Can Writing be a Truly Calloborative Effort?

Role playing games are a kind of interactive storytelling. They come in many forms, such as Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), table top dice led games like Dungeons and dragons and text-based chat games. While I have a little experience playing a table top RPG many moons ago, my focus is going to be on chat-based games, as that is what I play the most, and how they can help us as writers.

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 Writing at its heart is a solitary sport. We may discuss ideas, beta read, and offer assistance, but the actual act of getting words down on a page is done by one writer and usually in solitude. Because of this our ideas ferment in isolation. There isn't a single writer in the world that will have a first draft that is exactly the same as what they first envisioned when they plotted it out, but those changes come from the writer alone, unchallenged, untested, at least until the editing stage. But what if we could write our first draft with another person? Someone who we can constantly, and in real time, bounce ideas off and vice versa.

 

My latest foray into RP came about as a direct effort to collaborate on a story with one of my best friends. Other games I have played began simply, just a bunch of writers wanting a virtual meeting of characters. Narratives sprang out of it, including one thread that lasted for roughly three years, but there was very little planning in the beginning and we had no set incidents that we wished to reach. For this game we started a little differently. My friend and I planned out some major incidents, created rough characters, and started the game off with a monologue each to set the scene. After that we let the narrative run its course. We have played for roughly four months and have maybe reached the halfway point, and what has happened within the narrative is extremely interesting.

 

In the first instance, the characters we had started out evolved quite quickly from their original brief outlines. Not only did they go through the natural growth process in all writing, where using a character automatically fleshes out their details, but unexpected backstory and personality elements popped up purely from their interactions with the other players' characters. We had characters move away from others we thought they would make alliances with, main characters shift from top billing to side quests, and in one strange instance, one of my characters developed set nicknames for other characters that I never mixed up, until I was made aware I was doing it.

 

With the characters changing the story followed suit. The new main characters shifted story points to different locations, and plot points we have played have sparked off other idea we hadn't envisioned at the beginning. We can look back on our original plan and see that the idea we first had is still there but it is a remarkably different animal. A better one.

 

Of course, this is something every one of us who has ever written a story will be familiar with, but role playing, especially the style I play, adds an interesting element to the usual fleshing out of a story. The role play I do takes place in a chat system. One person will make an opening statement to kick off play and the other players will join in. there is no turn system, no dice roll. If you are included in the scene being played then you can comment when you want with what you want. That means that if the game is completely free play, then we cannot plan very far ahead. I may have decided that my character is going to invite another out for ice cream and that they will order mint chocolate chip when they get there, but what if the other character says no? What if there is no mint choc chip? What will my character do then? The dice roll in table top games will serve a similar purpose. While you can plan some actions, you cannot plan them all, and having those curve balls thrown at you can result in some interesting changes in your story that you may never have thought of alone.

 

 

Role playing is a collaborative process, and the style of game and set up will determine the amount of interaction players can actually have. Maybe something like World of Warcraft, where there are strict parameters on what you can play, is not the best place to road test an idea, but RP can be. Whether it's fleshing out a character before dropping them into your story or writing a full piece in collaboration with someone else, role playing gives you something no other form of writing can. We are not in charge of the whole story, and when we don't know every word that's going to come out of the characters mouth who knows where our stories will take us?

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K.Lawrence

K.Lawrence hails from the wilds of north east Scotland and has been writing for longer than she can remember. Her first novel, The Raven And the Nightingale, is currently available through Amazon and Inkubus Publishing. The sequel is in the works. K has also written several short stories which have appeared in Inkubus Publishing Anthologies and one short story that has appeared in the latest A Murder of Storytellers anthology.

When she is not writing, K likes to play guitar, go to concerts, take photographs of everything and anything, and paint. She is also an avid collector of Funko Pops and other geek memerobilia.

You can keep up to date with her works through Instagram and Facebook .

 

 

Logistics of Roleplaying

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Every writer gets their start somewhere, and, as I’m sure you’re tired of hearing from me, I got mine in forum roleplaying, entirely by accident. I was just browsing topics about the games I had been playing last when I stumbled upon a topic full of people creating their own characters and fitting them into the already established world. I spent an afternoon creating my own addition and found I liked it. I joined in other character creation topics, creating more elaborate and connected backstories each time. It wasn't much longer when I found my first RP that writing became as much a hobby as the games that led me to it.

A friend, made during those times, once called roleplaying, “multiplayer Notepad,” and I'll be damned if that's not how I’ve thought of it since. You still deal with all the work and wonder and stress of building characters, stories, and worlds, but you share the process with others. The friends that you may use as sounding boards for your private works become intimately involved not only in the ideas you bring them, they take on a responsibility to help you execute them within the work. When you're stuck and flailing for any ideas to write yourself, you can always wait and see if anyone else will add to the story before you, to change the situation that has your creativity stymied. More writers bring different styles, points of view, and, importantly, diversity.

But for those positives, there are negatives as well. There will inevitably be drama between writers, but in an RP, that can cause anything from a temporary obstacle to a withdrawal of individual writers to the sudden death of the entire collaborative work. People will vanish, with or without (but mostly without) warning. The odds of actually finishing a story in a group without at least one long hiatus, missing writers, or story implosion are ridiculously small. In almost ten years experience with a fairly dedicated group, I've never made it to the end myself. Not to mention that switching from roleplaying to private writing has been difficult; now if I get stuck in a story, it's up to me to write myself out! (Results on that are… well, nobody's perfect.)

There's a multitude of ways to recapture that feeling of collaborative storytelling (or even experience it for the first time). Not every fandom actively roleplays, but fanfiction is a fantastic way to begin writing in established settings. Gaming helps me find inspiration at times; I still enjoy creating characters in video games and figuring out how they fit into the setting as I play, and tabletop games scratch that collaborative itch. If you're feeling particularly ambitious, you could even find a like-minded friend you could co-author a story with!

Ultimately, how and where you write are up to you. I've been told roleplaying and fanfiction are amateurish and derivative, but sometimes that's the vehicle that brings you to love writing. And in the end, that should be all that matters.

Writing Hard About Hard Stuff

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Three years ago, my grandmother cut all ties with my mother and me because I was dating a Black man.This same man is now my wonderful husband, and I knew he would be the day I met him. I tried and tried and tried to convince her that I loved him, that she loved me. But there seemed to be a barrier carefully and bitterly crafted of her anti-Blackness despite her own dark brown skin, and a deeper more sinister thing-- my dad once wondered if perhaps she’d been traumatized by someone or something as a young girl. (Not that that would be an excuse for racial prejudice but it would explain many other things.) To him, it seemed like there was something more than the aforementioned anti-Black sentiment that, unfortunately, runs through many Latinx cultures, and there was. There were things in her past that she told with a casualness that in hindsight is rather alarming, and probably many more that she never told at all. So many mysteries, obscuring her visage like the cataracts she had to have removed, a piece of her eye replaced with a tiny, reflective piece of plastic that made her eyes twinkle knowingly. But no new knowledge came from the implant, only vision good enough that she only needed reading glasses. What caused so much of my pain was the fact that I don’t know which, if any of her dark memories, was the culprit for the demise of my connection with half my family. Whether it was one of the many mysteries she never revealed to me or anyone instead. Why did she choose to recoil and reject, rather than reach out? Why did she not share her pain, rather than cause even more. Why? Not a day goes by that I do not ask this.

            And yet. I think I can somewhat imagine. It took almost a year of rage that almost destroyed me and my love before I finally got therapy. It’s difficult to share our own pain, much less write about it, even though as writers we often get the phrase “at least you have something to write about now!” I have written countless chapters and iterations, both fiction and non-fiction. I started writing it as a novel, but the term “stranger than fiction” comes to mind; the racial prejudice, as terrible as it was, was only a cataract on the surface, and there was no way I could get a reader to suspend disbelief for it all. Recently, I gave in and decided to write a memoir. It’s been going better, but even then I can only handle short bursts because it feels like the fine line between scratching an itch and rubbing it so raw that it bleeds and stings when even the slightest air touches it.

From this I’ve learned that there are two basic ways to writing about the tough stuff: writing about it directly but not using it as a catharsis, and simply writing about other things, perhaps sprinkling in bits of our truths but mostly keeping our work separate from the pain. My foray into trying to turn my own story into a fiction was a form of the latter, though wanting to do the former. Indeed, I published a story in which an abusive and equally prejudiced father shuns his daughter-in-law while his son nurses him through his final days. The only truth in it was the father’s past, as told to the son by his mother (my grandmother’s own childhood experience) and the moment in which the father sits up in his bed even though his son has just confirmed him dead (my great-grandfather sat up in his deathbed after his heart had stopped hours before, took a rattling breath, gazed at my grandmother one last time, then passed away once more). Where the truth stops is the briefest moment of reconciliation, the one I never had but often see in my dreams. The original tries to write about the experience as a writer, not as an everyday person struggling with grief, were unsuccessful because I was trying to face my own pain without having come to peace with it. Writing that is meant to be turned outward shouldn’t also serve as therapy, even though it might turn into something successful later, after we’ve processed it a bit more. I look back on my journal from that time and see that I could never have crafted something other than a couple of short stories with some true elements thrown in.

In short, I don’t think either method is better for writing about difficult or traumatic topics, it depends on how ready and willing the author is to confront a painful thing, if they want to at all. Sometimes it takes lots of time, patience, finesse, and care, as with handling any sensitive topic. If we can practice these as we write, we can work ourselves up to a productive, restorative writing experience.

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Zyanya Avila Louis

Zyanya Avila Louis received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College and now teaches in their First Year Writing Program. In her time working with students at Emerson, she as developed a passion for working with international students, multilingual students, and other diverse student populations, which is born from being bilingual herself. She loves writing and reading fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally enjoys poetry. Zyanya was born and raised in El Paso, TX and now lives in Quincy, MA with her fiance and her growing library of books.

On Writing PTSD

Mental illness looks strange to most people. People with mental illness behave in ways that violate social norms and appear wild, uncontrolled, and unpredictable. As a result, media is full of depictions of people with mental illness that are often misleading and offensive to those who, in the real world, have to live with a serious mental illness.

Let’s try to be the change that we want to see in the world.

We begin this series with a mental illness that has been in the news lately—and that has been touched on during this month’s posts. It’s a mental illness that struck 3.6% of U.S. adults and 5% of U.S. adolescents in 2017 alone. It’s called posttraumatic stress disorder, but we usually call it by its initialism PTSD.

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Who Gets It?

PTSD develops in a subset of individuals who have experienced a traumatic event of some kind. A traumatic event can be physical, psychosocial, or sexual, but no traumatic event is experienced in the same way by any one person. Two people who experience the same traumatic event could have vastly different memories of the same event.

No one knows exactly why some people who experience a traumatic event don’t develop PTSD while others do, but there is very interesting research on resilience that hopes to shed light into this area. What we can say about resilience so far is that it probably has both a genetic and a psychosocial component. That is to say, some of resilience is inherited, and some of it is learned during early childhood development.

People with high resilience are likely to have certain psychosocial factors that inoculate them against developing PTSD. Some of these are listed below. While there are websites on the Internet suggesting that you can easily change yourself to become more resilient, these factors tend to be rather static over the lifetime. Adults have a difficult time learning them without a lot of time, effort, and help.

1.      Active Coping Style – The ability to problem-solve and manage emotions that accompany stress. The ability to face fears and learn from them.

2.      Physical Exercise – The ability and willingness to engage in physical exercise to improve physical health and mood.

3.      Positive Outlook – The ability to use cognitive strategies to enhance optimism and decrease pessimism. The ability to embrace humor.

4.      Moral Compass – The ability to develop and live by a set of meaningful principles. The ability to practice altruism.

5.      Social Support – The good fortune to find and ability to make developing and nurturing friendships. The good fortune to have resilient role models in one’s life to learn from.

6.      Cognitive Flexibility – The ability to find good in adverse situations. The ability to remain flexible in one’s approach to solving problems.

Having said all this, a highly resilient person who experiences a sufficiently traumatic event may still develop PTSD if the stressor is overwhelming enough to make it impossible for the individual to bring their protective factors to bear. Even the most resilient individual may break given enough pressure. One of my most resilient clients—whose information I have altered to protect her privacy—had experienced torture as a survivor of human sex trafficking by the Mexican cartels. She had PTSD, but she coped with it phenomenally well given the stressors that she faced day-to-day.

In short, anyone can get PTSD. Some people can experience the same traumatic event and experience it differently. One person may develop PTSD, while another person with more resilient psychosocial factors may not. Nevertheless, if the stressor is bad enough, even the most resilient individual can develop PTSD.

How Does it Look?

PTSD comes in a variety of forms. No one person’s PTSD presentation is the same. The client from before, who had experienced torture at the hands of the cartels, didn’t have any nightmares or negative self-esteem. She didn’t act out, nor did she hide herself away from the world. Instead, her PTSD presented itself in her hyperawareness of her surroundings. When she entered a room, she kept her back to the wall, and she always knew where the exits were. She startled easily, and her anger would be immediate and as merciless as it needed to be so that she could get away. Safety—for herself and for her family—was her primary objective, and she was willing to dig through flesh with her fingernails to find it.

Another client, who self-described as an “airhead,” was easily distractible and quick to please. She wasn’t worried about exits or strategies for her safety. But with her pleasant demeanor, she kept me at a distance. She didn’t trust men—she couldn’t. So she couldn’t trust me. By struggling to remain as fun and as sweet as she could, she was attempting to placate and soothe me. In the same way that Orpheus lulled Cerberus to sleep by playing his lyre, she was trying to get this interaction with a man over with, so that she could go back to being her smart, focused, and fearless self.

Someone else could experience terrible nightmares, which makes him hate going to sleep. Another person takes Ambien to make the nightmares go away. Another one drinks or smokes weed to the same effect. Between 50 and 67% of people with PTSD also struggle with a substance use disorder, usually to stop the re-experiencing symptoms from happening again…and again…and again.

The PTSD Formula

As described in the DSM-5, in order to be officially diagnosed with PTSD, a character must have been exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways.

1.      Directly experiencing the traumatic event.

2.      Witnessing the traumatic event as it happened to others, in person.

3.      Learning that the traumatic event happened to a close family member or close friend. When the event involves actual or threatened death, the event must have been violent or accidental.

4.      Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to averse details of the traumatic event, as when first responders have to collect human remains or when a social service worker is repeatedly exposed to the details of child abuse.

PTSD symptoms usually begin immediately after the traumatic event and persist for at least one month after the event. PTSD symptoms are made up of four different domains: Re-Experiencing Symptoms, Avoidance Symptoms, Arousal Symptoms, and Cognitive Symptoms. We’ll talk about each domain in turn.

Re-Experiencing Symptoms

Also called intrusion symptoms, re-experiencing causes the person experiencing PTSD to literally re-experience the traumatic event in one or more of the following ways.

1.      Memories – The person experiences intrusive memories of the traumatic event. The memories can cause distress, even when they are just memories.

2.      Nightmares – The person relives the trauma within their dreams. Sometimes the dream can be explicitly related to the traumatic event. Sometimes the dream is a metaphorical shadow chasing you, covering you, and suffocating you.

3.      Flashbacks – The person relives the trauma again because something reminded them of it. It could’ve been a topic of conversation, a red car, the sound of a horn going off, or an odd scent, but something elicited the memory, and now you’re beginning to feel and act as if you were there. In the midst of it all.

4.      Distress – The person begins to feel prolonged psychological distress after being confronted with a cue that symbolizes or resembles an aspect of the traumatic event. A blue button, an off-putting word, an odd look, can cause you to feel as if you’re in danger again.

5.      Physiological Reactions – The person begins to feel marked physical reactions in response to a cue that symbolizes or resembles an aspect of the traumatic event. That same blue button, that same word, that same look, and now your palms are sweating, your stomach’s in knots, you want to pee, and maybe you’re having a heart attack, too. You can’t tell, but you have to get out now.

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance causes the person experiencing PTSD to strive, sometimes at high cost, to want nothing to do with anything that could elicit a re-experiencing symptom. A person experiencing PTSD generally experiences avoidance in one or both of the following ways.

1.      Physical – The person stays away from places, events, or objects that could serve as reminders of the traumatic event. Since that car accident that took your mother’s life, there’s no way you’re getting back in a car. Not now, not ever.

2.      Emotional – The person avoids thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event. You’d rather cut someone out of your life than hear them talk about their damn baby one more time. Every time, it’s like a knife in your gut, exactly where that monster made that incision…

Arousal Symptoms

Arousal symptoms are constant stressors to a person experiencing PTSD. They keep people on guard, untrusting, and isolated from others. It’s like walking on eggshells, and it can make a person with these symptoms easily stressed and irritable. High arousal can make it hard to do simple tasks, like eating, sleeping, and even concentrating. These symptoms usually come in two or more of the following forms.

1.      Irritability – Frequent angry outbursts with little or no provocation. You don’t why, but you’re suddenly so mad you could break something. And before you knew it, you had. Both people or objects can become targets of this aggression.

2.      Recklessness – The person becomes self-destructive and careless. You’re already broken. What could anything else possibly do to you, right?

3.      Startling – The person becomes easy to startle, and their response is usually exaggerated in its intensity. An arm falls on your shoulder. What does it want? You don’t have time to think. You have to attack.

4.      Concentration – The person struggles with concentration. It’s difficult to focus on any one thing. Any distraction is like a freight train’s screech.

5.      Sleep – The person struggles to fall or to stay asleep. Or the person experiences restless sleep that leaves them feeling exhausted by morning. You got your eight hours, sure. Two hours of tossing and turning, an hour of cold sweats, you guess you must have passed out at some point because then your alarm started going off, and now you’re tired, annoyed, cold, and soaked in your own sweat. And it’s time for work.

Cognitive Symptoms

Cognition is your ability to gain knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. If your ability to concentrate is impaired, you can have make cognitive errors, where you acquire understanding that does not accurately reflect reality. It’s uncanny how much time we spend thinking to ourselves about our day-to-day experiences. Imagine being unable to do that normally. These symptoms usually come in two or more of the following forms.

1.      Memory Problems – Importantly, the person’s difficulty remembering their trauma must have nothing to do with other factors, such as head injury or drug use. You remember flashes. Bits and pieces. A dangling light fixture. Stretching shadows that danced with the sway of the light. The sound of the boards creaking. But you can’t remember his face. It’s like he’s a blur and the rest of the world is crystal clear. You know who he is, but why can’t you remember his face on that night?

2.      Negative Beliefs – The person experiences negative beliefs or expectations about themselves, others, or the world. You know it wasn’t your fault that the vampires raided the club that night. But you were a bouncer, and you hid. You lived, but maybe you should’ve died. Maybe you only lived because bad people get to live. Bad people like you. Cowards.

3.      Cause Distortion – Persistent, distorted thoughts about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event that lead the person to blame themselves or others. You know it wasn’t your fault that the vampires raided the club that night. But you’re a dancer, you moonlight at a vampire club on Mondays, and you flirted with a vampire the other night. Did you lure them here? Could all of this death your fault?

4.      Negative Emotions – Persistent, negative emotional state. You can’t shake the feeling of disgust that you have with yourself. Why did it have to be you? It’s probably something about you. Something gross that you can’t dig out. Or you’re constantly angry. You don’t know at what. Maybe it’s at the world. Maybe it’s your parents for having given birth to you. Maybe it’s you you’re maddest at.

5.      Diminished Interest – The person has a markedly diminished interest in engaging in activities that they used to find pleasurable or were otherwise significant. You’ve stopped going in to work. They keep calling, but you can’t even bring yourself to answer the phone. “It’s been two weeks. If you need time, we can work things out, but I need you to talk to me.” You’re very lucky to have such a nice boss, but right now, all you can see is the empty space in bed next to you.

6.      Detachment – The person starts to feel detached or estranged from others. Your wife used to be your world. But ever since you saw her face in the bathroom mirror—with those black, soulless eyes—you can’t even face her. It’s like she’s an entirely different person. She hasn’t changed. So what if she’s—whatever she is. She’s still the same mother she was yesterday. The same friend. She still makes you the same Get-Well-Soon waffles you like so much when you’re not feeling well. Still, you can’t shake the feeling that things aren’t the same. And you’re starting to feel that same distance when you hold your daughter. It’s like your heart is closed, and you lost the key somewhere that night.

7.      Lack of Positive Emotions – The person becomes unable to express feelings of happiness, satisfaction, or loving feelings. You kiss your wife good night, but you don’t do it on the lips anymore. You barely turn your head. When she told you she was getting you tickets to see your favorite show, you forced a smile—because you knew it’s what she wanted to see.

How Do You Fix It?

You’ve given your character PTSD, and now you want to fix it. Before your character actually starts to do any fixing, your character is going to need help. PTSD symptoms can be managed with medication, which is why, as I’ve said, so many people with PTSD turn to alcohol or illegal substances. It’s highly likely, unless your character has many protective factors, that your character has been self-medicating with something before they get help. They may not be addicted, however, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Your character may or may not need help getting help. That is, your character may have to have another person point out how they’ve changed since their traumatic event. A friend, a stranger, even an antagonist could do this. Your character may or may not be reticent to seek help for themselves. They may or may not need to be dragged. They may go unwillingly. They may be eager to learn that something can be done about what they’ve been going through. Your characters’ reactions could vary wildly.

As I’ve said, no one experiences a traumatic event the same way. No one experiences PTSD the same way. Likewise, no one heals the same way. I hope I’ve made that clear by now.

Speculative Healing

In fantasy or science fiction settings, it becomes possible to heal PTSD with more active measures. A large component of PTSD comes from a person’s memory of a traumatic event. Lose the memory, theoretically, lose the trauma. Memories can be lost in a variety of ways in these settings, and you are encouraged to come up with your own.

Note, however, that chronic trauma is trickier. When a person has been exposed not to one or two, but many traumatic events over the course of their lifetimes, their memories often become jumbled together—good and bad. These memories become the core of the individual’s personality, in some cases leading to a personality disorder. In these complicated cases, none but the most powerful magi or the most talented advanced alien neurosurgeons could manipulate memories in a way that avoids doing irreparable damage to the individual’s personality.

Also note that there is no place in the brain where memories are “stored” after they are “lost.” Every time a memory is accessed in the human brain, it is rewritten with a memory of the memory. This is key to how healing occurs in PTSD. If the human brain is the only place where memories are “stored” in your setting, then lost or stolen memories are gone forever.

Conventional Healing

Non-speculative healing is done primarily with a psychotherapist. There are many well-researched treatment modalities for PTSD, but all of them work on a similar principle: remember and rescript the traumatic memory.

A traumatic memory, it turns out, is very much like an earworm in that it plays again and again in your brain. It becomes stuck, and so does the individual. Just like an earworm, which you can get rid of by playing the song in full over and over until the earworm is gone, a traumatic event is usually healed when a person, with professional assistance, goes over the event until their brain has fully processed what it means for the individual and their future.

Some people do heal on their own from PTSD over time, but this time is measured in years—even decades. The only way to do heal from it in a shorter period of time (anywhere from a year to a few years) is to undergo some type of professional treatment. Medication, whether provided by a doctor, a drug dealer, or a convenience store clerk, will only alleviate the symptoms of PTSD for a time. In many cases, the latter two only make things worse.

 

It’s difficult to be thorough when it comes to as complicated a topic as PTSD, but I’m willing to answer questions. Just comment on this post below, and I’ll happily answer any questions about any material I failed to cover. Come back next month, when I discuss depression!

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Jack Burgos

Jack’s fiction interests include science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror. He is a founding member of Nevermore Edits and the webmaster for the Oklahoma Writers' Federation. He has a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

Human-on-Human Horror

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For over three years, I investigated allegations of abuse and neglect of vulnerable children in state’s custody and/or children served by facilities licensed or contracted by the state. One of the tools used to aid me in those investigations was video of the alleged maltreatment. During that time, I watched hours upon hours of children from ages five to seventeen being treated in ways no one—child or adult—deserves to be treated. The secondary trauma—and potential PTSD—I developed as a result of that job became a driving force in the stories that I wrote.

While presenting for a college Comp class recently, one of the students asked me what kind of horror I write. My response was that which focuses on the horrific things that people do to other people because I cannot imagine anything worse. My stories tend toward children who are abused but are able to exact a final revenge of the abuser. Most often this is accomplished through supernatural means, as is the case with my award-winning short story The Great Stone Head, but it can also be real-world revenge, as will be the case in my upcoming piece entitled Tithes.

Now, you may be wondering why anyone would want to write about something as terrible as child abuse. Well, there are many reasons for it. First and foremost is the fact that child abuse, until recently, was something that was either disbelieved or swept under the rug. Children who reported being molested were labeled as liars. They’re still labeled as being promiscuous or slutty, even though they’re usually of an age where sex and sexuality are nowhere near their developmental age. As far as physical abuse, the Bible passage of “spare the rod and spoil the child” was and still is used as an excuse for physical abuse under the guise of godly discipline. The more that these issues are addressed and brought to light, the more people will (hopefully!) believe the victims and stop labeling them as being worse than the perpetrators. Or, even more horrific, describing them as the instigators of the acts.

Another reason these stories need to be told is to be used as a catalyst of healing for either the storyteller or for someone in their life. Without going into great detail, I spent my childhood being the victim of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. The first major piece I wrote—a handwritten novel that will never see the light of day—was my attempt at dealing with the emotions and damage that resulted from that abuse. There are times that my own trauma may spill over into the pieces I write, and that’s okay. It can all be part of the healing process, for both the author and their characters.

One of the potential… dangers, I guess you might say, of writing about child abuse is you never know when a member of the reading audience can be negatively affected by what you’re writing. An early reader/critiquer of The Great Stone Head had a gut-wrenching negative reaction to the piece. It stirred up some of their own abuse as a child. Now, not being one for trigger warning or content warnings, I still felt bad that my piece had caused such an awful response for them.

While writing (or reading) about child abuse is not for everyone, I still believe that it is something that should be done. It poses many pitfalls due to the horrific circumstances, but if it is approached carefully, it can also allow for healing. If nothing else, it progresses the social narrative that will (again, hopefully!) one day allow all victims of abuse to be seen as victims and not labeled as liars or attention seekers.

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Shannon Iwanski

Shannon Iwanski is the former president of the Tulsa-based writing group Nevermore Edits, a member of Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc., and Editor-in-Chief of Inkubus Publishing, LLC. To learn more about him and his plans to turn the world into a dystopian society, check out shannoniwanski.com.

Writing Other Genders: The Fluidity of Gender Identity

There is probably no one who understands gender better than a gender fluid person. Gender fluidity is a phenomenon whereby a person may experience themselves as both male and female sometimes, neither at other times, and variations on one or the other gender at still other times. Gender fluidity challenges our conception of gender as a stable construct, one that remains firm throughout the lifetime.

Gender, it turns out, is like everything else. It moves and changes. Today, a man may work on building a porch for the front of his house. Tomorrow, he may want nothing more than to be held. Gender expression; the behavior, mannerisms, interests, and appearance of a person that are associated with gender in a particular cultural context; tends to be fluid in this way, and very few of us tends to find issue with that. A woman who wears high heels and makeup on the weekdays may find herself changing the engine oil on her pickup truck on the weekends.

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Research has demonstrated that none of us are, at least from a neurological standpoint, wholly male or wholly female. An analysis of the MRI scans of over 1,400 human brains, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on November 30, 2015, reveals that there is no dimorphism in the human brain. To put it another way, there are no distinct male/female differences in the human brain. Only about 0–8% of people had traits belonging predominantly to one sex or the other. Meanwhile 23–53% of people had brains with traits that were “mixed,” that is, having traits that were more commonly found in one sex over the other. To borrow a quote from Dr. Steven Novella, "This does not mean that males and females are the same, or that there are no differences. It does mean that individuals are individuals. People are not mentally defined by their sex."

Gender Dysphoria

Since I was old enough to see myself in the mirror, I never felt as though the reflection staring back was me. There was another face in the back [of] my mind, and I [preferred] the one in the mirror. It isn't so much an image as a [three-dimensional] map of the crossover points between my mind's expectation of how I should be shaped and the physical reality of it. I feel like I'm literally wearing a mask in places, as though someone plastered cement on the corners of my skull, on my chin, jaw, etc. I have an urge to grab the nearest hammer chisel and tap that shit off. Asha Grey

Gender dysphoria is the sense of being trapped in the wrong body. That is, it is the sense of being one gender in a body that does not correspond to that gender. Gender dysphoria is a common experience for gender nonconforming individuals, as well as any trans* person who is raised within the context of cisnormativity (the generalized assumption that all persons are only either male or female, depending on their biological sex). Gender dysphoria is not experienced by trans* individuals in cultures where their particular gender is considered part of the norm.

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For example, many Zapotece communities are comprised of muxes, a third gender that is biologically male with female characteristics. Some muxes will marry women and have families. Others will form relationships with men, although they are not then considered gay. While biologically male, muxes express their gender androgynously: neither wholly male nor wholly female, but a combination of the two. Ironically, Zapotece communities tend to be very homophobic. While they may generally disapprove of two men in a relationship, no one would bat an eye at a man and a muxe holding hands.

Distinguish that from Western cultures, wherein individuals are often assigned a gender at birth by their doctors; their decision usually corresponds to the organs that they find in between the newborn’s legs. As a result, prevalence rates for gender dysphoria in the United States is approximately 1 in 250. Said another way, at least approximately 0.4% of the U.S. population is transgender. These estimates continue to rise by year, largely because growing acceptance of trans* people among certain groups (such as younger generations) has led to more accurate self-reporting. Often, many trans* people in the United States do not even know that trans* as a concept exists, let alone that they could identify as such.

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For trans* people born in cultures hostile to their gender identity, there may grow a dissociation between their internal experience of gender and their external experience of gender. From as early as they are capable of remembering, and earlier still, they have been bombarded with messages that tell them what they are. They have been smothered with gender cues and encouraged to express their gender in specific, and often silly (sometimes dangerously sad), ways. Worse, as they learn about the “opposite” gender, they find that their behavior, mannerism, and interests align more with that gender than with the one to which they were assigned. As they enter puberty, their appearance begins to change. Their body becomes another person’s. Their internal experience of their own body chafes up against their apparent reality—that they are somehow utterly and inexorably wrong. This is the message that society sends trans* people, and too often this leads to anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Gender Fluidity

Obviously, Western society has a long way to go in accepting trans* people. It has even further to go towards understanding gender nonconforming people. These are individuals whose internal experience of gender does not correspond to a binary understanding of gender. Said more simply, they don’t fit neatly into the two boxes we, as a people, have made for ourselves. They may sometimes not even fit into an understanding of gender as a spectrum.

Gender nonconforming people experience their gender in idiosyncratic ways. Agender individuals do not experience a gender at all and tend to express their lack of gender with gender neutral attire. They may or may not wear makeup. Gender neutral individuals may be agender, or they may experience their gender as any combination of masculine and feminine. Androgynes tend to experience their gender as a balance of the masculine and the feminine, although many androgynes may also experience their gender as any combination of masculine and feminine. Gender queer individuals (and this can be said generally about all these categories) experience their gender however they like. Some gender queer individuals may express their gender primarily as male or female; some both or neither.

Note: I do not mean to exclude intersex individuals, but intersex is much more a sex than it is a gender. Many intersex people identify their gender as either male or female; many as trans*, in all its diversity.

Gender fluid individuals differ from other gender nonconforming persons in that their experience of gender changes. A scientific understanding of gender fluid individuals is still far from forthcoming, but we can make inferences about them based on their experiences, which many gender fluid persons have kindly made on the Internet.

My partner noticed that I hold myself differently, walk differently, speak differently, even interact with people differently depending on my gender identification. This isn't the same as being transgender, as I do not feel that I am always one gender. There are many times where I experience very acute gender dysphoria (female pronouns, looking very female, etc. when I am male or androgynous), but, when I am female, I don't.astrophy

If you are capable of imagining what it is like to see a woman go from wearing high heels to changing the oil in her car, then you are capable of imagining what it is like when this process of gender expression and experience goes several steps further. Gender fluid people often describe their gender changing with their moods. Sometimes they experience their gender changing independent of their moods. Perhaps when they wake up one morning. Perhaps while eating breakfast. Perhaps randomly, with no discernible stimulus.

So far, I have never met anyone else like me, seen any genderfluid narratives on TV or in movies, nor have I ever spoken with anyone (except my partner) about this. It is very difficult because I have a rather feminine appearance. I can never pass for male, which causes me a lot of anxiety and confusion when I am male. I tried, for a short while, to crossdress, but I got ridiculed and made fun of by family and friends. Besides, I never passed, people kept using female pronouns/acting as if I were female, and instead I got a lot of unwanted negative attention for being a "woman" dressed in men's clothing. Also, I grew up being treated as a woman, and with that comes a certain expectation about how you are supposed to act and dress. When I don't abide by those, I can tell how people treat me differently. When I present as appropriately female (makeup, female clothing, female behavior), I get very positive responses. Men treat me kindly, often flirt, I feel beautiful and "normal", and people are generally approving. When I present as inappropriately female (aka as male as I can), I get stares, men disregard me, people treat me strangely, and I feel ugly, weird, and wrong. As such, I always present as female, even if this causes me quite a bit of gender dysphoria, which often gives me depression/anxiety.astrophy

Gender fluidity can be a torturous experience in a cisnormative culture like our own. Since we are socialized to imagine gender as a binary, even gender fluid people often experience this sense of being wrong (i.e. gender dysphoria), which is reinforced when others ridicule and embarrass the gender fluid person for “crossdressing” when they are expressing a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. Very few people have the resilience to withstand the consistent negative attention from others, especially in the United States, without developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Across several countries, the suicide rates for transgender individuals ranges from 32% to 50%.

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Nearly half of all transgender individuals have attempted suicide at some point in their lifetimes. That is the level of cultural stress this group is under.

Many gender fluid individuals do not feel like they can improve their lot by “transitioning” via gender affirming surgery or even hormone therapy due to the fact that they are not one gender. For these individuals, transitioning to the opposite gender would create gender dysphoria for the gender that the individual had been assigned at birth. It is the gender equivalent of taking from Peter to pay Paula.

It makes me incredibly sad that I think the only way I could be truly happy is if it were possible to shapeshift. I was really touched when a particular GTer texted me, asking which pronouns I would prefer. No one has ever given me a choice before.astrophy

One day, perhaps, there will be detachable prosthetic penises and breasts that gender fluid individuals can use to effectively “change sexes” when their genders change. Unfortunately, that technology still seems to be out of our reach. It certainly would be out of their price range if it did exist, as transgender individuals are more than half as likely to be living in poverty than individuals in the general population.

Writing Gender Fluid People

As others have told you this month, people are people first. Obviously, this is just as important to remember for any gender, whether male, female, trans*, or gender nonconforming. A gender fluid person without any money is going to be more stressed about rent than they are going to be about what they’re going to wear tomorrow. A gender fluid spy assigned male at birth is not going to wear a dress to the bad guy’s fancy ball unless they want to draw attention, no matter what their gender is that day.

What may matter more to your reader is less how the character expresses their gender and more how the character experiences their gender. The gender fluid, presently female spy may wear a tux to the ball because she wants to remain undercover, but it’s going to hurt.

What starts as small stresses can quickly grow into a depressive spiral if I am not constantly on guard not to [indulge] in the myriad dysphorias I feel…and ignoring [the] feeling while I'm female is... hard. Really hard.

To begin with, that vague sensation I feel that causes me to slouch in neutral becomes a downright wrongness, and it wasn't until the first time I tried a set of fake tits that I learned it was a sort of phantom limb sensation, as though my brain has an expectation of my shape and [my] clothing keeps going through it. But if I fill that space correctly it somehow locks in and suddenly I can sit and stand up straight without pain. It's easy and natural feeling.Asha Grey

In a cisnormative culture, expressing a different gender than one’s own tends to elicit shame. For some people, that shame affects the functioning of their body. It can take the form of physical pain, cardiovascular problems, and even impact one’s immunity from disease. Our spy, however, is going to push through because the mission is what matters to them most.

Writing a gender fluid person can be a challenging experience, but there is a desperate need for gender fluid characters in fiction. You can be one of the first to take on this challenge, as long as you do it respectfully, and with an open-minded understanding of the unique ways that these individuals are able to overcome cisnormativity and thrive in a world that denies their unique identities.

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Jack Burgos

Jack’s fiction interests include science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror. He is a founding member of Nevermore Edits and the webmaster for the Oklahoma Writers' Federation. He has a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.