He was joking, of course.
And I took it that way. Just to be clear about that part. In fact we got a good laugh about it.
But the joking came after a lecture to a packed room full of writers about childhood trauma’s effect on our adult creative abilities. His premise, based on research, was that writing and other artistic pursuits help to maintain sanity for adults who experienced trauma as children.
There was discussion of the follow-on logic that the best musicians, painters, novelists, and poets get that way by staying one step ahead of PTSD-induced neurotic breakdown. Oddly I was reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography “Who I Am” at the time. Which, oh man, validated that whole concept. The dude’s a nut job. But I digress.
The Doc presented the “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) survey, seven simple questions. Were you physically abused or neglected as a child? Emotionally abused? Sexually abused? Was another family member abused? Was there substance abuse in the home? Was a family member incarcerated? Did your parents experience a breakup or divorce?
Simple enough. I worked my way down the list. Then I looked again. No. No… seven times. Score – zero. I kinda hunched over so nobody could see.
Research, Doc told us, shows risks of adult dysfunction rising exponentially with each box checked “yes.” School failure. Adult substance abuse. Adult sexual abuse, both as victim and perpetrator. Prison time. Depression. Suicide. Risky sexual behaviors. Poverty. Homelessness. Inability to maintain healthy relationships. And tragically, the tendency to cycle the next generation right into that same list of adverse experiences.
In blunt terms, “check four or more and you’re screwed” summed it up.
This is where the discussion lent itself to the Doc’s idea… that not only did creative activity help ward off these demons, but that there may be a causal relationship between bad things happening as a kid and creative excellence as an adult.
Without a ton of discussion, we moved on to another survey, ten questions on emotional support, essentially the opposite of the first one. Did you have a strong positive mentor as a child? Did your parents stay together? Did you finish school? Go to college?
Again, I hid my paper to make sure nobody was watching. Check. Check. Check.
The higher the score, the more well adjusted the adult. And really no need to go out and play rock ‘n’ roll, write poetry, or paint a mural on a chapel ceiling. ‘Cause, you’re not screwed up. Only total wack jobs make decent artists.
Afterward I approached him. Tell me, Doc. Gimme the news. O for seven on the ACE. Ten for ten on emotional support.
That’s when he laid it on me.
“How can you expect to write a decent book?”
We chuckled along with the handful of wide-eyed fledgling authors gathered around.
“I know, that’s why I’m standing here talking to you. But let me tell you something about the book.”
“So it’s a Hallmark Special screenplay about your happy life as a child.”
“Uh, no. That’s what I wanted to talk about. Actually, the story takes a kid who’s emotionally abused at home, then it gives him sanctuary with a baseball coach who sexually abuses him, then it sends him to prison and a chance for redemption after coming to grips with a string of lies, substance abuse, murder and mental illness all around him.”
Through his Ph.D.’s scraggled beard, his mouth formed an “O” and just stayed there. Conversation stopped around us. Wind and rain outside the window went silent. Lights flickered and we all felt the earth grind to a stop on its axis.
We all froze like that for twenty seconds, until his lips came together in a smirk, he slammed his palm on the table with a “baaaaahahaha!” as the elements restarted, wine glasses clinked all around, and the next guy in line elbowed past to consult with the expert.
“Wait a second,” I protested, “I got traumatized when I had to read about sexual abuse as part of my job, and I just thought this would be a good way to, um…”
“Good luck with that, vanilla boy. Sorry you got your life messed up there. If it’s traumatic, maybe find a new job. Don’t write about it. You got nothing.”
“Yeah, I already…” but the great man had moved on. The circle of creative psychos closed around him and this author was left outside.
This author realized y’know, it ain’t about me. This author got started on validating what was in his seventy-five thousand words. Who the hell in my own network would know about stuff like this?
First stop was a county prosecutor. He laid it out, no, it never works that way, the sex abuser is Uncle Pete or the dad or the neighbor. He’d never tried a coach. But hey, that’s who everyone’s afraid of, so go for it.
Next, a youth sexual abuse counselor. Then a prison minister. A couple of attorneys. A career cop. A teen center manager. People who dealt with trauma every single day.
I sent excerpts to people whose opinions I valued, people who could give me straight up feedback, even a few who’d experienced childhood trauma themselves, to see if I was capturing anything valid.
I joined a writing group, seven of us meeting regularly to share our excerpts. Sometimes, as we grew to be friends, we had to dig through the layers of mutual admiration society to get at the meat of the matter.
I managed to corral the opinion of my favorite author. He said “most writing is just shit. I’d hate to have to tell you if it was shit. But this isn’t shit.”
Through it all there was encouragement, there were a few “what the hell are you thinking” moments, and there were some amazing ideas shared.
But this author realized he still has something to say. Himself. And it doesn’t matter if he’s not a nut job, though some might argue that. He doesn’t have to write about what really happened. He doesn’t have to share his own deep secrets. He can make stuff up. That’s why it’s called a novel.
Still. Attack a serious subject and you better make it valid. That’s why my readers, when this damn thing finally gets published, will find a whole page of names and thanks for the input, suggestions, and reality checks.
Diamonds and Dirt, and it sequel Tenth Inning, need a publisher.