As a survivor who is healing while writing, I’ve realized that there is a unique form of healing that comes through my writing itself. While I certainly benefit from therapy and reading self-help books on topics that personally impact me, self-help books have their limits, and no volume will ever be a one-size-fits-all approach. For that matter, I’ve found that I spend so much time trying to describe what my life was like at various stages that I feel as though there’s a permanent wall between my therapist and me, and I long to bring them completely into the world in which I lived…the life from which I’m trying to heal.
I think that’s why I enjoy fiction so much, because through imagined worlds, we can explore real-life issues and topics. We can see characters that try and fail, and we can witness their thought processes as they decide whether or not they want to try again. And if they do, what might they do differently? And, as someone who has edited plenty of fiction books but who is just starting to write a novel, I’m realizing perhaps one of the greatest ways to look at my life is through that of a fictional character, one whose life I can literally decide the course for.
Autofiction, also known as autobiographical fiction, is fiction that is inspired by real events in the author’s life. Exactly how much of the story is fiction versus nonfiction can vary widely depending on the author’s intent, but at a minimum, the spirit of the author’s real experiences are captured. While it’s not yet a genre you can find on a bookstore shelf or website, it’s becoming more common, and it’s a genre that Josha specializes in.
In fact, if you take a look at the foreword Katherine Turner wrote for my debut nonfiction, Me, Too: Voicing My Story, you’ll see that the book that brought us together, Finding Annie (written by Katherine) was as close to Katherine’s life story as she’d ever been public about at that time (she’s since released her first memoir, resilient). Through Finding Annie, Katherine was able to tell the story of when her boyfriend’s brothers raped her; in her novel, the main character, Annie, is healing from being raped by her boyfriend’s older brother.
To help explain how we can heal through autofiction, I asked Katherine a few questions about her experience writing Finding Annie before writing her memoir, and how writing her novel first helped her write resilient, in which she clearly describes being raped at thirteen years old.
In your writing, you’ve talked about feeling a pull to write throughout your entire life, and when you finally sat down to write, the Life Imperfect series was one of the first things to pour out of you, starting with Finding Annie. What do you think pulled you to start with autofiction?
There were a couple of reasons that Finding Annie was the first story I wrote as an adult when I started writing again. On my website, I’ve written about my experience with penning a novella when I was ten and turning that into my teacher, an experience that ultimately was a significant contributor to my decision to turn my back on writing for most of my life. That novella that I wrote then was about a teenage girl who’d been sexually abused and had a neglectful alcoholic mother forging a loving relationship with someone who helped her understand how to love herself and set boundaries around her body as she healed from the sexual trauma of her past. Ultimately, when you boil it down to its most basic concepts, that’s also Annie’s story. It was a story I needed when I was ten, but it was also a story I needed when I was in my early thirties when I started writing this novel.
The other major contributor to writing autofiction was a book that I was reading at the time, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma by Jen Cross. The book encouraged writing about your sexual trauma as a method of healing, using a combination of reality and fiction that would allow you to essentially rewrite the ending to your experiences. This is essentially what I did with Finding Annie. In real life, I was raped by my boyfriend’s two brothers when I was thirteen and then disbelieved by everyone I told at the time. In my novel, Annie is raped by her boyfriend’s only brother when she is seventeen and then is believed by everyone she tells when she eventually does. The idea of writing that story, giving it the ending I desperately needed in my past, was very appealing.
How do you think writing Finding Annie helped you develop and write your memoir, resilient?
I kind of think of Finding Annie as my gateway into talking about the gruesome realities of my life without the protective veil of fiction. That novel was the closest I had ever come to telling anyone in my life what happened to me—at least the extent of it. I eventually wrote on my website about my young teenage rape in my Let’s Talk About Consent, Baby post, but that wasn’t even until I’d already shared my novel with beta readers. When you’ve been keeping trauma to yourself for your entire life, internalizing, blaming, and shaming yourself for it, the thought of anyone finding out can be truly terrifying. Sending beta readers copies of my manuscript was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life, but when the reactions were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, not just of my writing but of the story itself and Annie, it was like receiving validation for myself since so much of myself was in Annie and her story. And that validation gave me the courage to eventually move on to writing nonfiction about my life.
Since your books deal with traumatic experiences, often your own—whether inspired by yours or a depiction of your exact experience—I have to ask, were you in any sort of therapy as you wrote about your experiences? Had you been through a therapeutic process before you started writing?
Yes and no. I’d been in therapy before I started writing at two different times with two different therapists, one of which was helpful while the other was actually detrimental. The second therapist, while helpful, wasn’t a good fit for me, however, and I’d stopped seeing her. Because the process of finding and learning to trust a new therapist is emotionally exhausting, it took me several years before I started therapy again, and it was during those years off that I began writing Finding Annie. I was, however, devouring information related to trauma processing—specifically sexual trauma processing—both online and in books, including the Jen Cross book I was reading when I began drafting my novel.
What was your self-care routine like while you wrote Finding Annie? How did that vary—or did it—while you wrote resilient?
I didn’t have a self-care routine for Finding Annie. That wasn’t a concept I was familiar with at the time. I obsessed over getting the story out, drank a lot of alcohol, and slept very little. It wasn’t a healthy period in my life, physically or emotionally. Writing that novel was an enormous milestone in my healing, but the way in which I went about it wasn’t healthy. In contrast, when I really started focusing on resilient, I’d been in therapy for quite a while and had a well-defined self-care routine. Therapy had also helped me to better understand what was happening in my body in relation to different emotions that my past stirred up so that I was better able to recognize and avoid obsessing and falling into destructive habits again like I had with Finding Annie.
So, as one of your editors, I know you had already written most of resilient when we conceptualized, and then you wrote, moments of extraordinary courage, which was published about four months before resilient. Written in a sort of essay style, moments of extraordinary courage is a collection of stories throughout your life in which you broke the silence that often comes with shame and either spoke up or decided to do something for yourself, as hard as that was at times. How did your previous writing experience play into the development of moments of extraordinary courage?
To me, resilient and moments of extraordinary courage are very different books. While there is some overlap with some of the experiences in my past, the way I talk about them is vastly different.
resilient is a complete memoir that is written in a narrative style following my life from some of my earliest memories up until about my twenty-first birthday. There are also a few chapters from my adult perspective, but the bulk of the book is written about my life from the perspective of when those things were happening to me.
On the other hand, moments of extraordinary courage is a collection of essays about some of those experiences, as well as others that are not in resilient, all from my adult perspective and focusing on the immense pressure to remain silent as well as the fear and courage associated with breaking that silence. Each essay is self-contained in that it provides a context, explains the emotions and where they were coming from, and then walks through standing up to the fear that was keeping me silent about what was going on.
Do you have any advice for survivors who want to write, but haven’t decided yet if they want to write autofiction or a memoir?
The advice I most often give to writers in general, and especially to survivors who are trying to decide what to write and what to do with that writing, is to just write. Get rid of the idea of what you might publish or not publish, let someone else read or not read, what genre it is or isn’t, and just start writing. If it turns into something you want to share—great. If it doesn’t—also great. resilient wasn’t the first time I wrote nonfiction about my life; I’d done that years before as a method of therapy for myself before I saw my first therapist. I had no idea if I’d publish it one day or not, or ever let someone read a single word of it, but I wrote it. And it did help with stirring that pot of hidden things inside. And then the next time I wrote nonfiction about my life in that way is when it turned into my memoir.
Don’t try to over-structure the process, because for survivors, writing isn’t just writing… writing is also healing. And healing can take a twisting and unexpected path, but it’s still healing. Start with just getting it all out in whatever format your heart needs, and then worry about what genre it is or if that’s what you’re going to share with the world or not. And consider grabbing a copy of Jen Cross’ book; it can help you with getting those first words down on paper if you’re feeling paralyzed about how to begin.
No matter what or how you decide to write, what matters most is that you pick up the pen. Whether you write for yourself or with the intention of publishing one day, there is healing to be found in the act of writing. Through fiction, we can create the scenarios we perhaps wish we’d had instead, or we can explore the different facets of the ones we lived. And through memoir, perhaps one of the greatest gifts of telling our stories is seeing how far we’ve come with each chapter we write…and knowing that we hold the power of how the next chapter will be written.
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3 thoughts on “Healing Through Fiction”
I’m fascinated by the power of writing as a tool of healing. Writing a memoir helped me in my own process, grappling with generational trauma and psychological and physical dysfunction. This was great to read, thank you.
I am so glad you enjoyed this post! It’s definitely a powerful, helpful tool, and the journeys it can take you on – both emotionally and within various genres – are numerous. If you ever want to chat, let us know! I’d love to talk more.
-Olivia (post author)