I am not a big holiday person. In fact, I fall into the “Bah, humbug!” category very neatly, except for the fact that I love parties. I love dressing up. I love giving and receiving presents. I love to laugh and clown around. The problem for me is when something happens that triggers bad memories. And something always happens.
For example, when I see a certain type of yellow cab, it reminds me of the time my mother got out of a taxi in front of her building, fell, and broke her hip on Thanksgiving Day. And when I see certain episodes of The Big Bang Theory, I am reminded of a dear friend whom I took to the hospital with a suicidal depression on Christmas Day. And when I hear the sound of the New Year’s Eve countdown in Times Square, I recall that I had two painful romantic breakups on two different New Year’s Eves and got engaged on another. So, recently I asked myself, How can I navigate through this minefield of memories? How can I experience the holiday season fresh?
The answer was surprisingly simple: use these experiences in a story, and the sting will go away.
There is something about dramatizing a traumatic experience that allows the memory to be processed and its power over us diminished. It’s almost magical how the written re-enactment mitigates the body’s physical memory of the trauma in the same way that switching an electric current on and off affects an appliance. Unplugging or rerouting the energy generated by the memory diffuses it.
I went through a divorce that left me feeling sad and betrayed. I couldn’t shake the feeling, but neither could I get a certain story idea out of my mind, about a woman whose child drowns in a tragic accident. Her gangster ex-husband blames her and sends someone to burn down the motel she runs, hopefully with her in it. The would-be arsonist falls in love with the heroine, but he knows he will be killed if he doesn’t do the dastardly deed. So the two team up to get justice against the woman’s ex-husband.
I was very pleased when an independent film director read the script and immediately optioned it. It was only when I was asked to do some minor rewrites that I realized that the screenplay had been my way of processing the trauma of my divorce. I had simply replaced the divorce with the death of the imaginary daughter!
When we dream, we often substitute one event, or a place or a person, for another. Creating fictional stories has much in common with the dreaming process and is informed by our dreaming mind. Evidently I had substituted the trauma of divorce with the loss of a child and had cast my ex as the villain because, at that time, I felt that his choices were part of the reason our marriage ended. Once I understood that my creative unconscious had substituted the loss of the marriage with the loss of a child, however, I felt free in a way that I hadn’t in a very long time. The script is in the works, and when I taught my students how to transform their own traumatic events into stories using similar substitutions, several not only wrote movies and books that found a commercial home, they were able to move on to the next phase of their lives. This included one divorce, one re-marriage, and one student’s putting down her pen to become a successful realtor.
If you want to give the technique a try, an easy way is to identify an event in your life that changed you dramatically. It doesn’t have to be earthshaking like a life-threatening illness or the death of someone close. It can be something as seemingly innocuous as changing schools or having a friend move away. Such events can be quite traumatic, particularly to a child, and can serve as the sand you need to make a pearl out of this disturbing event. Above all, go easy on yourself. You may need someone emotional distance on any recent events.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and, writing very quickly, make a list of your most difficult experiences. Be sure to include the age you were when each event happened and how it came about. Sometimes it’s not the event itself but the moment you first became aware of an impending situation that left you traumatized.
Now reset the timer for 15 minutes, pick one of the events, and write it out as if it were the beginning of a new book or screenplay.
Once you’ve completed the exercise, take a few minutes to reflect on it and ask yourself if you feel any measure of relief from your burden. If so, consider how you might use a version of the event in your newest story. If not, try writing about the event again, but this time from the point of view of the villain or obstacles, as if they were the hero. This may take a few rounds, but the timer is your friend and will drive your forward.
I hope you find this helpful and put the technique to work!
Here’s to your successful writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz