Thinking Out Loud*- Triggers

Last week, I was in a meeting where all the participants were asked to take a test survey and give our responses to it. The survey administrators wanted to know if the questions were clear or confusing.

The issue of triggers came up. One person said: “Some of the questions kind of triggered me.” While I was wondering what questions provoked that response and why? Another person said, “I have to say I appreciate triggers because it tells me there is something there for me to work on.”

I thought about this exchange a lot. And the notion of trigger warnings. Do we need to warn people when content is violent or sexual? Do we need to sanitize our language so that no one is emotionally provoked? Is it a good idea that newscasts warn us when footage might be disturbing? Have movie and television ratings limited our viewing and storytelling abilities or made us more responsible for our content choices?

When I worked as a journalist, we knew the papers and news stations whose ethic was: If it bleeds, it leads. They knew shock sells. They knew the people who slow down and rubber neck at auto accidents are the people that want to see those new stories. I have to say the choices of those news organizations felt demeaning to me as if I wasn’t interested in the causes and results of the accidents.

I used to believe that it is okay to lace a character’s language with profanity if it is the way that character expresses themselves. I used to believe that if sexual exploration is part of a character’s desire line then that character’s sexual exploits had to be part of the plot. Now I hesitate. I worry. I equivocate. Does writing for young people mean I should disinfect the world for them? Or does writing for young people place a greater responsibility on being honest and writing true characters? (Full disclosure: my novel EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN could probably have “TRIGGERS INSIDE” slapped on the cover.)

I recently received a critique note on a middle grade novel which asked “Do you think this character’s view of nursing homes might be a trigger for people who had family members die in nursing homes during CO-Vid?” As much as I wanted to say ‘fuck it’ to the note, I considered it. Ultimately, I kept the character’s bombastic view intact. She ninety-two. She’s seen a thing or two. And she’s highly opinionated.

Where I land is the word ‘gratuitous.’ If the language or the sex is not a part of the story or the character’s life and story and only serves to shock, then either I cut it or I have to take another look at ways to make the language or the scene deepen the world of the story. It’s all about serving story.

But here’s the thing: as writers, I do not think it is our job to cleanse the world for our readers or viewers. I do not think any art should be decontaminated for potential triggers. I do think it is the readers and the viewers responsibility to look deeper when a character or a story or a line of dialogue evokes a memory or thought that feels awkward or uncomfortable. I do think that when we sterilize our fictional worlds, we rob the reader of asking the important questions like what did that film, piece of music, book make me feel and why?


*As the youngest in my bio-family, I was a late talker. The walking talking tribe of my older sisters and my parents were paragraphs and sentences ahead of me when I arrived. I was hesitant to speak up, to think out loud. I thought I had to be perfect. Hah!  This series, for however long it lasts, is about me speaking up and thinking out loud.