Therapists often recommend journaling to people dealing with mental illness and trauma. I’ve never liked journaling. Maybe it’s because I get too self-conscious or because even my old wounds often feel too raw to record in some blunt, dry fashion. Instead, I write fiction. I’ve dealt with my trauma through fiction from a young age. I’ve learned to cover my experiences with layers of grit, imagination, and distance to create weird pearls that I hope others will enjoy. This is how I process pain, both personal and existential; this is how I grieve, scream, cry—this is even how I plead for justice or beg forgiveness.
Right now, someone reading this who has read my books is cocking his head like a confused beagle. “Um…your books are romances about kinky people getting it on and fantasies about people with horns. Some are comedies. How, exactly, are you dealing with anything writing stuff like that?”
While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask.
I change people, places, and things—but the emotions and some of the basic building blocks have my soulprints all over them. While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask. I guess it’s like Oscar Wilde said, “Man is less himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
So, while I’ve never lived in a pre-industrialized dystopian empire like Elarhe in Lover, Destroyer, he and I both know what it’s like to be an outcast, to mourn a murdered friend, to be homeless, and to yearn for things that seem beyond your grasp. While I’ve never destroyed an entire kingdom like Kite, his shame and insecurity resonates with me because it’s how I felt when the relative who sexually abused me died when I was sixteen. I didn’t feel as relieved as I did ashamed—like I had somehow killed him with my quiet, clumsy rage.
I wrote the last pages of the silly romantic comedy, His Dungeon Discovery, with tears streaming down my face because a situation reminded me of the death of my beloved emotional support cat, Sand, after his long battle with kidney failure and heart disease. The situation in the book is actually quite different from my real life tragedy, but the feelings are similar.
In Zen Alpha, a contemporary gay romcom, Bradley’s mother is a narcissist who belittles and gaslights him. My own mother was a toxic narcissist who committed murder by proxy, killing pets to frighten and control her children. Bradley’s mom doesn’t seem quite as evil in comparison, but Zen Alpha is intended to be a heartwarming story, and it was more fun to write about a self-absorbed old belle than it was to write about dead animals.
Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.
Speaking of child abuse and mentally ill parents, it isn’t a coincidence Petal, the heroine of The Inquisitor’s Gift, feels coerced by her abusive stepfather to live a life to which she’s not suited. I imagine most children who grew up in homes with abuse, addiction, and mental illness know what it’s like to keep secrets and to wrestle with becoming the person they want to be rather than the person the secrets shaped.
Dealing with trauma through writing fiction isn’t some technique I created. J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with his service in World War I, and fears inspired by World War II, by writing about hobbits and magical lands. Rod Serling’s WWII traumas helped give us The Twilight Zone. I believe so many fiction writers through the centuries have been plagued by depression and anxiety, not because they’re writers, but because they write in order process their feelings. That’s one of the main reasons I write. It’s also why I read. Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.
So, if you’re a writer, don’t be afraid if your prose is cathartic. I would worry more if it weren’t. And if you’re a reader, thank you for allowing writers like me to don our masks and reveal to you our truest selves.