Taylor Wark

Taylor Wark, RP #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

Healing Trauma through Fiction Writing

Fiction is defined as stories where characters, settings, and plot are created from the imagination; fairy tales of faraway places, characters with superpowers, princes and princesses who live happily ever after. As children, we are told not to worry about the monsters under our beds, or the villains in our books, because they don’t exist. As a child with an active imagination, I took comfort in knowing the scary stories in my books could not take place in the real world; because of course, they were fiction.

So, what happens when we grow up and we begin to learn that ‘fiction’ is not always made up? Often, the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred and the two intersect. No one taught us what happens when our own life stories do not play out like the fairy tales and our troubles may not be addressed in storybooks. Sometimes characters don’t play their part, or events go off script, and this leaves us feeling helpless; there is no one coming to save us from the real world.

When working with trauma, I have witnessed people’s suffering at all levels. A theme that kept arising in sessions was the question of identity and sense of ‘self.’

When people experience trauma, their worldviews are often changed impacting how they view themselves and their control over the story.

When individuals lose their sense of self and their perceived control of the events of their lives, it’s hard to convince them they still have control of the narrative of their life.

But, at the most basic level, re-storying does just that- it allows the author, or individual, to retell their story in a way that gives them the power over the situation, problem, and narrative. Specifically, writing fiction allows people to explore traumas, or ‘taboo topics,” while creating a disconnect from their present selves, and allows them to explore from different narrative scopes.

University of Michigan lecturer, Angela Matthews, recounts her own experience of writing fiction to process the death of her son. She recalled expressive writing allowed her to process all the emotions she struggled to let herself experience, while keeping a protective distance until she was ready (Mathews, 2022).

Writing fiction gives us the ability to write someone else’s story until we have space to own it as our own.

An author can change the ending, a character’s response, or relationships with other characters. All the exiled emotions and thoughts we push down day-to-day then have room to be explored. We can be exposed to uncharted territory from the safety of our own homes, knowing our present selves are safe.

For example, if I am working with a client who is healing from an abusive intimate partner relationship, they may come to therapy identifying as a victim – small, afraid, silenced. They may have the narrative that they ‘should have known better,’ or it was ‘their own fault,” or they ‘deserved’ the treatment they received. These beliefs are usually fueled by many different life circumstances, but when working through trauma healing, writing about the events from the lens of a different character (either one they directly relate to or writing about someone else) the client can give themselves context, explore the character’s origin story, sift through contributing factors with empathy rather than judgment, and even give themselves a voice where they didn’t have one in the past.

In every story there is a beginning, middle, and end. In a good story, the middle always presents conflicts, tension, climax, and eventually resolution. What are the main events in the story you want to tell? What is the character’s narrative – victim, survivor, both? How does the story end? Lastly, what part of your story are you at?

The real gift of fiction writing is that it allows the individual to become a spectator versus a participant. As Angela Matthews (2022) explained, this approach helps to create a protective distance.

Fiction can be written from many viewpoints; for example, first or third person, which allows the writer to decide how involved they are in the story. Character development allows for the creation of ‘self,’ where the writer can clarify character attributes, values, motivations, establish how the main character interacts in their world (Grant, 2010).

In addition, fiction allows the writer to pace their exploration, how the character processes story conflicts, what does the author deem to be the climax or tension in the story rather than being told by others. How does the main character react? How would each emotion be described? Do different characters deal with conflicts in different ways? Why? What does each character mean to the writer? And ultimately, how does the main character navigate understanding their own internal world? In turn, how are you, the author, trying to convey different parts of the ‘self’? (Lourey, 2017).

For most people, the idea of writing memoirs or journals leave them feeling exposed; these writing tasks are too close to the truth.

With fiction, the author gets to choose what to explore, what to add, or leave out, and label it as fiction. They have no obligation to share their full story with anyone.

Some of the world’s most noted authors including Charles Dickens, Isabel Allende, and Nora Ephron, have discussed utilizing their fiction writing to heal parts of themselves (Lourey, 2017).

Fiction writing, in narrative therapy, encourages individuals to construct order, meaning, affiliation, hope, and self-protection (Grant, 2010). When people first experience traumatic events, their minds are often not equipped to process the intensity of the experience. Our minds may blur meanings, or events, and internalize these experiences in unhealthy ways; whether it be globalized thinking, labels we give ourselves, or beliefs about the world (Cozolino, L. J., 2005).

When individuals are provided a safe space to speak about their experiences, even in non-verbal outlets, they are given the opportunity to take back control of what they believed was not in their control.

Private writing also decreases external influences such as opinions, other people’s accounts, and judgement. If fiction is, by definition, created by the imagination, the author cannot be told their stories are ‘wrong.”

This is where healing begins; allowing your story to be told in an authentic way. Speaking about injustices, letting others know trauma is only a part of a person, it does not have to encompass the identity. Or it could simply be to assure yourself that you are not just a victim, but also a survivor or a healer or a fighter in your story.

Individuals who experienced trauma have often expressed the belief that they do not deserve empathy because “other people are suffering more” or “their situation is not unique.” Yet we seem to forget that we experience an affinity to books that allow us to feel connected to characters because of their hardships, life circumstances, or how they overcome struggles, not despite them. We breathe a sigh of relief when we find characters and stories we relate too, or characters we want to be.

Individuals often encourage friends and family, or other survivors, to reach out during hardships, to speak up, and tell their truths, but we fear it ourselves. Are we afraid of pity? Judgement? Vulnerability? Maybe even compassion?

Given the chance, how would you describe your main character? What would your ‘fictional’ story read? Are there things you would want to change? Why? If you were writing about someone else, would you display more compassion or write your tragedy differently? Would you write about a victim or a survivor? Is there a different narrative you want others to understand?

Put a pen to paper and see where your story takes you.

References:

Cozolino, L. J. (2005). The impact of trauma on the brain. Psychotherapy in Australia, 11(3).

Grant, A. (2010). Writing the reflexive self: An autoethnography of alcoholism and the impact of psychotherapy culture. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 17(7), 577-582.

Lourey, J. (2017). The therapeutic benefits of writing a novel. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/discover-your-truth/201706/the-therapeutic-benefits-writing-novel

Matthews, A. (2022). Fictionalizing Pain: Processing Grief Through Fiction Writing. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 27(2), 137-148.

Taylor Wark

Taylor Wark, RP #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

Share This Post

About Our Counsellors

Need to Ask Questions First?

Check out our FAQ

Call 1-800-828-9484 or e-mail us today