I’ve written a lot over the years about taboo and censorship. In particular about self-censorship. I have also written a lot, both fact and fiction, about suicide and self-harm in an effort to make my words, even if only for one person, a hand reaching out to hold theirs in the night when they feel utterly alone. I have even written a whole book, (life) razorblades included, that I preface by saying “I celebrate life by writing about death.”
And it’s on this particular subject that, for me, the subject of self-censorship raises its head most frequently. How do you write responsibly about suicide? How do you reach out with utter honesty so as never to patronise or belittle or “explain” another’s pain?
Of course, the first question any writer must ask, very seriously, is why they should write responsibly, and we should be very wary of coming up with any answer other than “that’s my personal choice.” But that is my choice.
I want to be responsible to those whose pain has become intolerable. I want not to belittle it by slapping a warning all over what I write, either literally or through the book’s “message”, saying “don’t do this at home, kids.” I want to avoid the easy way out of writing about something else. And at the same time I want never to glamorise, never to say “hey kids, this is a cool thing to do.”
It’s a very hard line to walk, and my personal feeling is that in the past we have veered too far towards not glamorising, towards qualifying everything with a suitable message.
This is something I really had to grapple with (among many other things!) in my new book, No Exit. The relationship at the heart of it features my protagonist, Alice, and her best friend, Cassie, someone whose creativity and passion bursts from every pore but who is just too fragile for the world.
Now, in writing Cassie, I faced a lot of very uncomfortable issues that could only be dealt with by absolute honesty. First amongst them is the fact that there was a very big danger of making Cassie a stereotype, and a very unwholesome one at that – the “beautiful dead girl” or the “suicidal creative waif.” Tipping into either of these would kill the book dead. I could have avoided that by writing a different Cassie. But, as some will know, Cassie is based on a very dear friend of mine whose story I wanted to tell. That wasn’t an option.
The only option was to write Cassie honestly. And a lot of that meant drawing on conversations we’d had. There’s one line in No Exit that is at the heart of everything, and it’s one that to many of us feels almost impossible to grasp. Before Cassie and Alice become friends, Cassie gives Alice an ultimatum:
“This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”
Of course, because every sentence serves the plot, this is going to be played out later. And it is, in the hardest scene I’ve ever written, when Alice holds Cassie while she dies without trying to intervene despite her whole being wanting to. It’s a dynamic that makes me feel both very uneasy – because it could justify some very damaging behaviour if it’s read in the wrong way – and very comfortable – because it is absolutely honest.
This is all further complicated because Cassie is obsessed with “making death beautiful.” Again, a really dangerous and triggering thing to write. But an essential part of Cassie. And something that feels very normal to a certain kind of outsider. The kind I am writing for.
So what should a writer in my position do? That’s a genuine question. Do I stay silent, leave stories untold? Do I compromise those stories? Which is worse, to write elements out of the story and alienate many of those who feel alone, or to write necessary elements in and risk encouraging, glamorising, triggering? Do I make Cassie and her actions “ugly” because I am so frightened of what happens if I let her beauty be there on the page (someone once told my dear friend she had no right to write her experiences because she was too beautiful – a hideous censorship that has never left me)? Do I layer the text with trigger warnings? I don’t know. I have tried to be 100% honest. But is even that relevant or important?
39 thoughts on “Trigger Warning”
It’s a conundrum.
My experience has been that people find the suicidal impulses of others almost impossible to deal with. There is an inclination to dismiss it as attention seeking or diminish it by exclaiming that the suicidal person is mistaken because they can’t possibly feel that way because (so many becauses). Yet. Life contains as much beauty, if not more beauty, than death and most of us wish to remain on the side of life, and find it hard to understand why another would not wish that.
Very few deaths are intrinsically beautiful. My OH has sat at a lot of death beds in his time; he was not expecting that his own step father would slip away peacefully and without struggle as he’d very seldom seen that.
Honesty is perhaps the only approach.
Honesty has certainly been what I’ve always aimed for as I don’t see the alternative, other than silence. But sometimes it feels like silence is what most people expect or even demand
I find it interesting that you see your audience for this work as a ‘certain type of outsider’. Does that make the story very different from if you were revealing your character to an audience who might never have known or understood someone like her?
I think I always write for outsiders.
And that’s a very good question and I’ve been surprised at the reaction to a lot of my work – I have had as many emails from people who have said “you’ve helped me to understand something I’ve never experienced and that has helped in my relationship with… who is going through it” as from people going through the things I describe. And that means a huge amount to me, but I still the people going through these things are the readers I picture in my head when I’m writing
I think you should tell the story in the best way you can; but I think you might find the responsibility easier to bear if you consider it as writing ‘on behalf of’ rather than writing ‘for’.
Yes, though then again easier is a very dangerous thing to aim for!
I believe what you wrote presents that moment in life, where you are hypnotised because you are in the middle of an action. So I explain it in an understandable way, I will use my own example. I am seeing my kid frollicking on the curb and I can see that he is going to trip on a bump on the road. I have two options, I can either start reaching for him right away or I can stand there and watch. It is the same for me with what you wrote about and it correlates to thoughts I recently had about depression.
When writing, poems, fiction, stories, prose, whatever, people always desperately try to de understood and they desperately try to define things to a 100%. But not all depression is the same, not every suicide is the same, not every death is the same. By trying to fit everything under 1 same name and into 1 same box, it is demeaning. It makes one stand and watch, instead of be reaching.
So, I say, a writer should always speak the truth if it boils inside him to do so, because if you are going to lie it should be clear it is being done on purpose. Whatever you write, there will be someone who will see things differently anywas, but if you say it how it really is, you are not denying people a chance to learn, explore a new perspective and so on.
I think that’s really important, how we must never generalise but that it is better to try to do proper justice to just one person’s experience than to try and capture everyone’s experience and end up with no one’s
A very honest enquiry, about the responsibility of any writer. Ultimately the reader always has a choice, the sliver of liberty that still remains between you, as writer, and she, as reader. If your Cassie is evoked vividly, sympathetically, and identified as having a coherent philosophy, even of death I cannot see it implies any kind or proselytization beyond the sympathetic understanding of that integrity for her, no-one else.
I found the same kind of self-examination over writing about my mother, the question of privacy as against the critical relevance of influence, and the honesty that demanded. Never straight forward.
Privacy is another very tricky one. It’s something I’ve – fortunately – not had an issue with in writing about my friend – in “razorblades” there is an incredibly frank piece that had her full blessing; likewise the use of her self-portrait on the cover.
Interesting you use the word sympathy. It’s something that’s very important to me as a writer, but I know it makes people very uncomfortable because showing understanding is seen as tantamount to condoning
Hey, that’s the grstteea! So with ll this brain power AWHFY?
Part of that lies in which is most important: stories or people? That’s a more complex question than it appears. Another question to ask is which is more important: one story, or the storyteller? If one person felt inclined to injure or even kill themselves as a result of reading a particular story, and they went through with it, would the storyteller be as bold in future or would this keep multiple stories from ever being told? People are stories and storytellers. When people die, so do any stories they could have told in future, or any new storytellers they could have brought into the world. Even leaving aside the question about whether a human life is more or less valuable than a story, how can a storyteller know that one story outweighs incalculable numbers of untold stories?
To what extent is the resistance of censorship the resistance of the imprisonment of creative culture, and to what extent is it the resistance of the suppression of the ego? The ego always wants to be the smartest thing in the room, but that doesn’t mean it is. What if censorship was a collection of cultural norms defined by the hive-mind and expressed through elected individuals, rather than arbitrary limitations imposed by a minority with power over the majority? If so, isn’t there a dance to be done with censorship anyhow? If you create culture, it isn’t done in a vacuum. You use language. You use codes of words that are pregnant with centuries of compliance with cultural norms. To use those to express something entirely new isn’t possible. To use them to defy censorship isn’t possible. Grammar is censorship. We all censor ourselves, and each other. We all must decide how great of a mark to leave on the world, and how much to take from it. When politicians put the lives of the population on the line for the sake of their position in the history books, we complain. Isn’t it the same when we put the lives of readers on the line for the sake of our own egos?
On the other hand, if we don’t take chances, nothing ever changes. The whole thing is a dance, and we are the choreographers of not only our own dances but of the dances of those who look to us for guidance. Who can say what’s right or wrong? The best any of us can do is to debate with ourselves, never let ourselves off the hook, and be fully aware of our responsibilities rather than just of our rights.
You touch upon one of the things I think is really important in the debate. If one person kills themselves because of something that is written, that life is countable and the storyteller held accountable. But no matter how many people do not kill themselves because of that same story, people who come back from the edge because a hand has been held out, those lives are uncountable, and it always strikes me as very lazy numberkeeping to ignore them, if we must numberkeep. Is it more irresponsible to tell a story or not to tell it? A real conundrum
“The best any of us can do is to debate with ourselves, never let ourselves off the hook, and be fully aware of our responsibilities rather than just of our rights.”
Yes, I think that’s right – we should never take for granted and we should never stop asking ourselves the questions. I think what’s worst for me is to take a glib “of course” approach, whatever that approach is
It’s important, and it’s relevant. And it’s a question each author has to ask and answer for their self. For what it’s worth, though, my view is that honesty shines through in writing, and that any holding back is equally obvious and kills a book dead. I agree rights entail responsibilities, but I also think we have a responsibility to be true to ourselves, if we choose to write and share our works with the world.
I absolutely agree that inauthenticity shines through. I’ve been guilty of it twice in my writing life, and each time I’ve deeply regretted it
It’s the hardest thing for me and tied in with issues of self-censorship, privacy and responsibility, which are genuine concerns, and social expectations, which I try to resist.
“This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”
It seems to me, in saying this, as the writer you are saying you are as well Alice, and you are telling this story in the same way that Alice has to be Cassie’s friend, to never intervene, but to be there. And I think you honour Cassie, properly, in this way.
When I first read this article I started turning over issues of self-censorship versus personal need to speak, wondering where the line was, in a general framework of debate, between an author’s personal un-described inner need and the outer need for a story to be told. That is to say, if the author’s need is like the need of an addict and won’t leave itself unsatisfied whatever the cost, then the issue of self-censorship could be a cloak. As writers we may well be somewhere in the continuum of addiction, needing to speak, write, share, to satisfy some need in us. However, if the need is outward, feeling the responsibility to tell the story of a friend to honour that friend, honour the truth of that friend, the truth of their story in itself and as part of so many similar stories that are not told, then, in my opinion, the story should be written fully, truthfully. And these truths will connect and be of value and serve in the way you speak of, for those for whom you write — much more so than a version of the story that lacks honesty for reasons of caution.
However, when I read this article again, for me all the debate slipped away – a very interesting debate, reading through the comments. For me, I saw the whole issue focused in the line you quoted, and I saw whatever caution you need to express contained in that line.
If you are feeling any reservations about the piece for the reasons you’ve discussed I’d, very humbly, suggest as an idea you consider using that line again, after the story is told, on a new and final page. But I don’t, from reading all this blog post and comments, think it is a definite necessity you do so.
I’m sure you will balance all the issues in the best and most fitting way when you publish.
Thank you. And that’s a very interesting point about addiction and our need for expression. Not so much here, but on the Facebook thread about the post I’ve noticed a lot of people taking the author’s right to say what they please as a given. I see that point, and I think censorship of any kind is one of the great dangers in our society stifling people’s identities and even their lives. But it’s not that simple. I think when we stop questioning our right to say something we are in trouble. Writing *is* a very subjective and therefore, in a literal sense, “selfish” thing – and I am a big advocate of confessional writing. But I think we have always to temper that by asking “should I say that?”, “Can I say that?”, “Why do I want to say that?” I think asking questions i one of the important ways we can keep our writing on track
I’d say I feel as you do about confessional writing. And also the importance of “Why do I want to say that?” I don’t in any way mean to suggest that a writer’s need to speak/write, per se, should be held back, nor do I think that would be healthy for the writer or society.
What I mean is that the issue of self-censorship can sometimes, looking at the issue broadly and not this instance, be a smokescreen which is used to mask or hide-away from a real motivation, and the writing, and society, is better served by knowing and addressing the real motivation. But it’s a general point and maybe I’ve wandered too far away from what’s at hand here — sort of rambling to myself.
You’re right about understanding “Why do I want to say that”, and also “Why do I want to say it that way?” Both questions lend themselves the honesty and impact of any writing.
Honesty or silence, for a story or a character, yes – not compromise or easy omission. You steer that delicate line with compassion and finesse, in “life (razorblades included)” and elsewhere. All I could add here, from having created one very self-destructive character in great detail, is that my compass in doing so was my deep love for him (fictional as he is). I mean a clear-eyed, respectful love, in level and enchanted companionship with him, not a detached love of him travelling downward from above; and as you say, most certainly no “explaining” him. Despite creating him from scratch, drawing on some of the darkest parts of my own imagination, I nonetheless had the feeling he was arriving fully-formed, in extravagantly self-dramatising self-destructiveness, demanding that I record him without compromise or falsification, which I felt honoured and happy to do. This “arrival” by him meant that in his particular case I felt pretty sure the only compass necessary was that deep love, rather than any more intellectual/political/moral compass. (He’s Angel Deon in the novel “The Imagination Thief”; and he also appears in all four novellas in “The Platinum Raven and other novellas”, in one of which he’s become female.) Touching on your point about the irresponsibility of glamorising self-destructiveness, he’s also deeply self-glamorising by nature and quite authentic in his own dark glamour, so it was essential to express that genuine glamour in full (perhaps not unlike “making death beautiful” is essential to Cassie, as you mention), without glamorising in the sense you warn against – and again, for me at least, I believe the above-mentioned love was probably the surest rudder there. I look forward to Cassie, as indeed to Alice.
Yes, we absolutely have to try to do justice to all our characters – it’s the tricky question of understanding – is it more dangerous to present a character fully understood. or to leave them as a shadowy outline that the reader then fills in?
True, a shadowy outline that gets filled in by the reader’s imagination could be even more alluring (and therefore potentially dangerous) than a character presented with the writer’s full understanding of that character on show. I guess the dangers have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. I imagine movie directors also become accustomed to being challenged over this – one example being Kubrick withdrawing “A Clockwork Orange”.
Yes, that’s the classic case of a creator deciding that life was more important than art
That kind of thikning shows you’re an expert
Some people (not you, Dan) like to use the notion of honesty to evade responsibility. It is possible to be brutally honest but dangerous, damaging, irresponsible. The ‘deal’ (‘you don’t ever try to save me. Not ever’) is a hugely powerful and difficult notion, but that is/was an agreement between two individuals; there is no real contract between and writer and the reader, however much we’d like to think there was one. If I was put in the position of making that deal with someone I love (thankfully, I never have) I think it would be an agreement I would be justified in breaking. I would lie to save a life. Life trumps honesty.
It would be convenient to think that it one really writes honestly, what is produced is always positive, that it can do no harm, but I don’t believe that. Ultimately life is much more important than books, and I think anything that contributes to the romance of suicide (a spurious notion, but one which many people can be drawn to) is difficult, if not impossible, to justify.
Having said all that, I think being free is being able to act against ones own best interests. People have the right to kill themselves if life gets intolerable but others also have the right (I didn’t say duty) to try and stop them.
“the notion of honesty to evade responsibility” and “the romance of suicide” – both points well said.
Yes, I absolutely agree, and it’s one of the things that frustrates me when writers glibly cite their freedom to write anything as though that were the end of the matter.
I also agree that honesty isn’t the ultimate handwash. As I hope I said in the piece, good intentions, honest intentions are less important than the consequences, and yes – life always trumps art
This is an issue I’m aware of but haven’t had to wrestle with but… I guess that writing, if it moves people, if it affects them, comes with responsibilities. However, I also get the impression that you also feel you have a responsibility to your friend and to your own heart to tell her story faithfully. If you want to write this book based on her, it sounds as if it has to be true to the essence of who she was and as the writer, true to you. If that is the case then, in my view, the honesty of the narrative will overcome the dangers… people are responsible for their own actions in the end, even if your words affect them. Follow your heart because it sounds as if, for you, the story needs to be written, and when it is written, perhaps then, you can decide whether it should be told. For what it’s worth. That’s how I’d do it.
The decision of when is out of my hands 🙂 publication is on May 5th.
Ah ha. No wonder you’re feeling jittery… maybe it’s just nerves.
Told! Bah! published, I mean. (Sorry).
I’ve been thinking more on this, and I don’t agree with responses that appeal to being ‘true to you heart’, or seeking some internal integrity, as if there you will find the answer.
Rather than having individual cores – or souls if you like – I think we are a mass of overlapping, contradictory feelings, impressions, desires, needs… we are shifting all the time. The person who appealed to be allowed to die may think very differently tomorrow – suicide is a permanent solution to what might be a transitory problem. Or maybe what that person needed, wanted to be told was that love or friendship was incompatible with that ‘deal’.
Our society is full of couples who have declared absolute love and fidelity for each other until death. Few keep these vows, and that is not because they are bad people, it is because they are human. We are inconsistent by nature, or, if you prefer, we re-create ourselves all the time.
I’d like to think that good writing reveals these contradictions, that it will unpick some of the confusion in the notion of ‘making death beautiful’, because not only is that notion dangerous, it is a delusion.
I certainly hope I start to unpick that confusion – but to do so, I need to present the idea in its authentic form rather than setting it up as a straw man.
It’s interesting about the profusion of “be true to your heart” responses to the question of self-censorship – not specifically here but in general. “I write what I want to write” is a clarion call these days. It might be hugely unfashionable to say, but I wonder if that’s tied up with the explosion of self-publishing and whether there’s a generation of self-publishing evangelists who feel a sense of entitlement but haven’t, because it’s so easy now, had to grapple with the responsibility of putting words on paper
“I certainly hope I start to unpick that confusion – but to do so, I need to present the idea in its authentic form rather than setting it up as a straw man.”
– Yes, point taken, Dan, and I hope you did not think my musings were suggesting you would compromise on this.
” It’s interesting about the profusion of “be true to your heart” responses to the question of self-censorship … “I write what I want to write” is a clarion call these days… I wonder if that’s tied up with the explosion of self-publishing and whether there’s a generation of self-publishing evangelists who feel a sense of entitlement but haven’t, because it’s so easy now, had to grapple with the responsibility of putting words on paper.”
– Perhaps many caught in that ‘explosion’ have little sense of the audience they are addressing, maybe self-publishing can seem a little too much like writing to and for yourself. ‘Self-expression’ then becomes elevated above communication.
Do you feel, Dan, the issues are very different in live performance to what they are on the page?
very interesting question. To a certain extent there is a difference because in a live performance you can contextualise, and you can provide a supportive atmosphere, and talk to the audience afterwards – there is an element of communication and control that’s not there on the page. On the other hand, there is a “directness” to live performance. I certainly find that performing live means I think incredibly carefully about what I perform because I can see the reaction – that makes you feel the accountability very intensely. I think that’s probably why I try to think so much about what I put on the page, because I am used to thinking about an audience as actual people rather than something shapeless and faceless
With reference to the availability of ‘reaction’ as helpful to self censorship ( or perhaps just choice) I have been recently much encouraged to greater revelation in my blog simply because the comments ( not many but a few) have the wisdom and detachment to draw from the personal, things universal. They thereby validate the disclosures of the personal in ways that strip it of guilt or regret and draw out something of greater value, pouring oil on turbulent waters and finding depth below. This was what I hoped for but like you in performance the initial risk was alarming!
I think the only way we can ever really begin to grasp anything universal is by beginning with the incredibly intimate. I think a mistake a lot of writers make is to seek to deal with “issues” and tehn create a story around them. They end up with something grand sounding that will touch no one.
Yes, I’ve certainly seen that mistake. I’m sure it’s possible to start with an issue and successfully create a story to cast a light on it, but of course then one would never know. Sadly, it is only too clear what has happened when it doesn’t work.