Stress, Story & Writing Trauma

I woke up again today feeling a nameless stress. I’ve been stressed out recently, for no reason that I can really put my finger on.

Are there reasons to be stressed out? Sure. There are always reasons. But this feels different, like the stress is just floating around like an angry cloud of possums, waiting to attach itself to something and sink in sharp teeth.

I want to do everything, but I’m too wired to do anything at all. I want to do all the things, see all the people, read all the books, write all the screenplays, apply for all the jobs, take all the classes, make all the money, learn all the programming. My mind is screaming at me to do something, ANYTHING. But what?

What do you want from me?

Yesterday, I read Alexander Chee’s essay The Autobiography of My Novel from his book of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. On the surface, the essay is a blow-by-blow account of how Chee wrote his first novel. But beneath that, it reads as almost a how-to guide about how to write about the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to you.

Somewhere at the back of my mind, I know that this is the time of year when THE TRAUMA® happened. Part of what made it so traumatic was that I felt trapped, like I couldn’t escape.

[Cue your biannual reminder that it’s ALWAYS OKAY to leave a bad situation, full stop. If you need to GTFO, GTFO.]

I feel some of that same energy now, like I need to start running and never, ever stop. My body feels poised on the edge of something terrible, feet pressed into the starting blocks, waiting for the gun to go off.

In Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s latest book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, they talk about dealing with stress by completing the cycle. They differentiate between the stressor (cause) and the stress (effect). Even if you deal with the cause—being viciously attacked by a rabid Koala, you still have to deal with the effect—the stress hormones still coursing through your body after the koala is neutralized. Maybe you run a mile. Maybe you hug a friend. Maybe you run a mile while hugging a friend (could happen).  Otherwise, even if the koala is no longer a threat, your body will still be freaking out on the inside.

One way to think about trauma is as stress that got stuck in the body because at the time, you couldn’t escape. You were trapped in a locked freezer with the koala and there was nowhere to run.

What I found fascinating about Chee’s essay is that he describes the process of completing the cycle of trauma by writing a novel, i.e., through narrative.

He describes this as moving from paralysis (the freeze response) to plot:

“All my stories lacked action or ended in inaction because that was what my imagination had always done to protect me from my own life, the child’s mistaken belief that if he stays still and silent, he cannot be seen.”

And so Chee searches for a plot he loves in stories that he already knows. He draws on Aristotle’s poetics and the conceptions of pity and fear, action and catharsis. Through story, he completes the cycle.

The brutal truth is that a straight retelling of trauma rarely makes for good story—perhaps because the cycle is never completed and catharsis is impossible—trauma is a kind of never-ending loop, your worst fears on repeat, not a linear story with beginning, middle and end.

But what if you could complete the cycle through the driving force of plot, one event after another, one event causing the next, all leading to catharsis and release? [This is why J Lo always kills her abusive husband at the end of the movie.]

I am not writing a novel right now, autobiographical or otherwise, but reading Chee’s account of his process, I wept in recognition (also, I was really tired, because stress and not sleeping). I feel like I’ve been trying to write the things that I least want to write about. I’m struggling like hell to write something that doesn’t make any sense, even to me.

I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t know what shape or form this writing will take, let alone what genre I’ll end up writing in.

Chee in no way implies that writing his autobiographical novel resolved his own trauma, only that he had no choice but to write it, to write “across gaps, things that I wouldn’t let myself remember.” I feel the same way, compelled by something I don’t understand to do something I’m not even sure I want to do.

But if I’m going to run like hell from a nameless, faceless terror, I might as well make it story.

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