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I'm writing a piece about a Nazi war criminal on the run who meets his reckoning later on in life.
It's an uncomfortable piece that I hope pays off, but it's one I'm revisiting on and off again. One of the things that's the most delicate about it is trying to respect the tone of the atrocities that happened. For some reason, there is something about the story that keeps drawing me back to it.
It's violent, and it asks what justice and repentance actually are in the context of conflict (or even if there is such a thing.) It's uncomfortable to write, but it's something that I feel compelled to do because it's an unusual angle to write about. Part of that discomfort is looking head-on at the traumas that occurred at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Consequences of violence really do matter when we're writing about real trauma, and part of my own conviction with that is based off my own peace work experiences and studying the Armenian Genocide in grad school.
Here's the thing though: I'm basically a 6'6" hobbit. I'm not a naturally intense guy.
One of my models of ministry is Mr. Rogers. I enjoy a good Father Brown episode. In the before-Omicron times (May - November 2021, AD), my wild weekend plans, beyond pastoral duties, usually were meeting with a friend for breakfast or lunch and then cozying up to a good book at the end of the night. I like soup and wearing comfy sweaters and a pleasant, anxious doom-scroll Twitter session.
But I learned that if I can't tell a story the way the characters would tell it, or how the people who actually went through those ordeals tell it, then I'm doing my audience a disservice.
For instance, I have never been hooked on drugs, and I realized that I had no idea what I was talking about as I was writing about a drug addict. I literally had to Google, "how to do heroin." For about a month after that, I kept getting Facebook ads for drug rehabs near me and crisis counseling.
The ads and the Google search was my moment of clarity. I had to admit to my Higher Power that I was powerless, and clueless.
So what I did was I sat and listened to a few recovered drug addicts in my life (being in ministry puts you in touch with a few.) I listened to a lot of recovery podcasts. Then I read the Brat Pack from the 80's . They were a group of writers who wrote about drug addiction while also criticizing Reagan-era yuppy culture.
The books from the Brat Pack were actually really hard to get through because of how graphic they were. It is hard to shock me, and I was shocked. But they all impacted me on a very deep level.
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis made me feel sympathy for rich Hollywood kids, a miracle that I used to think only Jesus could pull off.
Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr. helped me reflect on delicate life actually is and how not to take it for granted. The movie is just as sad.
But the best novel out of that bunch for me was Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. If you can stomach it, it is well worth the read. It's about a writer in Manhattan trying to cope with a sudden divorce and a cocaine addiction. It's a surprisingly hopeful, beautiful story about recognizing the importance of processing loss and second chances. That gave me the tone (and permission) to write what was on my heart for this story.
I was genuinely sad while writing it, showing the blunt ugliness of the consequences of addiction - but it made the message all the more powerful. Because of those experiences, I'm writing a novel based off of that story.
Then there's the flip side to this that I learned: not all trauma is talked about or expressed the same way.
I mentioned a while back that I wrote a story that was intentionally told from perspectives I do not usually consider: a woman escaping an abusive church and husband, a gay Buddhist, and a cafeteria Catholic - who are all in recovery from abusive churches.
I had women and gay friends read the story and give me great feedback, and it made me more sympathetic and mournful for the impact purity culture had on them. But I'm also so, so grateful for their stories and for how many of them held on to Jesus in spite of their experiences. I'm also grateful for the stories I heard from ex-Christians too.
In learning about those experiences, I became especially more aware of how to to talk about, and display, trauma in a way that was helpful to that specific audience. While I am usually someone who believes in a blunt approach in showing how hard life can be in storytelling, if I want this to be read by people who experienced that then I have to respect their background and the way they would tell their own story.
Someone escaping a toxic church wouldn't be dropping f-bombs like a recovering drug addict, it turns out. They would be fearful of the world too, perhaps, but in a very different way. But I can't equate those two experiences because trauma is so individual and unique for each person.
So whenever someone asks me what my thoughts are about writing a story that has some gory details, my simple reply now is: tell the story like the main character would tell it. From my perspective, if someone sanitized the parts of my life that made me who I was then people miss out on the fuller picture of how I got here - and more importantly, how God used those experiences to make who I am now.
As a Christian, this should be especially applicable. If the truth is ugly, stick with it. God is bigger than whatever mess people go through. Journey with the characters through it and you'll be surprised how God shows up.
And that is how a warm, usually kind, hobbit-at-heart pastor writes about trauma and violence. I don't enjoy it when I have to get down to those details, but the message on my heart comes through in the messiness of it . That makes it worthwhile to me, and I leave the experience more empathetic than I was walking into it.
Recognize the unique story you also carry. Think about the ways you would want someone else to tell it too, and apply that integrity in your own writing.