11 March 2018

"Links of Trust"

I've done very little writing of any variety in quite some time, for myriad reasons. Several months ago, a friend of mine got me to dabble with writing fiction again for the first time since I completed my novel. No sooner had I finished the first draft of that short story than I saw that the Oldham County Public Library announced a Winter Writing Contest.

Writing is often difficult, but it's way harder when you're certain that you should never again write anything at all whatsoever the rest of your days because it has no point or value and neither do you and blah, blah, blah. Thankfully, I wasn't actually in that state of mind at the time the competition was announced, thanks to a friend of mine who'd managed to engage my inner fiction writer in the last several months. It seemed serendipitous enough that I figured I should give it a whirl, if only to make myself go through the motions of writing within specified guidelines and submitting by a deadline.

The criteria from the library consisted of the following:

  • Maximum of 2000 words
  • Wintry theme
  • Must include a ticket of some kind
  • Must use the phrase, "To put it another way..."
That seemed doable! My "process", such as it is, is to try to think of two things. Firstly, what kind of a mood I want to establish at the opening of the story, and secondly, what kind of theme I want to explore from there. I racked my brain for weeks trying to come up with these things! I even wrote 1200+ words for a draft that I just did not feel was working at all and threw out. Eventually, I wound up writing a story about patients in a mental health facility.

Well, Dear Reader, a few days ago, the library announced the winners of the competition. Imagine my surprise when my story, "Links of Trust", actually took first place in the adults category!

You can download a PDF file with all of the top three entries and an honorable mention here, and the winning stories from the youth categories here.

I've made a conscious effort to resist immediately downplaying and discarding this achievement as I ordinarily would. It's been difficult at times, but I can honestly say that I've now known about this for five whole days and I'm still able to take satisfaction from it. The impulse to undermine it is still there, but I've fared better at pushing back against that impulse than I have in the past.

I thought I might offer some insights to the story, in case anyone is interested. If you haven't read the story yet, I would encourage you to stop reading this blog post now and come back to it once you have.


Ultimately, this story is about trauma and triggers. It infuriates me whenever I encounter anyone use the word "trigger" as though its definition is "troll someone until they get upset about something you think is silly so you can make fun of them for overreacting". I find it truly insulting and offensive to hear someone weaponize such an intimate and intense part of mental health, all for the sake of bragging about what a jerk they are. I wanted to demonstrate what triggering actually is. I didn't want to have anyone use the word, though, because I felt that was too on the nose.

Claire has been traumatized, and her triggers include college basketball. Here in Kentucky, that's the official state religion. How the hell can she ever manage to function in a society where such an overpowering trigger is so ubiquitous? I don't ask the question through any of the characters, but my hope was that the reader would think to ask it themselves.

I was deliberately ambiguous about what happened to Claire and to Zack. Partly, this was because I didn't want to write about those things. It makes me squeamish, and I felt it was unnecessary to go any farther than I did. It's obvious enough without a gruesome recounting. More importantly, I wanted to model that it isn't important to anyone except Claire what happened to Claire, and it isn't important to anyone except Zach what happened to Zach. It's enough that the others--and we, the reader--know that these two people have been hurt. How they were hurt is not our business.

We're socialized to withhold our compassion until we've learned a satisfying amount of detail, and I feel this is an area where we need to do a lot of work collectively. Ramona and Zach believe Claire; Ramona and Claire believe Zach. This isn't just my ideal model of how a society should respond to survivors who speak up; it's how I've witnessed people in these settings (inpatient, outpatient, and in peer-led support group meetings) treat one another. It means a lot to be able to share something like that and be taken at your word.

There are no references whatsoever to any hospital staff. This is not intended as a slight; I have great respect and appreciation for what they do day in and day out. I just wanted to emphasize the kind of relationships that develop between patients.

One of the two facilities where I've been treated was laid out as I described the one in this story, with two social rooms; one large with a TV hooked up to cable, and the other small with an upright piano in need of tuning. There was even a Battleship game. I decided to open the story with that because I thought it was amusing, and also because it immediately established where our story is set.

As for the characters, none of them are stand-ins for any real people. I swiped an element from this person here and another person there and synthesized them, but that's as far as it goes. Emotionally, I tethered myself while writing to memories of when I met a fellow patient who has since become one of my dearest friends. I want to emphasize, though, that this is not about us; Zach is not me and Claire is not my friend. It's more accurate to say that Zach reaching out to Claire parallels how I reached out to my friend.

Those are the key insights I have to offer about how the elements in the story originated and why I used them the way I did. If you should take the time to read the story, I'd love to hear any feedback you might have!