Writing About Violence

Years ago a wise writer told me that readers do not read to have reality reflected back to them, but rather because they hunger for wisdom. I have been thinking about this in relation to writing about violence. I feel raw from the ongoing violence of racism, terrorism and guns. Like many writers, I want my words to help me and others. How should we write about violence?

1. Do not be satisfied to repeat or reflect the obvious.

Eleven years ago, one of my high school classmates was executed on Death Row in Connecticut. His name was Michael Ross and he was the first person executed on Death Row in the State since 1960. Michael Ross admitted to killing eight young women, raping seven of them and in the end advocated for his own death to alleviate the suffering of the families who had lost loved ones to his violent acts. After Michael Ross was executed, I tried to write about him, but my attempt failed to do more than sensationalize his crimes. I put the draft in a filing cabinet.

2. Gain insight, compassion and perspective.

It took me eleven years to write a fiction story (“The Appointed Hour” forthcoming Notre Dame Review) that tried to make some meaning. During those years, I became a better student of humanity and read the work of writers whose writing and insights I admired, including James Baldwin, Cormac McCarthy and Mary Oliver. I honed my own thinking.

3. Give the reader a road map for how to read the work.

This map has to come from inside the work itself. The way I think of this is that any act of violence is not and cannot be the whole story. Someone took a violent action, and someone suffered as a result. How do your characters feel? How will the violence affect them? Violence happens in a story world. Know your story world to reveal not only what happens, but how the story world will change as a result. If you have a classical plot, your main character should be capable of strong external action in this story world, whereas a minimalist plot may show us a character’s inner turmoil and inability to affect change.

I believe in a story’s power to help us see and understand and feel things we might not otherwise allow ourselves to see, feel and understand and that each such act becomes an intervention of sorts. Do not be be afraid to make an attempt, if such a story calls to you, but I hope you will not rest until the story offers insights our world needs.