How do artists process trauma into art?
Novelist examines his own work, and books by others
by John McCaffrey
Reporter Correspondent
Dec 15, 2013 | 5404 views | 0 0 comments | 430 430 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LOCAL AUTHOR – John McCaffrey grew up in Rochester, New York, graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in Creative Writing, and currently lives in Hoboken.
LOCAL AUTHOR – John McCaffrey grew up in Rochester, New York, graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in Creative Writing, and currently lives in Hoboken.
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“Listen to what I have to say: you don’t take away the soul of the person you murder, you give them yours.”

Pacifism versus violence is one of the themes I explore in my new novel, “The Book of Ash” (Boxfire Press). The line above is taken from an exchange between the novel’s main character, Baldwin Wallace, and his life counselor, Harold. They are discussing the upcoming Day of No Consequence in the fictional world I created in the book, a holiday, no less, when people are encouraged to let loose with fury, to release latent hostilities, to reclaim a peaceful mindset through violence and mayhem (this theme is similar to “The Purge,” a Hollywood film released earlier this year starring Ethan Hawke).

Harold, though, is skeptical, and warns Baldwin, who is being targeted for death, about the risk of fighting back, of taking someone’s life, even it means saving your own.

There were many things on my mind when I conceived of “The Book of Ash,” but violence and its ramifications were paramount.

The idea for the book came to me in the days directly following 9/11, when I spent evenings standing on the Hoboken shoreline watching with despair the wall of smoke enveloping Ground Zero. The sadness and hopelessness I felt slowly turned to anger. I began to question why our world is besieged by hostility and bloodshed, and drawing from my experience working for a mental health organization, I began to imagine (and write about) a solution: a society whose one and only goal is to form “emotionally healthy” citizens who will not harm one another.

However, the more I wrote, the more I began to doubt that such a thing could be achieved. If anything, I latched onto the notion that forcing someone to behave in a certain way is the surest way for them to do the opposite.

And so “The Book of Ash” became darkly satirical, a dystopia in the same vein as Orwell’s “1984,” depicting, as one reviewer wrote, “a world that is endearing and menacing, farcical yet deadly serious, wholly invented and yet strangely familiar.”

Inspiration or escape?

Like my experience with “The Book of Ash,” it is common for writers, or artists of any genre, to find creative inspiration from trauma and tragedy. Or is it escape?

As Jason Kurtz, a psychoanalyst and author who grew up in New Jersey but now lives and practices in New York City, states: “When an artist encounters an experience that he or she cannot process, one way to cope is through a process called sublimation. With sublimation, the unacceptable or overwhelming feelings are channeled into another form, in this case a story or a novel. Through writing, the artist manages his emotions, and uses them in the service of his art.”

Jason, whose new memoir “Follow The Joy” tells the story of his inspiring trip to India (on a one-way ticket) to find lasting happiness, concludes, “Not only can this help the writer process overwhelming experiences or feelings, but it can help readers experience a similar emotional process for themselves.”

For Adam Berlin, whose new novel “The Number of Missing” (Spuyten Duyvil) is set in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, it took many years before he could fully process and write about the pain and shock of that day, when a friend perished when the Twin Towers fell.

“I was living downtown when 9/11 happened, on the corner of Bedford and Barrow streets,” he relates. “For months after, I’d walk out of the subway and see the towers that weren’t there. The city seemed dead or at least not real, as if everything had slowed or stopped, and I remember feeling that I’d wake up, that all of us would wake up, and realize the day had never happened. But it had.”

Adam tapped into this nightmare in “The Number of Missing,” presenting two characters, a man and a woman, who are dealing with a common grief stemming from 9/11.

Damaged characters, pressing on

In many ways, the book resurrects themes from popular novels that rose from the ashes of World War I, when writers like Ernest Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald gave the reading world damaged characters that go on with the business of living, but not really.

It is this “not really” that Berlin explores masterfully in his novel.

Finally, for some writers, 9/11 and its aftermath helped their creativity to evolve. For example, the tragedy not only redefined the physical landscape of lower Manhattan, the place which novelist and short story writer Douglas Light was hard at work on his craft, it shifted his understanding of art in general.

“When I first came to writing, I thought I could discover answers,” Light said. “But good writing, as with all good art, isn’t meant to provide answers—it’s meant to pose questions that make us examine ourselves.”

Light, whose first novel was made into the feature film “Trouble With Bliss” starring Michael C. Hall, Peter Fonda and Lucy Liu, now views all his work, whether written or visual, as a form of cartography.

“It’s creating maps to place yet discovered,” he said. “It’s finding a way forward.”

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