“Trigger” does not refer to the horse “Trigger” but the warning, though I am only talking about my own triggers, especially cigarettes. So this isn’t exactly a warning, but more about writing, and you can probably read this essay without needing to be warned.
When I first began teaching the essay, the concept of creative nonfiction was still relatively new. A student contacted me about his college elective choices and asked: What is creative nonfiction? The definitions I found were not entirely clear, but I assigned creative nonfiction even so. My students were to search back in their lives for a genuinely peaceful place, a idyllic place where they were comfortable and happy, and then describe it using all their senses. It could be a single recent experience they describe, or one they experienced many times, or someplace they went in young childhood. If they did it well enough, the essay they wrote was profoundly satisfying to write. Their ability to recreate their peaceful place on the page would remain with them as a calm place forever. At least one student got into a private college by revising this for her application essay—the acceptance letter told her as much. I have probably written here about this assignment before, but if I go look I will lose my main point which is about another essay assignment. The persuasive essay.
When I discovered that my Junior English students did not have a clue about how to organize an essay, I taught a form in six paragraphs: introduction with hook, explanation, and thesis; three supporting paragraphs; one addressing alternative views, disproving or conceding that opposition; and conclusion. My belief then and now is that learning a simple structure can support a range of variations and alternative structures.
There is a great deal more to teaching the persuasive essay than I care to review today, but allow me to focus on issues and triggers. Ursula K. Le Guin warned us in a writing class to be wary of “hot lava” issues, the topics that made us emotionally over-charged. She said you had to allow the lava to cool before it could be safely handled. She was talking about “triggers” though I don’t think that term was in common use in the 1990s. I had already included a warning about certain topics for my own students: stay away from any issue that is primarily faith-based (because the writer would first have to ensure that the reader shared the same faith). I forbade abortion after the first couple of years of emotional and largely irrational essays both pro and con. “Media as monster” joined the forbidden list because (I explained) I was sick of reading about it, and then anything about sport (because they could not write on the same topic in their Senior Research Paper, and many of them would want to), and then I added Le Guin’s warning. Instead, I urged them to write on a topic where they did not have any opinion at all so that the evidence they found would drive their thesis. This advice was only rarely followed.
They wanted to write about their pet issues. One year a senior nearly failed to graduate because her Senior Research Paper, required for graduation, was about pit bulls and she cried every time she tried to work on it. I added pit bulls to my forbidden list.
My favorite papers, the ones most vivid in my my all these years later, aside from the simply beautiful ones, were the students who changed their minds in the face of evidence. (More on that another time, but it was another rarity.)
I was very careful to assure students that I did not have to agree with their thesis, that they merely had to argue well for their side, demonstrating that they understood the range of opinion and respectfully defending their thesis. Two students could not find evidence to support their thesis so they turned their papers around, though without changing their personal bias a whit. One girl cried because she’d completed three drafts defending the use of Native slurs in team names and then found a source that flipped her view. We found a workaround for that. She conceded each of her original supporting arguments, and then carefully explained the argument that changed her mind. Very few students were able to change their minds so gracefully in the face of evidence.
The ability to change your mind is one of the great accomplishments of any human being. So is the ability to argue a point of view reasonably.
One of those excellent papers contained a thesis the student knew I disagreed with, and that motivated her to greater research and more thoughtful argument. I had five papers on the issue that year, three on the side I agreed with and two on the other. Hers was best of all in every detail. She knew more about arguments opposing her than the people writing on that side. (I saved a copy on my school computer, but the tech guy—since fired—deleted all my files when I retired and before I could back them up.)
I wrote the papers I assigned plus those I wrote in my MFA program, dozens of research papers over the years. I even wrote papers on topics I kept wishing students would write.
I also warned students of a personal trigger: smoking. This was still wildly controversial thirty years ago. Teachers stopped smoked on school grounds, but coaches were still using chew when I retired. I would tell my students they were free to write on most any topic (other than the forbidden zone), including about smoking, but they needed to be warned that I would struggle scoring a paper about smoking. My father began smoking Camels during WW2 and died of lung cancer. My father-in-law began smoking Camels during WW2 and died of lung cancer. Several of my neighbors (I think the count in those years began at five) had died of lung cancer brought on by smoking. Smoking near me, the scent of cigarette smoke can bring on sadness, irritation, and even rage. Smoking is triggering for me.
At my age and despite having lived a relatively safe life, I have experienced or witnessed a number of traumatic events that might be triggers. Suicide, murder, racial attacks, sexual attacks, bullying, public ridicule… There is hardly a conflict in any fiction or news story that could not reasonably have become triggering for me. I had nightmares for a long time about a friend’s suicide, but I would not call revisiting Tom’s death triggering.
Instead, it’s smoking.
I was approaching the red light at Avenue U on my way to school one morning when I recognized the blue pickup truck in front of me. It belonged to my neighbor Walt, who had been very sick with emphysema as had my father-in-law before he died of cancer. Walt had a wife and daughter at home and he knew he should not smoke. The cab of his truck was thick with smoke. I had to pull my little Honda over onto the shoulder to avoid deliberately rear ending him. That would have been decades ago. My father died in 1986, but every single time I see a person smoking, even today, it is all I can manage not to scream at them. Walt would later die of lung cancer.
There are two reasons I have never smoked, not even once. The first is that I was about 12 (the age when most smokers start smoking) when the Surgeon General of the United States announced what the tobacco industry had known for a long time: smoking kills. The second was my mother telling me how she was offered cigarettes by soldiers when she was living with her sister in San Francisco during WW2. The first one burned in her throat and made her cough. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” the young man said. Why would I want to get used to it? she wondered.
So today, when I see a person smoking, they are almost always younger than I am and have known all their lives that cigarettes are polluting and expensive, stinky and poisonous. I want to tell them that someday, though they might not believe it at the moment, somebody they love will stand over their hospital bed and cry because they are struggling to breathe. I want to tell them that they are being used by companies that produce a toxic product and are allowed to continue to sell it despite the danger it poses to them and their loved ones. I want to yell at them. I want to slap the tobacco out of their hands.
I want them to live.
My students liked to tease me through their writing assignment and choices of topics. One boy managed to find eleven sources from eleven separate farming periodicals because I had explained that reading from a range of viewpoints and sources was the not-so hidden agenda of using eleven sources and had said how near-impossible it would be to find eleven all from the same perspective; they would have to include various news media and perspectives. He managed to find the one perspective that mattered most to him and he knew he was pulling a stunt, pleased that I laughed. Three boys wrote about hunting because they knew I was vegetarian, but not one of those papers involved the death of an animal. And I read only one paper defending smokers in all the years I taught. One essay out of thousands. I credit the kindness of my students for that.
Still, triggers. When I suspect I will find myself in trouble with a reading, I stop, I investigate. I had to pause midway through the recent film Belfast and look up details of Branagh’s life in case I would have to prepare for another death. This is so easy today through the internet. Wikipedia offers plot overviews even of newer novels.
I have taught very painful novels, nonfiction, and film, but in my daily life this is harder now. My tolerance of fictional or nonfictional suffering has dropped considerably in recent years. I am astounded by how powerfully the series Grey’s Anatomy has explored recent events and controversies, responding to and explaining and providing humane context even about the pandemic. I can manage that series, though only while I am doing something useful with my hands like knitting or weaving. By contrast, I tried reading the novel of a friend, a novel I was familiar with and respected. I was thrilled the book was done, excited to begin, glossed over a couple of errors, but then a second bloody murdered young teenage girl on page twelve and I had to put it aside. Triggering? No, not exactly, but not a place I want to go. The story is set where I live.
Then I tried another book from my to-read stack. The story is unlikely and meant to be funny, but the main characters have a genetic anomaly that will end their lives soon (not stated, but something I already knew) and every line is decorative. The metaphors and similes are beautiful but so very, very plentiful that they threaten rather than serve the story, like drowning in flowers with too much perfume sprayed in the air—all that scent is lovely, but choking.
Instead I am rereading another book from long ago, Possession by A.S. Byatt and reveling in the prose. I recently reread Molly Gloss’s SF novel, The Dazzle of Day, and was reminded of why I loved it so very much, the way she manages to slide from hard science to the practicality of people living in community, the chaos and intentions of humanity. As with Dazzle, there will be loss and pain and suffering in Possession, but I am prepared for all that. I will love Byatt’s “romance” once again. There will be joy and discovery too, as there should be.