Writing About Trauma

Many of the characters we read and get to know within the pages of a book deal with trauma. Many characters are children still and many are adults who dealt with trauma as children.

Trauma can be the conflict your character is dealing with.

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As an educator, I attended a training where we learned about Adverse Childhood Effects or Experiences – ACEs for short. I learned about this several years ago and discuss this idea with teachers in my reading endorsement courses that I teach. Just a few months ago, in a course that I teach called Children’s and Young Adult Literature, we read Alan Gratz’s novel Refugee. While discussing this book, we talked about ACEs and how the characters in the book dealt with a lot of trauma. The teachers were surprised to learn about ACEs.

Several years ago, two researchers wanted to learn more about childhood trauma and how it affects people in their later years. They teamed up with Kaiser HMO and all clients of this insurance conglomerate were sent a survey where they had to check yes or no on several categories of childhood trauma. The categories were:

  • Physical, Emotional, or Sexual Abuse
  • Physical or Emotional Neglect
  • Family member with mental illness or depression
  • A family member who was incarcerated
  • Mother who was treated violently
  • A family member who had substance abuse problems
  • Parents divorced or separated.

Over 17,000 clients turned in their surveys.

What they found is that ACE scores were common. They found that if a child had or has experienced at least 4 ACEs, they showed behavioral problems in school. Also, people with 4 or more Aces have 3 times the chance of having lung disease than those with a 0 ACE. They also have 14 times chance of attempting suicide, 4 ½ times chance of developing depression, 11 times chance of using intravenous drugs, and 2 times developing liver disease. If a person with 8 or more ACEs, who do not smoke, drink, or do drugs still have a 360 percent chance of dying from ischemic heart disease – the leading cause of death.

When we write about characters who experience trauma, it would be great to look into Adverse Childhood Experiences to really get a close look at what type of person that character may become. Or, if we are writing about an adult character, this may help you understand why your character is doing the things they are doing. It might even give you more back story for your character – in both instances. Because oftentimes, our writing mirrors real life…and ACEs are real life.

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John Scovill is originally from Iowa and has since lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Utah. He is a father, a husband, a teacher – now school administrator, and a writer. He hopes to hear from you at lit360degrees@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnlit360

Feedback

We are so excited to welcome John Scovill as our newest contributor! 

I have many different identities, like many of you who read this. If you were to check out my Twitter, you would see those identities listed. First, I am a father of three awesome and rambunctious kids, but after that, I am a teacher.

Before my current position, I taught sixth grade language arts for two years and was able to read a plethora of writing. I also gave feedback to thousands of students. Educational researcher John Hattie says that, “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” Can you think of a time when feedback given to you was either negative or positive?

As writers, we give feedback to our peers in our writing groups or just friends who asks, “Can you read this?” But do we really know if one, our feedback is effective and two, if our feedback is moving the writer in a positive or negative way? Just know that feedback is a “consequence” of performance.

Children and adults need three positive contacts to erase one negative. This could also be true for feedback.

I have had many instances being on the receiving end of feedback. As a new writer, it is always comforting to know that my published writing friends have self-doubts about their writing. I know that I am not alone.

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Recently, I was given two “rounds” of feedback on two different pieces of writing. I even paid for this feedback. These were my two pieces of feedback:

Feedback One: The reader read two pages (I could tell because there were no scribbles on the remaining three pages), asked me a few questions (I admit, I have a hard time talking about my writing), and said, “you aren’t going home and rewriting, you are going home and outlining.” Okay, thanks for the direction at $40. How do I outline? Where do I start? What should I ditch? What should I save? Where is my starting point? Is there a nugget of hope in this writing? No answers. I was disappointed.

Feedback Two: After a few weeks, I get an email with corrections and a few thoughts in parts. All were negative. Again, no little nugget of hope.

After this, I felt like giving up. My writing is horrible. Why even try. I am not going to any more writing conferences until I can figure this out. These were the thoughts I was having.

I talked to a friend recently who has been on a long road to publication and has shown that perseverance is key, said, “I don’t let people read my writing. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I write. And maybe I will show it to at least two other knowledgeable people that know me. That’s it. When too many people look at your writing, it doesn’t give you any direction as to where to go.”

I loved this and have taken it to heart.

Many people don’t know how to give proper, helpful, useful feedback. Many people don’t have the time, nor are invested in the story you are writing to truly care about the feedback they give.

Effective feedback must answer three major questions: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be taken to make better progress?)

Some ideas to think about with each question:

Where am I going?

How is the character reaching his/her goal? What is the goal of the character? What is my goal as a writer? What problem does the character have?

How am I going?

What progress is the character making towards reaching their goal? What is my progress in reaching my goal? How is the character going to reach their goal(s)? What shifts do I need to make to enable the character to reach the end goal, or little goals along the way?

Where to next?

As the writer, what plot holes or lagging areas do I need to address? Does a twelve- year-old actually say this or think this way? How can I fix it? What goals can I make as a writer to fix these mistakes and move the story forward?

Feedback shouldn’t discourage the writer from writing, but move the writer along with their writing. If you don’t have the time, energy, or you’re not invested in the writing or the writer, please don’t offer feedback (even for money), because feedback should offer answers and hope for the writer.

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John Scovill is originally from Iowa and has since lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Utah. He is a father, a husband, a teacher – now school administrator, and a writer. He hopes to hear from you at lit360degrees@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnlit360