Writers are often encouraged to “write what you know,” which usually means delving into the past and writing about it. I recently read an essay by Parul Sehgal where he used the phrase to describe the direction of much of today’s fiction as being “…dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma.” Some might argue that we are the sum of all our traumas given that personal trauma has become the explanation and excuse for…well, everything.
I believe there is a much broader landscape to expand upon in a literary life. We all might be better off if one’s personal stories were kept to a minimum, told sparingly, and in relation to a much bigger world than the little world we each inhabit. Yes, we all have been abused and sucker punched by life, but do we need to see it on all your social platforms?
There are those who are truly traumatized by cruel situations and malevolent circumstances that defy imagination. Treat those sufferings with care and compassion, giving the one who suffered the dignity and healing they deserve.
What I am referring to is that most of what we “truffle” up from our past does not necessarily reach a level worthy of literary examination. The showbiz world cranks out these stories by the boatload. Our social media fascination with “the next big trauma,” gives such impetus to the purveyors of entertainment.
Perhaps we think that reveling in our traumas gives us identity and thus connection to the wider world. When a person’s story of trauma is so oft repeated it threatens to become sentimentalized. With repetitive telling we begin to believe this is truly who we are as a culture or a society: this is how we choose our stories; this is how we tell our stories; this is how we interpret our stories. Throw all this into a pot and out comes a crazed shadow of what it means to be human.
The question we ask ourselves then is what became of us? Do the stories we craft that supposedly reflect who we are, are they really a grand delusion? Or are they grounded in a truth of the human need for and capacity to give love? It is impossible to insulate our lives from suffering, but we can construct stories around those moments that give real meaning to who we are and who we want to become.