Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Triggers and Bravery

There's been a trend recently of authors putting "trigger warnings" in their work.  "This work contains subject matter that may cause feelings of…" That sort of thing. So I figured I'd take a few moments and post my thoughts on bravery and triggers, and the difference between being brave and pandering.

So… Art imitates life.  We draw our best inspiration from the world around us and we write from our human condition.  And in that condition, things happen.  It's not a pretty world out there sometimes.  Rape, murder, discrimination, kidnapping, mutilation, molestation… The list goes on and on of the atrocities that man visits upon his fellow man (and by "man" in this case I mean all of human existence).  And these atrocities are, more often than not, ripe for the picking of someone like me who is trying to tell a story.  I mean, who wants to read a story about a person to whom nothing happens?  No one, that's who.  Why?  Because it's boring.  And so we mine our own experience and we write about things happening to our characters because it makes the story interesting.  It makes the story powerful.
Pictured:  Life Imitating Art

A writer's job is to tell a story, but also to create an emotional connection with the reader.  We want to make the reader feel what we want them to feel.  Love.  Hate.  Fear.  Dread.  We want to twist those little knobs in the brain and make you care about our characters and what happens to them.  Which, to at least one train of thought, means that using trigger incidents is a dirty trick, kind of like cheating.  And to another train of thought, it's perhaps the bravest thing a writer can do. Follow me on this…

For many of us, our work stands as allegories of our own experiences (Stephen King's treatment of alcoholism in The Shining immediately leaps to mind).  Which, often times, means that emotional connection we make is between the reader and something akin to a raw nerve for us.  When the person who inspired a certain character passed away, so did her character, and I relived that heartache and sense of loss all over again so that I could build that emotional connection and make you feel what I felt.  I want to share my feelings with the reader because, in that sense, I am not alone in that someone else feels it too.  From the reader's perspective, he is not alone because he understands that emotion, and now ties him to the story.  We all do it.  We all use the little experiences we've had and we write about them in cathartic release so that our souls are no longer burdened with them, so our hearts no longer feel alone because we've put them out there and inflicted them upon the world.
Pictured:  Reader

So… Then there are triggers.

When we make a connection so strong that it goes beyond "I understand" and moves to "holyshiticanfeelpanicandihavetobemedicatedandmyptsdiscomingback…" you might think the goal has reached its ultimate conclusion.  We created an emotional connection so strong, it sent the reader into therapy.  But that's not really the point.  I jokingly say we "inflicted" our memories on the world, but what we're really doing is trying to make people understand.  We're trying to create some perspective.  And for many of us, that means offering ourselves up as sacrificial lambs and laying our souls naked on a cutting board. We are vulnerable.  We offer ourselves up to you, the reader.
Pictured:  The Metaphor of the Writer's Soul

Of course, that's not true of all of us.  Just because I've never experienced what it means to be raped doesn't mean I can't write an effective rape scene.  But, for me at least, I will go and talk to victims and try to get them to open up about their feelings so I can accurately portray them on paper.  And, by proxy, I am leaving them bare on the cutting board in hopes that I can make someone else understand what they've been through.

But what exactly are we doing?  Do we actually want to alienate our readers?  Do we want them twitching in the corner, or having a panic attack over something we've written?  Most of us are very good at writing emotional scenes, and put things that pluck at the heart and emotions in every line we write.  But do we brutally assault the reader with them for the sake of making a sale?  Do we have the right to play God that way?
Pictured:  Playing God

To me, the difference is intent.  If you use triggers specifically because it will be shocking, well, there's a market for it, but that doesn't make it good.  If you use those events to develop the story, the characters, to try to make the reader understand what that was like… That, to me, is what makes a book literature.  To me, that's the goal.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Scott. Love the smite button! "Smite me, O Mighty Smiter!"

    I agree that the difference is "intent" as you've described it. I also think there's another category (speaking from experience) where sometimes the story that comes out of the artist is brutal, real, and that's simply what they have when they're done. It's not necessarily working to create that emotional connection, nor is it done for the sensationalism of violence, but it just "IS" because it's integral to the story.

    For example, I don't try to write what's euphemistically called "splatter punk" to sell to splatter readers or others that thrive on blood and gore. But I have written stories with violence, splatter and gore. What I write is simply what I create as an artist. It's what 'happens' when I go into story mode. I remember how I used to run away from that aspect of myself and how I used to be afraid of what people thought. I'd try to smooth the scene over and make it prettier or less offensive. But, I learned from my peers, mentors and literary icons that when I do that, when I try to put vaseline over the lens of the camera, I remove the focus, blur my art and make it less than what it was. I cheat the story by minimizing it.

    The issue of violence in story telling is a huge debate among horror writers, in terms of "How much is too much?" And I remember being asked by a professor when I graduated, whether or not (now that my thesis was done) I planned to pull back on the level of violence in some of my scenes. I had to say, "No."

    It wasn't that I planned on writing more violence, but that I didn't want to control the story like a dog on a leash. I want it to be free. If people are offended, so be it. If not, and if they 'get' my work, then great. I do have to say that my debut novel, "Sapient Farm," has one warning written in the form of a blurb by Tim Waggoner.

    "A deliriously dark blend of blood, sex, and mutant pig people. You'll need industrial-strength brain bleach after you read this one!"
    -- Tim Waggoner, author of THE WAY OF ALL FLESH

    If that isn't enough, then I don't know what is.

    Gotta shout out to all folks out there, if you haven't read Scott Johnson's "Stanley Cooper" Chronicles, make sure you pick them up! Start with "Vermin," Book One! Here's the link to his author page on Amazon!