things as they happened. There are certain stories that simply cannot avoid such a linear progression of events, but most memoirs of any kind (not just trauma) benefit by starting some place other than what would be the chronological genesis.

For example, your story could begin with your decision to leave a marriage, when you started seeing a therapist, or the minister delivering a eulogy. Start your story anywhere but at the beginning of what happened. Find a new starting point — which may well be an ending of some kind — and let the story take you wherever it wants from there.

While you lived your story chronologically, it probably doesn’t reside inside you in the same way. Other moments, decisions, or actions (or lack thereof) may be jumping-off points that give your reader a better experience. This brings us full circle to the first principle. The book is your story but it’s all about the reader’s relationship with your story. Find the best place to start, and let it lead you in the right direction from there.

6. Turn Trauma into Art (How)

Every year, the Pulitzer Prize for biography is awarded to a single memoirist, autobiographer, or biographer. The winner is usually a professional journalist or writer telling the story of someone else’s life. But a few memoirs and autobiographies have captured the coveted prize as well, including Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. While it wouldn’t be considered a trauma memoir per se, Angela’s Ashes details the author’s desperate childhood of poverty and his father’s alcoholism. It’s a very well-written book and readers rewarded McCourt’s artistic efforts by purchasing more than 4 million copies.

Memoirs are an art form. They can be as compelling and engaging as the best works of fiction. You may not win a prize for your writing but it’s worth aiming high artistically. Here’s why: once you start to write a book, you immediately begin a relationship with your future readers. You don’t know who they are and will never meet most of the people who read your story. But you are actually in their service, so you need to do your best for them.

You are also in the service of your story. You lived it, you suffered it, and while you didn’t deserve what happened to you, it’s still your story. You owe your story the best creative effort you can muster. Because once it’s published, you can’t do it over. You can’t retell it in a better way. Your story will live forever in digital and printed forms. Write your story as if you’re Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. This is your masterpiece.

I believe that the finer the artistic quality of your effort, the more potential healing you can achieve from sharing your narrative. This is the transformative power of any art form but perhaps none more so than in writing. This is why soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder are often instructed to turn their traumatic experiences on the battlefield into powerful prose and poetry. Telling a beautiful story about a terrible thing is transformational. Even if this was not the primary reason for writing your book, it’s one of the potential benefits of doing it well.

This is “how” you should write your trauma memoir — as if you are trying to win the Pulitzer Prize or tapping into the universality of the human condition like Shakespeare. Aim so high that falling short will still produce work that you’ll be proud of. Your story and all you’ve been through deserves no less from its author.

Full article with thanks to: friesenpress.com/blog/2021/6/24/how-to-write-a-trauma-based-book