It is simply not enough to write a narrative about a traumatic experience and hope to reach a deep connection with our readers. It is the well-rounded characters, with their quirks and struggles, embedded with deep reflection, that bring the reader and author together on the page.

While writing my memoir, Remote Outpost: Fighting with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, I knew that I wanted to connect with readers in hopes they would see what it was like fighting on the front lines in Afghanistan. It was crucial for me to have a strong protagonist and knew that I would have to start with a character sketch of myself, as I had changed greatly from when I had experienced my trauma. I began my sketch using this example from Columbia University’s Fiction Foundry.

I mined my brain, every crevice, searching for parts of me that only I knew. Even though not all the information I obtained was used in my writing, once I brought my protagonist to life and set him aside from the crowd with oddities and quirks, I began my story. Having taken playwriting courses at Wilkes University, I knew that forward action would help the story move forward, but it began to lack something personal. My mentor, playwright Nicole Pandolfo, suggested that I reflect on my time deployed from different aspects. How I felt about my father serving with me in a combat zone, or how it began to mold me from a naïve boy into a battle-hardened man.

I had to distance myself from being the author and back to that naïve boy. Unsure of how to approach this concept, I began to journal while I wrote my scenes, trying to remember what feelings I had at the time of these incidents that had occurred fifteen years prior. I also began to note how I felt in the present while writing about my traumatic events so I could take a moment to disassociate and reflect.

I wanted to let the reader into my mind either during or after the event — no matter how ugly. I needed a reference though, and continued in my research for combat veteran memoirs until I stumbled upon a self-published memoir by George M. Coen entitled Collateral Damage. Much like my memoir, it told his tale of growing up in a dysfunctional household and then leaving for the military. He joined the Navy and deployed to Vietnam. During his time there, he experienced many traumatic events.

Coen’s characters are flat and there is little emotion in his narratives, and this showed me what I wanted to avoid. Right before I decided to scrub his book from my list, my gut told me to finish it. I felt that I owed it to him to read his story in its entirety. It was the end of his piece that finally connected me to him. Coen looked back on his life and recognized he was suffering from PTSD. He writes:

“Professionally, I was doing well — a respected member of the community, active in several civic organizations, and my business was growing. At home, things were not as successful. Marital tension was high as my wife, and I tried to reconcile differing life dreams and expectations. In retrospect, as I reflect upon this period, I believe I was experiencing classic PTSD symptoms, and those symptoms were having negative effects on my marriage.”

Since reflection and dissociation are part of healing after trauma, the author must capture this from the character’s perspective to present a truthful experience for the reader. Coen grasps this concept well, and with it he evokes sympathy and empathy from the reader, making a connection with them.

Collateral Damage does not have much to offer in terms of character development, but it does have a great deal to do with reflecting and recognizing prior actions caused by the symptoms associated with trauma. The balance between imaginative and reflective lacks, but, at the end of the manuscript, Coen confesses that he hopes his memoir helps others in their struggles. Coen does just this with his reflections on his past experiences. He can help others with his reflections.

The character will only take the ball so far down the field, but it is the reflection of the character’s actions and experiences that help us find human connection. Writing about trauma and mental health is not a new concept, but it is not often talked about. It is important to connect the dots on why we, as readers, are so fascinated with trauma, as well as healing and rebirth.

As writers, we must paint accurate portraits of our experiences, and how we have developed as a result, to gain the trust of our readers.

Meet the Contributor

Travis HarmanTravis Harman is a veteran and author based in northeastern Pennsylvania. He spent thirteen years in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, including a tour in Afghanistan in 2008. After being medically retired from the military in 2018, he began his professional writing career. Travis holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. His memoir, Remote Outpost: Fighting With the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, was released in April by Pen and Sword Books. An advocate for veterans, Travis has started a fundraiser with Stop Soldier Suicide in honor of his comrade and friend Michael Schutt Jr. Find him on Instagram and check out his website.

The post CRAFT: On Writing Trauma in Creative Nonfiction by Travis Harman first appeared on Hippocampus Magazine.

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Author: Donna Talarico

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