Note from Aimee: Today’s post struck me right from the title. Why not me? I don’t know how many times I asked that question through my querying journey. Every time I read a published book, every time I saw an announcement, every time there was a full request announced. Happy for them. But why not me? This next post addresses that very question I believe so many of us have grappled with, and I’m so honored to have it here.
Content/Trigger Warnings: Minor mention of querying stats; mention of C-PTSD and related trauma (religious); mention of parental homophobia; RSD
Why Not Me?
I’ve been in the query trenches for three years.
To some, that’s nothing. A drop in the bucket. To others, it’s an unimaginable eternity.
My first book (YA urban fantasy) was sent to 101 agents. I received 3 requests and 100 rejections. Technically, I still have a full pending an answer.
The overwhelming feedback?
I entered every contest I could toss my hat into the ring for. On more than one occasion, they requested additional material.
The only personalized feedback I received (from two agents independently, and I adore them for taking the time) was that the writing was great, query was strong, but the concept wasn’t new enough.
And here’s a secret for you…
I don’t write new concepts.
I am a traumatized, C-PTSD-having, ADHD-fueled, mentally ill, perfectionist, queer mess.
And all I want in the world is to write stories for people like me. Even the familiar ones. Especially the familiar ones.
So, with my next book, I changed tactics. I laid out my marginalizations so my ‘new take on an old trope’ would be more marketable.
Yes, it’s a concept you’ve seen before, but it’s sapphic. Why does this story matter? Well, you see, I’m functioning from a base of 18 years of religious trauma. Would you like to know what my preacher was arrested for (unrelated to me and my C-PTSD, thank the spaghetti monster in the sky)? Shall I list my dead relatives? My abuses and traumas? My journey of self-discovery that resulted in a very mellow coming out at 27?
The sixteen page Facebook message from a family member the day after describing exactly how I’ll burn in hell? My father’s awkward silence and refusal to acknowledge my identity? My mother’s gentle, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but you can’t tell anyone’?
Would you like me to tally my scars, mental and physical, so you can weigh them against my content and see if my story (and therefore I) am ‘different’ enough? Unique enough?
If I describe myself as ‘neurodivergent,’ is that enough? Will you assume I’m autistic? Will you assume I’m mentally damaged and can’t handle the pressure? Will you show compassion? Or will you reject me out of hand assuming I’m difficult?
If I claim that my work is sapphic, is that enough? It isn’t a romance. Not a traditional one. Should I tell you why? Show you my deep mental and emotional scars that have led to writing emotional intimacy without the physical?
Or is that ‘desexualizing WLW’ and unacceptable?
In the span of two weeks, I witnessed two literary agents talk about rejecting a YA fantasy because ‘we’ve seen this concept before.’
Like me, they were rejecting authors that weren’t writing something different enough.
The feedback on this latest manuscript (again, YA fantasy)? Great writing. Fantastic worldbuilding. *Chef’s kiss* voice.
And a concept we’ve seen before.
I received my first full request so fast it made my head spin. I dared to hope that flaying myself alive was finally getting me in the door. Making an agent take notice of something the same, but different.
And since that request, nothing but form rejection… after form rejection… after form rejection.
Agents are busy. Their time is valuable. They owe me nothing as a querying author. I know and accept all of this.
But the form I receive for ‘too queer’ is the same form I receive for ‘not queer enough’ is the same form I receive for ‘terrible writing’ is the same form I receive for ‘great writing, but a concept we’ve seen before.
What’s wrong with a twist on a concept we’ve seen before?
Why isn’t there space for an urban fantasy starring an ambitious-as-hell girl who can’t connect to other people? Her journey discovering that she can open up without losing herself is valuable. Her choice to turn away from ambition for the sake of people who finally gave her a home is valuable.
Why isn’t there space for a fantasy set in a world where ancient religions are the norm, with all their humor and all their horror? That run-of-the-mill teen’s story is important. Her friends who are devout and questioning and set against the gods and kind and cruel in every combination are important. Her discovery that a system can be horrible to the point of evil and still contain good people, that destroying that system may destroy some of those good people, matters. Her quiet questioning matters. She matters.
The next story I write? That will matter, too.
Duty versus love. The trauma-driven need to protect oneself versus protecting a person who is open and honest and kind. Fighting like hell for something as a neurodivergent person, achieving the same and better than competing neurotypical people, and being betrayed by those people. The choice to burn that world down. Whimsy and humor and boredom and trauma and dissociation and self-discovery.
And when I have to reveal intimate aspects of myself with every query to answer the question ‘Why are you the person to write this story?’ when I constantly have to lay myself bare to get a foot in the door, the old advice rings hollow.
‘They aren’t rejecting you; they’re rejecting the story.’
Not anymore. Not when every story’s theme must have roots in my trauma, my marginalization, my life.
I don’t have an answer.
I’m not angry with agents, or even with the system. A form rejection is certainly better than no response. I’m grateful there’s an emphasis on marginalized voices, even if the implementation is sometimes dicey. There are thousands of wonderful writers with millions of beautiful stories all trying desperately to gain representation.
I’m proud of the stories I’ve written. Whether or not they’re important to publishing, they’re important to me.
So I’ll keep writing. I’ll cut myself open to carefully display the traumas that ‘allow’ me to write my stories in the hope that some agent will see and decide that I am enough.
That my queerness is enough. My neurodivergence is enough. My trauma and mental health issues are enough.
Author’s Note: This post is a more practical, craft-based post that relates to my recent post on character agency and trauma. After writing that post, I realized I had some practical application things I wanted to add that might be better as a separate post, so here it is!
Disclaimer: As with my previous post, please note that this is about writing for traditional publishing and any discussion regarding trauma is written from my lens as a white, cis, American writing within that storytelling framework. Please also note this post is about GMC as an author with C-PTSD/trauma not necessarily always about writing characters who have trauma.
I loved it. It felt like finally there was a book explaining to me in simple terms the things other people intrinsically seemed to understand about character. For years, I’d tried to revise to advice about goals and agency and active protagonists that was either too complicated or too simple. Now, here was someone to explain what I was doing wrong. The trick is that having an active protagonist with agency isn’t just about having a character with a goal who does stuff. It’s having a character with a goal who does stuff to drive the plot forward. Having a goal of “Get home to eat some soup”* while it’s a goal the character might take action on doesn’t drive the plot forward.
*Actual example from the draft of my Pitch Wars book my mentor saw, by the way. Listen, someone told me the cure to a passive protagonist was to give them goals even if they were small. Turns out, this is not to be literally interpreted. The goal can be small but only if it moves the plot forward.
What I loved most about Debra Dixon’s book was it gave me easy GMC charts for stories I knew well. Particularly the ones for Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m pretty sure it would be copyright infringement to share that chart in its entirety here, but the structure is simple:
The very first thing my Pitch Wars mentor requested I do before I revised a single word of my book was to create GMC charts for my main character (the protagonist), the second point of view (the villain love interest), the main character’s best friend, the antagonist, and the secondary (tertiary?) villain (listen, unclear, this book has a lot of villains). Why? Because my arcs weren’t clear. Why? Well, I suspect because even after fifteen years of trauma therapy I still don’t really understand how agency works. Which is how I came to write this blog. But first! An announcement!
Write What You Know, Except…
Here’s where this whole write what you know thing gets a little off the tracks. “Write what you know” was another piece of writing advice that made absolutely no sense to me for most of my adult life. Again, because I interpreted it way too literally. All through my college classes I heard write what you know and bobbed my head while internally I screamed what the ever loving fuck does that mean?
If people only write what they know how do they write about dragons? Or even simpler, how do they write about people they aren’t? Not every character is a self-insert, or should be. Wow that would be… something. Clearly, we are constantly writing what we don’t know. This is terrible advice and yet here it is. Everywhere. All the time.
As I got older and started really writing novels and more specifically, focusing on craft for novels, I realized write what you know doesn’t mean that quite so literally. This might be obvious to some, most even, but it wasn’t to me. It took me years to figure out. Write what you know doesn’t apply to the external, surface level stuff. To plot. To dragons. To if your character likes tomato soup when you like broccoli cheddar (yeah, here I am with the soup again). It applies to the deeper seated things. Write about the human experience unique to you. Your pain. Your joy. Your identities. I also learned (something they did not teach in my writing classes, by the way) it means you shouldn’t write from those deep places you don’t know. The ones that belong to someone else. The stories that are not yours.
This started to make the most sense to me when my internal stories started to bleed onto the page without me realizing. Whole novels I thought were about magic and worldbuilding and friendship and questing. Whoop. Trauma. Whoop. Addiction. Whoop. Secret bisexual. Whoop. ADHD.
That secret bleeding is authentic to the unique experience of the writer. It’s writing what you know. But sometimes, it becomes necessary to trick the system a bit. NOT to usurp someone else’s identity, but to attempt to reclaim your own. And that’s when, in my opinion, the intellectual exercise of a GMC chart can really come in handy for someone with trauma. Because sometimes, you don’t actually know what you know well enough to write it, or to write it with intention and consistency. Or, through no fault of your own, you haven’t learned it. Such is the way with the loss of agency and the first two points of that chart: Goal and Motivation. So, you have to trick your own system (your brain) and write a bit of what you do not know to get to what you do (Conflict).
For brevity (ha!) I know right? I’m going to focus on the main character in this post. But as I noted above, most of your major players should have GMC. Definitely your POV characters and your villain at minimum.
In its simplest form, the goal is the thing the main character wants. In fantasy, what I write, the external goal is usually the thing driving the plot forward. Steal the thing (heist), overthrow the government (coup), save the world (hero’s journey), become the next queen (palace intrigue).
For my Pitch Wars book, the external goal for my main character was “Save her best friend.”
External goals for me have always been a bit easier to figure out, because as I mentioned in my earlier post, having C-PTSD doesn’t stop someone from wanting things. For this one, I would say the advice given is pretty standard. Read widely and see what’s popular. Then give it your own spin. Fantasy stakes are often epic, as I cited, but there’s been a recent demand in the market for character-focused stories. Character-focused stories require character-focused goals. I don’t love saying anything is “overdone” or “dead” (especially as someone who writes fairytale retellings), but I will say a character trying to save the world isn’t always as easy to relate to as a character trying to save their best friend. Or their mom. Or their dog. Now, if their best friend just so happens to be the person most likely to fix the future of the world, well… I mean… you do you.
The internal goal is what drives the character arc. The character is not always immediately aware of this goal, but you as the author should be. Usually, it’s related to the character’s emotional wound and is the thing that will be healed by the end of the book.
Oop, I used the word healed and hackles across the traumaverse raised. To be clear, your internal goal in a trauma narrative does not have to be (nor would I recommend it be) “heal their trauma.” Nor are character’s emotional wounds limited to one. Indeed, we all have scars aplenty, traumatized or not. When we’re talking about The Emotional Wound and The Internal Goal, we’re talking about the one driving the character arc forward for this one book. Good news for writers is that people are pretty fucked up and have many emotional wounds so loads of internal goals to work toward (meaning more books for that character which for us fantasy authors is key).
On a more serious note, for those of us with trauma, especially C-PTSD, you’ll know “healing” is not a linear journey made up of one thing but a patchwork of unraveling one thing only to realize you’ve unspooled seven others. Followed by fifty more. Which is why I say it’s probably not a great goal for a single book even if we wanted to convey the message that trauma can be healed (which is another post entirely, perhaps for my therapist to address). Regardless of whether you think trauma of that magnitude can ever be healed or should ever be healed, it’s simply too big to do in one book.
For my Pitch Wars book, the internal goal for my main character was to “find self acceptance.” This was related to her emotional wound: abandonment.
Here’s where things start to get a little bit trickier for someone with trauma, in my experience. Internal goals are where character arcs come into play. In theory, if you were plotting the points of your character’s emotional progression over the course of your book, it should look something like this:
First, I’m not a plotter, so part of my issue with *gestures vaguely* some of this, is that. However, some of my issues around internal character arcs are, I’ve discovered, related to trauma. My character arcs never look like arcs. They always look like EKGs. You know, this thing:
This has to do with the difficulty I have as a writer with trauma in understanding a smooth progression of emotion in any situation. The act of healing for me is never linear. It’s always this two steps forward, one step back tango of unraveled mess that doesn’t turn into a nice arc and is also apparently quite frustrating to read to anyone not me. Why? Well, because for most readers it reads as repetitive. “We’ve already done this with this character. Let’s move on.”
Pause. I know this is going to be a long blog. They always are, but it’s because I want to try to address the thousand thousand caveats which I know I can’t do but I can try, damn it.
Is it frustrating to you as a writer with trauma to hear that your authentic story reads as frustrating and repetitive to readers? Absolutely. Does it remain true? Also yes. I again repeat you can ignore every single thing I say in this blog as bogus and do it your own way. You can write the book of your heart about survival with no GMC and an arc that looks like that EKG machine. You can break every single rule in the rulebook. There is no such thing as advice that will lead you to success, nor is there advice you must follow to find it. All that exists is kind of in general information about the current ways stories are told in the United States. There’s information about why some things appear to work and others don’t. There are also examples of people saying fuck off with that, breaking the rules, and everyone loving it. However, for every one of those stories there are ten thousand more who tried the same thing and weren’t lucky. There are also loads of people who follow all the rules and get nowhere. So, I have no magic solutions here, only information.
How does the GMC chart help with the EKG machine effect, then? Well, if you know where you’re headed and what you’re working through, it can be easier to chart a smoother course. Or help you smooth things out in edits, depending on what type of writer you are. Each scene can be approached with an eye for how the emotion is moving forward (and if it could be moving back). Keeping in mind that there are some stutters and one big one (at the Dark Moment) you should have where that emotional wound comes and rears its ugly head, but overall it should be a mostly smooth line toward Aha!
Motivation is all about the why behind the want. Why does your character want the thing? Often, you’ll hear this advice about forming GMC which I quite like: My character wants X [Goal] because Y [motivation] except Z gets in the way [conflict]. Or some variation on this.
Figuring out why your character wants something sounds easy enough, and I guess it can be, but there’s another part of this we don’t talk about often enough and everything about it has to do with agency. If you’re writing a character who’s experienced trauma, the why behind the want has to be stronger than their trauma responses.
The why is what pushes the character forward. In the case of a character with trauma, that means pushing forward through their own trauma, which if you’ve got trauma, you might now be understanding why this is harder for us than other writers, perhaps. Primarily because if you asked me this question, what motivation do you hold now that can make you fight through your own trauma responses? The list is… quite small. And there’s a part of me that is still sitting here saying, “If it’s even possible to do, honestly.” Because some things are just y’know, biological. Burned into my brain and all. I might want to fight through some shit for certain goals, but there are things in my brain that are now wired to not fight. So, it can get murky.
Fortunately, we write fiction, and this is one of those moments where fibbing what you know might be in order. But you probably won’t do it naturally. You will not bleed that experience onto the page like some others. So you have to do it with intention. Via an intellectual exercise like the GMC chart. Why does your character want this thing? And make it big.
For my Pitch Wars book, the external goal of “Save her best friend” was accompanied by the motivation “Because the villain is trying to turn her evil.” Goal worth fighting for and a why big enough to aggressively fight forward.
Keeping that goal in your mind (and your character’s mind) is a good way to keep the plot moving forward. Each scene should be moving either the plot or the character arc (or both) forward. If it’s doing neither, well…
Internal motivation is also something I’ll argue is not always known, especially if you’re writing a character who has some trauma. But usually, it relates back to the wound. Why does the character want the internal goal? Well, usually because the wound has left them feeling Some Kind of Way and they’d like to uh… not.
But saying to a trauma survivor “Don’t feel like shit” about something is about as disingenuous as telling them to “Just let it go.” Don’t you hate it? So, once again, we as writers are confronted with the dilemma of needing a why that is strong enough to overcome the trauma to move forward toward the want. With internal motivation, this can all happen sort of under the character’s radar, by the way. They don’t have to seek therapy on the page, though cool if they do.
If you’re writing a romance, or something with a romance subplot, you will likely lean heavily on the love interest for this part, which is helpful. Why does the character want to get over their feel like shit feeling? Well, because it’s affecting this new relationship which could be great. The emotional wound should be something that can be healed with a supportive partner’s love. Another reason it should not be trauma. Because that’s a story no one needs in the world anymore. Trauma cannot be healed by love and if I see another fantasy novel written like… I will stop talking now.
Primarily, however, self-improvement happens inside the self, so your character has to be the one to do the work, with or without a love interest as motivation. Consciously or unconsciously. They might not know exactly what they’re seeking in the beginning, but along the way they should find a reason to keep pushing at the edges of their own capacities, and by the end, they should have found a new status quo.
If they’re fighting trauma, the path is harder. You will likely run into the EKG because creating that smooth arc requires some “letting go.” Sometimes, it might seem unnatural, or “too easy” and that’s because it sort of is. Regardless of whether you have diagnosed, clinical trauma or not, most of us don’t heal anything in a smooth line. Old habits die hard. Old suspicions which are born of old wounds, die harder. It’s almost more natural to write an up and down, back and forth dance than a forward-moving progression. No one ever said writing was easy.
Ultimately, for my Pitch Wars book, my main character’s internal motivation of “find self-acceptance” was accompanied by a motivation of “because she needs it to be free.”
Freedom. What a word.
Conflict both external and internal is the “But” that gets in the way. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on it because I think most people writing from a place of trauma are plenty familiar with conflict. In fantasy it’s the villain in the external plot, the things that go wrong, the challenges. In the internal arc it’s those old fears related to the emotional wound creeping back in.
When you’re dealing with trauma, it can often be the thing that stalls the forward motion. The conflict for internal progress of an arc of a traumatized character could actually be the underlying trauma itself. “I want to be more confident because that’s a trait that’s desired in leadership roles but I can’t trust myself because trauma has taught me not to.” That’s pretty much something you could say about me.
The problem with making trauma your conflict is again, that point I made earlier about your motivation needing to be strong enough to overcome it. Am I going to overcome my trauma for work? Doubtful. So two things can be done here. You can revise your goal and motivation to be bigger, or you can revise the conflict to be smaller.
Does that mean you’re writing the trauma out of your narrative? I think that’s a point to be argued. I would say no. Because we do exist in multitudes, and I think you can overcome some internal hurdles without leaping trauma to do so. In my Pitch Wars novel, my main character is not traumatized, at least not in the traditional sense (probably all my characters are traumatized in some way because I write what I know). My villain love interest, however, is.
I didn’t share his GMC chart because some of his goals and motivations are spoilers. But the conflict to his internal motivation is based partly in trauma. Trauma done to him and trauma he’s done to himself. I say partly because it’s only one thread in that spool of so many. By the end of the book, he’s found that one thing he’s been seeking without entirely knowing he was seeking it. What he isn’t is cured or healed of trauma. One piece may be unknotted, but in unknotting that, he’s unraveled more. Arguably, he’s more traumatized. As my therapist says, “With trauma, it gets worse before it gets better.”
When I was studying creative writing, one of my intermediate fiction writing professors put a list of “Rules” on our workshop door. There were 14 of them. Some I remember, some I don’t. Some were standard, some a little more bizarre. We were not to break them in our stories. One was: “Write what you know.” Another: “Use only said and asked.” Another limited us to one exclamation point per ten pages. Yet another said we couldn’t write teenage girls crying in the bathtub. Which never made sense to me, a teenage girl who often cried in the bathtub, trying to write what she knew.
For years, I framed my dorm room and apartment rooms with quotes on writing from the greats. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Chekhov (who I have a lifelong feud with, doesn’t matter he’s dead). “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” ~ Bradbury. “It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” ~ T.S. Eliot. “Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” ~ Orwell “Work like hell!” ~ Fitzgerald. “You can make anything by writing.” ~ C.S. Lewis. “A word after a word after a word is power.” ~ Atwood.
I thought these words would inspire me to keep going even when it got hard. What I didn’t realize was I’d surrounded myself with rules I didn’t understand urging me to do things that weren’t achievable for me. My external GMC was this: I want to be a novelist because my voice has been silenced all my life, but I’m too afraid to speak my truth. My internal GMC was this: I want to be courageous because to speak your truth you need to be, but I’m afraid to be punished. Around and around the trauma wheel I went. Wanting to speak to break the cycle. Too afraid to speak because of the damage done by the cycle.
The truth was, I could work like hell, did work like hell, but no amount of working could help me understand. I couldn’t understand the rules to do the things, let alone break them, which meant there were most certainly things I could not create with writing, like a traditional GMC for starters. I sure as shit did not have intuition that knew what it was doing, and as much as I craved power, I was too terrified to seize it were it handed to me on a golden platter which you know, it isn’t.
I’d surrounded myself with words that said I would never be enough. And I believed them.
But here’s the thing: the greats were wrong.
There’s no singular way to write. No rules that can’t be broken, or for that matter, shouldn’t be. Stories aren’t only for the brave or the powerful or the intuitively inclined or the hard workers. Stories are for everyone. But your story, it’s only for you. Which means only you know how best to tell it. If that means self-publishing or going with a small press or popping something up on a blog or never showing a word of your writing to anyone then do it (after the appropriate amount of research and making sure you can afford it and all that comes with it). If it means throwing your heart book about survival that doesn’t follow a single rule at the gates until someone lets you in, then do it (after knowing and accepting if no one lets you in, you are more than your writing). If it means trying a few things to find the right fit, well, you surely wouldn’t be the first of us to wander around for awhile.
The path I ultimately chose was this one. Traditional publishing. Learning the rules no matter how much they confused me so maybe one day I could break them with intention. Telling the greats to fuck off while also remembering they probably did know a thing or two so maybe some of their advice could apply, it just didn’t have to be crushing. Making compromises about how I tell the stories that matter so they’re heard. Hoping one day someone will be able to tell them the way I’d prefer, regardless if that person is me or not. Knowing maybe I’ll be someone who helps pave the way and that can be enough because in so doing, I found my own voice and power, which was the point. This is the path that fits my story and this exact point in my life. I expect it’ll change. I hope it does. Art requires change, in my opinion, and I want to keep producing it.
This post is not to say there’s only One True Way. Because there isn’t. There never was. There never will be. Your story demands your way. No one else’s. This is but a tool and like any other you can choose to use it or find something better or say to hell with all of them and do it your own way. Invent your own tools. Chart your own path.
Whatever you do, though, don’t let anyone tell you they know more about your story than you do.
You are a warrior. A survivor. And you are courageous.
Author’s Note: If you’ve been around here awhile you’ll know this is standard fare from me at this point, but I repeat it for new folks: anything in this post is my opinion as one person not as a monolith. Nothing in this post can or should be used against other people in the same communities I describe.
Trigger/Content Warnings: This post talks about trigger/content warning discourse. Also describes in detail what a triggering event can be like. Brief description of child abuse and related triggering event thereafter; flashbacks; disassociation. References to childhood abuse and trauma.
Let me put this right up front for the TL;DR crowd. I am pro using trigger and content warnings. I am anti policing how people ascribe these things to their personal experiences. I am pro self-exploration about using these words more carefully. I also think we need to do a better job explaining what they are, how they’re different, and why we use them. I also believe failure to do so has caused harm to the communities who need them most.
Trigger; Triggering; To be Triggered
To be perfectly frank, because that’s what I do here, I have a very complicated relationship with the way the term “trigger” has evolved. For me, a person who has C-PTSD (and other mental health issues I don’t need or want to list out today), “trigger” has a very specific meaning. That meaning is the one used by most psychiatrists and psychologists and goes something like this: a trigger is a stimulus that causes a painful memory to resurface (usually the definition used in the context of C-PTSD or PTSD), or a stimulus that activates or worsens the symptoms of a mental health condition. Trigger doesn’t mean something offensive or a bit uncomfortable. It isn’t something that makes me a little sad or a little yick or a little anxious. To be triggered for someone like me means to be mentally fucked for a time.
Considering the volume of trauma I’ve been through, I’m not actually triggered that often. When I was younger, it happened more, but honestly, I couldn’t explain to you what the source of the triggering thing was. Now, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been truly triggered in the past five years. But I sure as shit know when I am and what caused it. This is a primary goal of trauma work: identifying triggers and finding ways to lessen their impact on your life.
Impact. That’s what triggers have. That’s what that word is meant to mean.
My C-PTSD wasn’t caused by any one thing, that’s what makes it different from PTSD without the C. A bunch of it stems from early childhood trauma though. I grew up in a violent, chaotic, loud environment. So, I have some sensory issues related to noise (as in, I don’t like it) but I don’t consider all noise triggering, or even all loud noise. Sometimes, when I’m overly stressed or highly tuned in, certain noises irritate me, or distract me. They might even become at times physically irritating, almost like a sting beneath my skin. Those aren’t triggers for me. More like irritations. They’re uncomfortable in the way too many bugs flying around you, ruining your otherwise pleasant picnic might be uncomfortable. Maybe it escalates into the bugs taking a bite or two, causing some frustration or agitation. Is it annoying? Yes. Would I rather it not? Yes. Is it outside the realm of a normal human emotion? Not really. I mean maybe in the sense that most people don’t find noise mildly painful, I suppose. But the emotion itself is not wildly disproportionate in a way that escalates my preexisting mental illnesses or causes a flashback or has any real impact on my life beyond fleeting, everyday annoyance.
This is where I’m going to describe a triggering event: Yelling, child abuse. And its impacts: Disassociation. Skip until next bold (after the photo of the bathtub).
What is a trigger for me is the particular noise of a mother screaming while beating her child.
Before I moved to my current home, I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors in the same building a few apartments down constantly yelled at her kids. It bothered me but not to the level of a full-blown trigger. However, one day, I heard her screaming at one of her children. The sound carried through the walls, and with it came the very distinct whap of an object against bare skin. The child screamed. Begged. I had a flashback, then disassociated.
The next thing I remember was coming back to myself to find I was sitting in my bathtub, fully clothed, hands over my ears, rocking back and forth while tears streamed down my cheeks. I have no idea how long I’d been there. Long enough my legs ached and my throat hurt from crying, maybe even screaming.
That is triggering. Real live in the flesh triggering for someone who has a bona fide psychological disorder.
Who determines what is “triggering?”
The person who experiences triggers determines what they are.
The thing about triggers is they’re highly individualized. No two people have the same set of experiences, or the same brain, so it’s impossible to understand how someone will react to a particular stimulus under any set of conditions. I’ve done years and years of trauma work. In the beginning of this work, I was unable to determine what my triggers were. I knew things triggered flashbacks, and disassociation, that something made me start screaming for seemingly no reason, but it was difficult to discern what those things were. A key part of my early trauma work was focused on identifying triggers (or potential triggers) and working on ways to manage them. I did this with a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment.
I mention it because it’s important to understand that for some people, knowing what their own triggers are might be harder than you’d expect. They’re not as clear cut as the neat little warnings we often see at the top of the page. So if triggers “change” for someone, that’s not abnormal. It’s also why triggers are often given in broad contexts sweeping a range of topics: “abuse,” “trauma,” “domestic violence,” “assault,” because people who experience triggers might not know what specific thing in that wide category will trigger them, but they might know that category contains their past and that content should be avoided. Over the years of my personal trauma work, my trigger sensitivity has been seriously reduced. Not everyone is able to do that or is at that stage in their journey.
Basically, this is not the trauma Olympics. We’re not here to put our scars on display for you to evaluate if that’s a “good enough” reason for us to say “this thing is genuinely triggering to me.” You’ll note I didn’t describe the individual Bad Shit that happened to me as a kid in my story above. Because it’s none of your business. You don’t get to decide if whatever I went through was “bad enough” to warrant my response to my neighbor’s behavior. I control that. Well, I don’t actually which is the annoying part. Because, trust me, if I could make my triggers go away, I would. They’re not pleasant. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve been doing trauma work for a million years instead of putting that money toward I don’t know… literally anything else.
“Trigger” should be used with discernment and self-reflection
Here’s where it gets tricky. I do think the terminology has been a bit… overused. That’s why I provided an example of the reaction I have to a trigger. Reminder about the monolith thing I said at the beginning. And of the definition I used of the word trigger. The reaction doesn’t have to be that extreme for you to consider something triggering. However, a trigger is meant to mean more than, “This makes me feel an unpleasant emotion within the realm of the ‘normal’ human experience.” Feeling sad is normal. Feeling anxious is normal. Feeling uncomfortable is normal. Feeling pissed off is normal. Feeling triggered is distinctly not normal.
The reason this matters is because when the word trigger is misappropriated in day-to-day speech, those who need this language to better explain what’s happening to them are stripped of its value. If the word trigger is so frequently used to mean something less than its definition, it’s devalued. This means the only recourse I have to explain my emotional reaction to a stimulus is to put the actual emotional reaction on display (which in and of itself can be retraumatizing).
I have strange feelings about people who ascribe the word “trigger” to something other than what its general psychological definition is, because this word was given to me and people like me who are suffering immense emotional pain so we might explain that pain without having to relive it. I also have an issue with the idea there is a “trauma” trigger and a sort of everyday use of the word trigger. While practically, I think that might at this point true, it again puts the onus of explanation onto the population whose language was stolen. Triggers also apply to communities of people who don’t have trauma, for one. So to exclude them from their language is a poor solution. And for those who do have triggers because of trauma, forcing us to further delineate “trigger” to “trauma trigger” outs us in ways we perhaps did not want to be outed. Finally, many people have comorbidities that cause this discernment to be almost impossible. I joke with close friends pretty regularly about, “Is it trauma or is it my [x other neurodiversity, mental illness, etc.]?” But the joke hides pain. It’s hard to live like this. Constantly questioning what part of your twisted brain made you lose time this time. Putting the burden of waging that battle of defining pieces of self on people already struggling to do it is unfair and to be honest, cruel. A trigger is a trigger. Sometimes it’s trauma, sometimes it’s not. Always it’s more than uncomfortable.
To be clear: I’m not here to police anyone’s use of the word. This is meant to be a self-exploration exercise only. If you’re using the word casually or colloquially or flippantly, or you might be, or you’re asking communities to drill down language that was already intended to mean a specific thing, then a reexamination could be in order because the casual use of the word is doing actual damage to people who need it.
What is a Content Warning?
Content warnings can be sort of nebulous. However, I put content warnings in the category of the things you maybe shouldn’t be using the word trigger for. In the context of writing, because that’s what this blog is about, content warnings describe things that may be upsetting or uncomfortable or even things people simply don’t want to read about. Or read about at that particular moment, anyway.
Difference between Content and Trigger Warnings
What makes something a Content Warning or a Trigger Warning is not determined by the person writing, it’s determined by the person reading. That’s what makes them difficult for people to differentiate between because the writer has to use them interchangeably to accommodate multiple unknown readers (i.e. something that could be triggering to me might be something that just makes you uncomfortable, or vice versa).
So, if you’re the person doing their level best to alert readers about what’s coming, using content and trigger warnings interchangeably makes sense as you don’t know your reader. If you’re the person talking about your own TWs and CWs, you should delineate to make room for the nuance in the definitions.
For example, for me personally, I have never experienced a trigger in writing. I think that’s probably because of the way my brain processes information. My trauma is triggered by senses. A book doesn’t have much sensory output (in that it’s not yelling, or flashing lights at me, or smelling of alcohol, etc.). However, I prefer not to read books featuring trauma where the author doesn’t have a personal experience of trauma, because I often find the representations to be poor, stereotypical, and sometimes cruel, and I walk away feeling depressed, uncomfortable, or just pissed. A general content warning is helpful for me, so I know to look into the origin of the author (if that information is readily available), or read reviews to see how other people found the representation, or simply tread lightly on a day I have spoons.
Use of Content and Trigger Warnings
Step One: Use Them
You can’t know someone else’s life or their experiences. Just because you went through some shit and aren’t triggered doesn’t mean other people had the same experience. Again, we are not here to play trauma Olympics with one another. Don’t be an asshole, use CWs and TWs. You should do your best to use them all the time but especially if someone specifically points out they’d like them. Triply if someone is like THE FOLLOWING THINGS TRIGGER ME LET ME KNOW IF I’M ABOUT TO GO THERE.
If you forget, I’ll remind you to be kind to yourself. Messing up happens. We’re all human. I forget sometimes too, and I’m literally here writing this post at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday after working like 75 hours this week because I care about this topic so much. So, give yourself some slack. Unless you’re being an asshole about it and wantonly refusing to use them because you think people should toughen up. If that is you, I’ll remind you to be kinder to others. And honestly maybe yourself. Because you either have no idea what trauma is like, or you do and you think everyone should suck it up like you have and that is… well, a post for another day.
Step Two: Respect Requests to Include Them
Probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen lately in the writing community is people challenging agents on their ask that TWs and CWs be provided. I mean, listen, this is your future career and all, but my advice is to not do that. Besides being a super bad take for all the reasons I mentioned above about people’s need for them, it’s also just not professional to willfully refuse to do something beneficial to the mental health of the person you’re courting to be your future business partner.
Outside of querying, you should still honor requests to use trigger and content warnings by people when they’re given. The requests are likely not made lightly.
Step Three: Do Not Challenge People’s TWs and CWs
This one is harder than it seems and honestly I’m not 100% sure it’s the completely right advice, so bear with me. There are, in my mind, a spectrum of “Challengers.” On one end are people you should aspire to never be. On the other end might actually be me because here I am writing this post. Nuance. Brains. Complicated topics. Oh my.
Type One: That Asshole. You know the one. The one who has a Twitter bio that’s like “White man and proud. Trump 2024. God, guns, guts. Eats libtards for breakfast.” That’s the one who like gets up in people’s Twitter space and say shit like, “Trigger warnings HA! Do you need a safe space too?” Or “I’ll make sure to send you my [exactly the book the agent requests not to see in their inbox] LOL.” Or the slightly less aggressive but still douchey, “I’m not really a big believer in trigger warnings.” Cool, Tom. They’re not for you. And let me get ahead of you to say I don’t give a shit whether you believe my C-PTSD is real or not.
This type you should never, ever be. But I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this blog that. Still, any variation on this is a no go. Basically, please refrain from aggressively questioning someone’s triggers or content warning needs because it’s invasive and rude. I might be the type to explain to you in a 7 page blog post about why I need trigger and content warnings and what my precise trauma is, but most people aren’t and shouldn’t be asked to. Whatever caused the need for the warnings is probably hard enough as it is.
Type Two: This Asshole. As in very possibly me. I’m not sure. I much prefer people do self-exploration and reflection to determine if their use of these terms is appropriate when they take into consideration the harm it could be doing to communities that need the language, as I’ve mentioned. However, this blog isn’t going to reach everyone. More like a couple hundred someones. That probably isn’t enough to reclaim the language. And not everyone is going to be self-reflective after reading a long ass blog from some random person on the internet. So what about calling out people’s use of the term nicely?
I’ve seen it done tactfully. Kindly. Gently. I’ve seen people say ‘I have this lived experience, and if you’re using this term loosely or in a knee-jerk way please be mindful of the people it hurts.’ I’ve nodded along with these people. Celebrated that someone finally said it. Then watched them get dragged on Twitter for daring to question a fellow survivor’s experience. Annnnnnnd I see that side, too. Who are we to know? I mean, I think I know. Even now I’m half typing out explanations of how I know, but ultimately no one can know their life except them. So reiterations of self-reflection are as far as I’m willing to go. I just… I would hate to be wrong and hurt someone else more than they’ve already been hurt, I guess. Even though I do really see the collective damage it’s doing. Have felt it myself. Understand the desire to make it stop. But I’ve always been about gentle pushes in the right direction more than sweeping gestures that burn hot and fade fast.
Step Four: There is no step four
Tada! I’m done. It was long again. Sorry. Please accept this token picture of my cat, Apollo, who has lived for 16 years through all my bullshit, just as you, dear reader, have lived through this long ass post full of my bullshit.
Until next random thought, please remember: language matters, and be kind to yourself and others!
Trigger/Content Warning: Discussion of physical and emotional violence against humans and animals in dreams, as well as discussion of sexual assault in dreams. Trauma, nightmares, childhood fears.
Anyone who has written well, just about anything, will have heard this question before: Where do you get all your ideas from?
It’s one of the most basic writing questions of all time, and it remains so because it varies for every single person. Some people get their inspiration from life events, from people they know, from observing what happens in the world around them. Some people get their inspiration from their travels, from their neighbors, from the kids on their block. Some people get their inspiration from politics, from social situations they want to change, or history that fascinates them. Some people get their inspiration from other writers, from poets, from songwriters, from artists of all kinds.
I get my inspiration mainly from nightmares.
My very first memory is of a nightmare. I still remember it as viscerally and vividly now as I did when I was small. In it, I am young–maybe four. My hair is as white as the lace nightgown I wear and hangs just to my shoulders. My pink blanket trails behind me as I walk, barefooted, to the base of a mighty black volcano.
I want to shove my thumb in my mouth for comfort but even there, in my haunted sleep, I think of how my mother says big girls mustn’t suck their thumbs. So, because I’m a big girl (and have always been expected to be), I fold the satin edge of my blanket into a sharp point. Holding the fold together with my thumb and middle finger, I run my pointer finger over the once-soft, now-sharp satin again and again, allowing the pain to ground me.
For reasons only the nightmare knows, I start my ascent to the craggy, gurgling summit.
By the time I reach the top, the volcano is erupting, spewing red-hot lava in all directions. There’s no smoke, and it’s warm (not hot), probably because my young mind still doesn’t know anything about volcanoes other than what it’s seen in books or on TV, but I am afraid nonetheless.
Afraid and not alone. Because awaiting me at that summit is the character I fear most, a horror figure I still–at thirty years old–cannot stomach seeing: Chucky.
His hair is as red as the lava, his demented, painted on smile focused entirely on me. My heart hammers in my chest, but the sound of it is drowned out by the toy’s hysterical laughter.
He’s smaller than me, and he moves like a dead thing–stiff and disjointed. Yet, in this nightmare with its strange, uncontrollable dream logic, I don’t think to run, or fight, or even scream as his short, chubby arms reach for me.
Instead, I do what I’ve always done–what I’ll continue to do for decades more–I freeze.
He lifts me up and chucks me into the angry, open mouth of the volcano. As I fall, tumbling into blackness and certain death, my pink blanket floats down with me, followed by the sounds of Chucky’s maniacal cackle.
Never once do I utter a sound.
This is only the first of many. Over the next twenty-six years (from four to thirty), I will have dreams where I am the villain — bashing in the skulls of girls who tease me. I will have dreams where I am already a ghost, staring at my dead, white body hanging from a noose that hangs from a tree. I will have dreams where people I love are cut up and fed to me. I will have dreams where my dog is shot repeatedly at my feet. I will have dreams where random strangers have their limbs sawed off, and I stand there and watch as they are funneled down a bloody conveyor belt into a large vat. I will have dreams where I am being tortured and brutalized. I’ll have dreams about being raped, a lot.
They will all be different, but they will all be vivid and horrible and full of rage and fear and panic. I will wake from them screaming words like, “Get me down!” or “Don’t touch me!” Sometimes, the screaming will be completely incoherent. I will wake from them ripping my hair out of my head in chunks. I will wake from them with blood and flesh under my fingernails from where I’ve gouged my chest or face. I will wake from them sweating, or crying, or whimpering, or shaking, or some combination of all four. I will wake from them and run to the bathroom to wretch and vomit. Sometimes, I won’t wake from them at all, either because I’m too drugged from the latest cocktail the psychiatrist has cooked up for me, or because the emotion wasn’t quite intense enough to wake me, and there I’ll reside, trapped in the dream until dawn. It will go on and on and on until I wake up naturally, my teeth loose and my jaw aching from the constant gnashing and grinding.
Very few of these nightmares will give me anything except bile and panic and exhaustion. But some–some will give me inspiration. Some will provide me with a vivid picture, a snippet of something that could be. It might only be a character, some sparkle of good in these terrible dreamscapes, or it might be one scene that brought me joy in a night full of horror. But sometimes, an entire plot unveils itself.
And when I wake, I write.
What about you? Where does your inspiration come from?