Content Warning: Allusion to childhood abuse and trauma
I read submissions guidelines this morning and they said they don’t want any “unresolved trauma.” I didn’t know you could put that in a bullet point list. After “Westerns” and before “Vampires.”
One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that it’s never a good idea to express yourself in public when you’re angry.
Writing for me has always been a paradox. Words are logical concrete objects, but emotions aren’t. The moment you manage to take a feeling and wrangle it into nouns and verbs it becomes not-a-feeling. It becomes a story that progresses and makes sense and resolves.
It’s my favorite thing.
It’s the worst thing.
Most of the time when I’m writing a story, I’m trying to break it. I’m booby-trapping the resolution. I’m setting words, these long algebraic variables, into dissonant order. I’m crafting a story for you that, if I do it right, shatters upon consumption and tears you up with shards of emotion. For that magic trick to work, the story needs to make sense and be pleasingly story-shaped because brains are phenomenal gatekeepers. My right hand distracts with concrete objects. Tension that progresses, characters that evoke familiar archetypes, so many patterns. All about that monomyth bullshit, baby. And then, my left hand punches you in the heart.
I’m doing this because I love you.
I’m doing this because I’m always expressing myself in public when I’m angry.
Maybe other writers aren’t like me but how else can you explain the impulse to make someone cry from a sad scene? Or to make someone scared to walk out of a dark movie theater? Storytellers are warlocks. We find some part of the human experience and we conjure it for an audience in new familiar ways. We are, I’m sorry to say, manipulators and we are, I’m proud to say, the most generous priests. We’re giving you catharsis and excitement and an escape from the day-to-day but every last bit of it is completely fake. Manufactured and revised and marketed. Except the parts that we sneak through. The parts that are more true than real life.
I recently got a rejection.
(One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that it’s never a good idea to talk about your rejections in public.)
I recently got a rejection, and it said my prose and grammar wasn’t where they’d like it to be. But I digress.
Imagine that your life is a mirror and imagine that trauma is a fist that punches it dead center. The glass breaks at the point of impact and the mirror stops being a mirror. It becomes a lot of mirrors. Tiny, jagged mirrors scattered on the ground with bigger pieces still holding onto the frame but fragmented now. So, you stand in front of all of those mirrors and wonder: who are you now? You’ve stopped being you and become instead a contradiction of plural yous.
My mirror broke a long time ago. I’m not even sure that it was ever a perfect single reflection. Could be that it came from the factory damaged. I’m accustomed to being a few dozen paradoxes in a trench coat. I’m strong and I’m weak-kneed. I’m hilarious and clinically depressed. Hard to say if this makes me a good writer or a basket case of mental illness because the answer will always, inexorably, be both.
I love writing stories with my whole heart.
Writing stories is my most masochistic addiction.
I am a junkie for solving puzzles. I like things to fit. I like themes and I like cause and effect. I tinker with words and lines and structure and think deeply about the impact of white space on the page and sentence cadence, eye movement, assonance, cognitive lexicology, and reader immersion. I play with recursive phrasing. Sentence length. I angle words just so that you need to slow down and choke on them. I come to my word processor a deeply intentional and meticulous mad scientist. I come to my word processor seeking ecstatic non-verbal abandon.
Me and my broken selves. Me and my contradictions.
Spend much time reading my work and you’ll see a lot of weird shit. I crash words together like a drunk at a demolition derby. I take hard turns and big swings. I get accused of writing too “literary” or too “genre.” I use dirty words and words you might need to google to be sure I’m not making them up. My spaceship got lost in your pretentious poem and my philosophical exploration of theodicy skulked into your sword and sorcery.
Here’s the secret: all of it is me. One of me. Several of me.
Here’s the secret: all of it is unresolved trauma.
When you’re a kid and some unthinkable terrible thing happens, you lose your story. You get to school, and someone told your teachers about it already. You get to school, and your classmates have been whispering. You cry and you tremble because you can’t help it and when they ask you why, you’re not allowed to lie. Even if you wanted to, you don’t know how yet. Lying about things that big takes practice. What happened. What you felt. Her eyes closed. Her body still. Everyone staring. Memory that will never make sense but the best you can do is chopped up incomplete sentences. Grammatically incorrect. It makes sense in ugly busted prose. And you’re so, so young and your mirror won’t ever come back together but you’ll learn to lie.
How are you doing, they’ll ask you, and you will learn to tell them what you need to tell them so you can keep going. But not when you’re still a wet-cheeked raw nerve. Your hurt is broadcast. Your hurt is communal property, the stuff of rumor, and cautionary tales. The agency you get, you steal it. You learn magic. Look at my right hand while my left hand reaches out for you. Laugh at my jokes while I fight the ghosts trapped in my bones. You hurt yourself so you can beat them to the punch. You fictionalize.
In writing a story, second person is a great device to create emotional distance. You’ll learn this. You’ll master it.
I was nine years old, but I was also younger. It happened once, but it also happened a hundred times. Unresolved trauma is a contagious thing. Unresolved trauma brings friends, so it doesn’t have to be lonely.
Content warning: child abuse. Content warning: violence. Content warning: sex. Content warning: mental illness. Content warning: 9 out of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences and poverty and drugs and alcohol. Content warning: Hi.
I was nine years old, and I loved Star Wars and comic books. I was nine years old when it happened—fist-shaped trauma, the first time, but not the first time, and not the last time– but I was still nine years old. I was jetpack paramedics. I was Teenage Mutant Ninja Overdoses and I played Nintendo and I ran hot-faced downstairs so he couldn’t get his hands on me again. Laser sword lunchbox suicide watch. Chop chop cartoons and forever scars. Chop chop.
The first time I wrote about my unresolved trauma the teacher said it wasn’t believable. Now the submissions guidelines say I better not. Teachers and editors and agents and publishers and readers, they all have opinions about my unresolved trauma. If only the pieces fit. If only I was one me. If only my grammar was prettier.
I had never used the phrase “unresolved trauma” to talk about my old friend the fist-shaped impact until I saw it in the submissions guidelines. But I am accustomed to euphemisms and vagary because my unresolved trauma makes other people uncomfortable (it always has) and because my choice of words, the order of my sentences, my drunk crashed contradictions, it’s the agency I stole back. I choose what to say and who to say it to about my fucking life. I am a punching bag and this is the only uppercut I’ve got.
But paradox, remember. Always a paradox. I am private and I am guarded, and I am standing in front of you begging you to listen to me, to like me (please like me). I am concise copy and a compelling bio for a book jacket, and I am all too often an emotional enigma to my friends and family. I am popping antidepressants and cracking wise. I am functional and I am stubborn, and I can persevere until it catches up to me again and I can’t.
One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that you’re selling yourself as much as your creation. Hashtags and identity silos are algorithm friendly. I am fucked up and unlucky, made of defective genes, chronic illnesses, hands and eyes and prescription medication in all the wrong places, systemic poverty, neglect, and a few dozen bigger unresolved traumas all crowded into a trench coat, clawing for purchase in an industry that will pay me poorly and respect me less and I am sincerely and incredibly privileged. If I wasn’t privileged, if I didn’t have societal biases and entrenched systems to favor men that look like me, I would be dead or in jail like my brothers.
In group therapy sessions with the other unresolved trauma-shaped children at county facilities we one-upped each other. If you only got beaten up once, you were a Johnny Come Lately. Come back when you had permanent injuries. If you only had one set of foster parents, you might as well be a Toys R Us Kid. I would not earn a gold medal in the unresolved trauma summer games. I would not even make the team. To the hallway whisperers (and that old writing teacher) I am unbelievable until I am only pitied but in group therapy sessions, the future ghosts looked at me like “what the fuck are you doing here, normie?” The paradox is I am unlucky-lucky. I am damned-blessed.
I am resentful-proud. I am grateful-furious. I am trauma-joy.
The contradictions are truer than their distinct parts. I love my contradictions. I didn’t always. I was deeply ashamed of either my Serious or Unserious tendencies. I was embarrassed by my dysfunction and the unresolved traumas no one wants in a slush pile. It’s taken me so many years to learn that my unresolved trauma makes me better. It makes me understanding. It makes me kind. My heart is so full of wounds but it’s bigger than the world.
If you don’t want my unresolved trauma, you don’t want my empathy and you don’t want my humor.
If you don’t want my unresolved trauma, you don’t want my passion and you don’t want my beauty.
If you don’t want my unresolved trauma, you don’t want me.
Me and my cattywampus prose. Me and my insufficient commas and run on sentences. Slivers of mirror sharp enough to cut. My messy voice.
I wonder, who else don’t you want?
What must that be like to dodge trauma or always resolve it as if emotions that big could be made into concrete objects, set into a neat row, and be concluded? Subject. Verb. Immaculate grammar. What must that be like to write a story without putting your truth in it? What gossamer sweet marketing drivel would that be?
I mean, I get it. Unresolved trauma is a bummer. It’s a hook on the end of a line that will pull at you, pull at all of your dark places, make you feel things you didn’t consent to feel. No one wants to read that, right? No one wants to read about chronic illness or disability or mental health or racism or poverty or death or misogyny or injustice or “politics.”
One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that your anger isn’t valid, and your unresolved trauma isn’t welcome, and no one likes a Gloomy Gus.
So, smile more, silly. And for godsakes, never, ever subtweet.
The success rate in publishing hovers around 1% give or take. If you want to survive, kid, ninety-nine of your peers have to fail. It’s carnivorous and it’s bleak and I resent it more for the ninety-nine of my peers that I’m praying will drop out than for myself.
I read the submissions guidelines and I wanted to never write another word.
I read the submissions guidelines and I wrote 2000 new ones.
I can’t stop writing any more than I can resolve my trauma.
(And I wouldn’t want to.)
It’s a wonderful world. It’s a tragic world. I hold on with all my selves. I accept it, and my myriad reflections, best I can. And I write about it. For those of us misfits that can’t help but be who we are, let’s write. For those of us misfits that keep trying (even though sometimes we can’t), let’s just submit somewhere else with all of our love and unresolved trauma forever.
What the fuck else can we do?