Trauma as the Female Genre
I read this tweet several months ago. It hit home pretty damn hard.
One predictable thing that happens to young women in media is that they’re encouraged to sell their deepest insecurities, fears, worst experiences, ugliest selves for basically nothing. The best thing you can do instead is try to write about something else. Or else get REAL paid
I often saw this CRWR program. Women constantly feel like their worst experiences are their best, most authentic work. Maybe it’s cathartic but it prevents them from feeling authorized to create stories for their own sakes. I used my worst traumas in my portfolio to gain entry. Which has little or nothing to do with the kind of writer I am, at least in the sense that I have no plans to enter Can Lit with thinly veiled biographies.
I think we get frozen in high school/early college trauma mode because it seems to make us invincible to criticism. How can anyone say anything potentially hurtful when you’ve made yourself that vulnerable? And yet, it removes focus from craft, and makes it impossible to improve, because while pathos is affecting, it’s not actually inherently good storytelling.
I should clarify: I’m talking mostly about fiction, because I think non-fiction has a much higher bar. The personal stories I’ve put out there have not been torn off a list of painful experiences. They’re curated for a reader’s viewpoint. I respect anyone’s right to write about whatever they want, but when it comes to excellence, being reduced to pathos is not going to ultimately help women gain creative parity.
Men already co-opt perspectives, often with some success. Think about Silence of the Lambs. A woman could have written that novel, at least in terms of authentic viewpoint. The novel itself demonstrates a highly articulate understanding of what it feels like to be a young woman in a world where her intelligence is a liability. And Thomas Harris did her justice.
So this idea that women can only write Woman Stories, and that Woman Stories are always traumatic and tightly themed, it’s nonsense. If men can, often successfully, and respectfully, create experiences that feel authentic despite not being their own, then anyone gets to. Provided, of course, that the people to whom these experiences rightfully belong have the preeminence. Unless their writing is shit, which is something that we can’t just ignore for the sake of social sensitivity. Trauma isn’t a hall pass. You need to be able to do the work.
There are always going to be parts of the writer in her characters. In my miniseries, 30 minute pilot, and the novel I’ve been toying with, the main protagonists are all tough women who survive thanks to resourcefulness and a measure of brilliance, for which they aren’t rewarded. But I treat it as work. I don’t treat it as me. Of course it’s me, but it’s also an enterprise, a pitch, a contract with the reader/viewer to tell a story that will satisfy them. At this moment in time, young women who wound themselves on the page get affirmation but not material benefits.
Furthermore…it’s not compelling. Your pain is not inherently compelling, even if it is highly relatable. When you’re told that it is by a high school creative writing teacher, you’re being told that’s the most valuable story to tell. But look at your own bookshelf. Look at your favourite movies or TV shows. You relate to them, but they’re not all duplicates of your pain. And the ones that do use those themes, they don’t rely on shock value. They rely on craft.
“Write what you know” is misleading. It is automatically inherent in everything you make. You will write what you know no matter what. So don’t feel like your fully accurate worst nightmare is creatively superior to your flawed narrative aspirations. That’s what creativity is. You don’t have to market your pain.